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Retaining Teacher Talent

Report 2. Teaching for a Living

Three Distinct Sensibilities

Researchers at Public Agenda conducted a cluster analysis of the survey results revealing three distinctgroups of teachers. Based on their unique individual characteristics and their attitudes about the profession, teachers naturally fell into three broad categories which researchers call the “Disheartened,” the “Contented,” and the “Idealists.”

The view that teaching is “so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out” is remarkably pervasive, particularly among the Disheartened,—they are twice as likely as other teachers to strongly agree with this view. Members of that group, which accounts for 40 percent of K-12 teachers in the United States, tend to have been teaching longer and are older than the Idealists, and more than half teach in low-income schools. They are more likely to voice high levels of frustration about the school administration, disorder in the classroom, and the undue focus on testing. Only 14 percent rate their principals as “excellent”” at supporting them as teachers, and 61 percent cite lack of support from administrators as a major drawback to teaching. Nearly three-quarters cite “discipline and behavior issues” in the classroom, and 7 in 10 say that testing are major drawbacks as well.

By contrast, the vast majority of teachers in the Contented group (37 percent of teachers overall) view teaching as a lifelong career. Most say their schools are “orderly, safe, and respectful,” and are satisfied with their administrators. Sixty-three percent strongly agree “teaching is exactly what I wanted to do,” and roughly three-fourths feel that they have sufficient time to craft good lesson plans. Those teachers tend to be veterans—94 percent have been teaching for more than 10 years, the majority have graduate degrees, and about two-thirds are teaching in middle-income or affluent schools.

However, it is the Idealists—23 percent of teachers overall—who voice the strongest sense of mission about teaching. Nearly 9 in 10 Idealists believe that “good teachers can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents.” Idealists overwhelmingly say that helping underprivileged children improve their prospects motivated them to enter the profession (42 percent say it was “one of the most important” factors in their decision, and another 36% say it was a “major” factor). In addition, 54 percent strongly agree that all their students, “given the right support, can go to college,” the highest percentage among any group. More than half are 32 or younger and teach in elementary schools, and 36 percent say that although they intend to stay in education, they do plan to leave classroom teaching for other jobs in the field.

Although the researchers caution that the teachers’ idealism does not necessarily guarantee that they are more effective teachers than their colleagues, half of Idealists believe their students’ test scores have increased significantly as a result of their teaching, a higher percentage than other teachers in the survey.

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