Investigating the factors influencing millennials to leave K-12 teaching

Retaining teachers is an ongoing conversation in Canadian education. In fact, 40% of new teachers in Alberta leave the profession within five years – with millennials making up the majority of new teachers entering in recent years. With millennial employees seeking diversity, flexibility and innovation, they may find themselves surprised by a highly structured profession that is steeped in tradition. The question of why millennial teachers are leaving prompted Lena Shulyakovskaya, a Werklund graduate student, to investigate the factors that influence teacher attrition in Canadian schools.

Lena interviewed 13 educators – 9 millennial teachers (born between 1977 and 1995), and 4 pre-millennial participants (born before 1977). Out of the millennials, 5 had left the teaching profession while 4 remained. The 4 pre-millennials were also immigrants, who had completed their teacher training outside of Canada; it was thought that this might help distinguish them from Canadian millennials in terms of their experience, culture, and philosophy of teaching. The three groups aimed to help distinguish which factors might be generational, which might be cultural, and which might be common across the board.

Push and Pull Factors

All of the participants who left the profession had begun their post-secondary education without the explicit goal of becoming teachers, while all of the participants who stayed in teaching knew they wanted to become teachers upon entering their post-secondary education.  Importantly, most of the participants who left were still interested in teaching, and enjoyed connecting with students, but were disconnected or felt pushed away by other factors. Others saw themselves elsewhere, and did not apply for classroom teaching positions at all: many of these participants returned to their original field of study to pursue work, while others chose to take positions in education outside of K-12 schooling.

A particularly influential factor in the eventual decision to stay or to leave was their experience during the B.Ed degree. 4 out of the 5 millennials that left had largely negative experiences during their studies, especially during their teaching practicum. Being put off by their practicum mentor teachers was an aspect that was shared by those 4 millennials. In contrast, all of the millennials who chose to stay in K-12 education had positive practicum experiences. They described feeling prepared for the realities of the position, and saw themselves fitting the role.

Both groups reported establishing largely positive collegial relationships when they were in the school. Supportive colleagues and administrators were helpful, but were not sufficient to retain these participants. Millennials noted that bad work relationships prompted some teachers to move schools, but not to actually leave the teaching profession.

Every participant had ideas for change or concerns about the Canadian education system, which had different implications for the groups. For the millennials, the bureaucratic processes, particularly in hiring, endless multistep paperwork, and dealing with the unions. Further, all the millennials who left did not approve of the focus on standardized testing that they perceived was present in their schools. Their goals for their practice was not compatible with the constrictions they felt, teaching to tests rather than through creative and engaging means. For the currently practicing teachers, this was also a concern, but they instead wanted to try to influence change from inside the profession.

The final theme in the research related to teacher personalities, age, and the perception of what it meant to be a teacher. All of the millennials indicated that teachers had to be passionate and dedicated in order to push through the job stressors, which resonated positively with some, and negatively with others. Of the millennials that chose to leave, majority recognized that their personalities did not fit with the teaching environments in which they found themselves, and the structure of K-12 schooling.

Connected to this, the age of teachers entering the profession was connected with their enthusiasm. For pre-millennials, this was a considerable factor. They considered being young an important driver of teacher enthusiasm – whereby young teachers are better able to handle the stressors, be creative, and likely had fewer family demands (such as children, spouses, etc.) to balance. Interestingly, the millennials did not see age as a constraining factor. All groups agreed that teachers in their first few years in the profession (regardless of age) are likely the most engaged and enthusiastic – given that they want to prove themselves, and are still driven by an initial excitement.

An Enduring Workforce

As millennials will make up 75% of the North American workforce by 2025, Lena’s work has implications for shaping hiring practices and highlighting areas potentially in need of change in the teaching profession. Addressing teacher attrition can help support more effective reforms and educational programming in schools by promoting a sustainable workforce.

Check out Lena’s winning Three Minute Thesis presentation here

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