Beginning Teacher Attrition: A Question of Identity Making and Identity Shifting

Jul. 01, 2013

Source: Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, Vol. 19, No. 3, 260–274, 2013.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

 The author wondered why so many beginning teachers leave the profession.

In order to inquire into this phenomenon, he moved through a three-stage research process. First, he engaged in writing a series of stories about his experiences as a beginning teacher. Using autobiographical narrative inquiry, the author then inquired into the stories in order to retell them looking for resonances across the stories. Secondly, he conducted a review of the literature, analyzing the studies to identify how the problem of early career teacher attrition was conceptualized. The authors identified two dominant problem frames: a problem frame situated within the individual and a problem frame situated in the context. Lastly, he offered a different conceptualization of the phenomenon of early career teacher attrition that draws on his autobiographical narrative inquiry and the literature review.

The author proposes to frame the problem as one of teacher identity making and identity shifting in order to understand the experiences of beginning teacher attrition.
In what follows the author uses the stories of his experiences as a beginning teacher as a way to narratively read the ways beginning teacher attrition has been conceptualized.


Conceptualizing teacher attrition

Data related to teacher attrition is nuanced and there is discrepancy about the percentage of beginning teachers who leave teaching in their first five years. High rates of early career teacher attrition create a significant economic strain on the system. In USA, over two billion dollars are spent each year replacing teachers that leave the profession. While this amount is not all spent on early career teacher leavers, research shows that early leavers make up a significant number of teachers leaving the profession.

Individual conceptualizations

Existing research on teacher attrition has generally focused on the individual characteristics of those that leave the profession. One prominent individual conceptualization is based on individual burnout.

A. Burnout
Professional burnout is defined as a syndrome of bodily and mental exhaustion, in which the worker becomes negative towards those with whom they work, and develops a negative sense of self-worth. A long list of factors that cause burnout for beginning teachers ranges from excessive paperwork, to lack of administrative support, to role conflict, to unclear expectations.

B. Teacher demographics
Other conceptualizations of teacher attrition are also framed around individual teacher characteristics. Research suggests that age, gender, and ethnic background are related to teacher attrition. Attrition rates are higher for younger, less experienced teachers.

C. Quality teachers
Framing the problem of attrition by looking at educational experiences and ability is another framing in terms of individual teachers’ characteristics.


Contextual conceptualizations

 A. Discourses of support
Lack of support is often listed as a cause of beginning teacher attrition. Whether it is a lack of administrative or staff support, an environment that promotes individuality seems to be a major concern when looking at beginning teachers who leave the profession.

B. Living with students
Issues with student discipline are also seen as a cause of beginning teacher attrition. The research suggests beginning teachers learn quickly that student discipline problems and student work ethics prevent them from doing so.

C. Other contextual conceptualizations
Along with lack of support from administrators and student discipline problems, beginning teachers also left teaching because they were not involved in school decisions and were paid low salaries.

Bumping stories: from shifting roles to shifting identities

The author began to ponder framing beginning teacher attrition as a problem in identity making and identity shifting.
The author's beginning story denoted the surprise and shock of his first few days of school. Beginning teachers start teaching with preconceived ideas of who they might be as a teacher. These preconceived notions include how they might live out staff relationships, relationships with students, relationships with subject matter, and relationships with parents.

Attending to shifting stories to live by

When the author noted the bumping of stories during his first year, he began to shape his cover story to one that fit in with the school story, a story of strategic compliance. It is often said that it is easier to do what has been done before. For him, as a beginning teacher, this was only partly true. Outwardly, it was easier to teach the textbook, use handouts, and diligently work through the mandated curriculum. However, inwardly, it was much harder for him to teach in this way. In abandoning his stories to live by, he also abandoned what brought him to education, that is, the students.

Through his experiences as a teacher, and his autobiographical narrative inquiry work, the author has begun to frame beginning teacher attrition as a problem that compels inquiry into teacher identity making and identity shifting as a way to narratively understand the experiences of beginning teachers. Looking at beginning teacher attrition, in this way, represents how important the lived experiences of each individual are and how important the stories are that bring beginning teachers to the profession.
As he made his way out of the school that day, the author thought back to the mentor being revived by his student teacher, and wondered how, as a profession, teachers may embrace this excitement and newness.

Updated: Jul. 25, 2017