By: Andrea Thomas Brandley
Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect an institutional position of the Gardner Institute. We hope the opinions shared contribute to the marketplace of ideas and help people as they formulate their own INFORMED DECISIONS™.
On the morning of March 12th, 2020, I sat in an elementary school gymnasium running microphones for my students’ musical production of The Jungle Book. We had 200+ students assembled, sitting on the floor in tight, neat rows staring up at another 60+ students onstage. This was our third performance, with the fourth and final scheduled for 6:00 p.m. that night. Only a few hours later, I was told the final performance would be cancelled, which we announced to a disappointed group of third graders. The following day we were sent home from school with no indication of when we’d be back.
The COVID-19 pandemic turned many organizations, systems, and industries on their head. K–12 education was no exception. Through the sudden switch to remote learning and subsequent hybrid learning, teachers were expected to quickly adapt to an unfamiliar and highly technical teaching environment while simultaneously guiding the adjustment of their anxious students. To understate it, it was a lot.
Even before this major transition many teachers were already feeling overwhelmed and overworked. In a 2017 survey of Utah teachers, more than half of teachers who left the profession indicated emotional exhaustion, stress, and burnout were extremely influential in their decision to leave.[i] Many worried that the increased stress and uncertainty of pandemic teaching would reduce teacher retention amidst already existing teacher shortages. Well, the numbers are in and may come as a surprise. Teacher retention remained flat even through the 2020–2021 school year. Technically, the retention rate of this past year is the highest of the last five years (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Share of Utah Teachers Returning to Education, 2016–2021
Note: Calculated as the share of previous-year teachers who returned to education the following year.
Source: Utah State Board of Education
Utah’s overall teacher retention rate is high compared with other states. In fact, a 2017 study from the Learning Policy Institute found that Utah had the lowest teacher turnover (highest retention rate) among all fifty states.[ii] Utah teacher retention is also high compared with the 86% retention rate among all permanent state employees.[iii] Misperceptions of Utah’s teacher turnover may stem from lower retention rates among new teachers in their first five years. However, first-year teachers also had their highest retention rate in the last five years, and a rate that was even higher than the overall retention rate for all teachers.
Utah still faces challenges in teacher retention, particularly for early-career teachers and in rural areas and schools with large shares of at-risk students. However, so far it seems the pandemic did not have the impact on teacher retention that many feared. While I am no longer teaching in the classroom, I admire the resilience and perseverance of my many colleagues as they’ve continued to teach and mentor students through unprecedented times. Here’s hoping that we soon see students back onstage, reduced teacher burnout, and an overall educational system that can thrive.
Andrea Thomas Brandley is a research associate at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and a former teacher in Utah’s K–12 public schools.
[i] Ni, Y. & Rorrer, A. (2018). Why Do Teachers Choose Teaching and Remain in Teaching: Initial Results from the Educator Career and Pathway Survey (ECAPS) for Teachers. Utah Education Policy Center. https://daqy2hvnfszx3.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2018/04/19110358/ECAPS_for_Teachers_report_Feb2018_Final.pdf
[ii] Carver-Thomas, D. & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It. Learning Policy Institute. https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Teacher_Turnover_REPORT.pdf
[iii] Office of the Legislative Auditor General. State of Utah. (2021). A Performance Audit of Teacher Retention Within Utah’s Public Education System. https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/21150196/a-performance-audit-of-teacher-retention-within-utahs-public-education-system-report-2021-13.pdf