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A Day in the Life: Why So Many Teachers Leave the Profession in the First Five Years

A Day in the Life: Why So Many Teachers Leave the Profession in the First Five Years

“I started passionate and finished exhausted.”
 – Anonymous Dubbo Public Secondary School Teacher[1]

Most teachers you speak to can’t rave enough about being in the classroom with their students and watching the light bulbs click on as kids learn new content. They love their students. They love to teach. So why are so many of them leaving the profession? This month we chatted to a teacher who has been in the profession for over a decade on the topic of teacher attrition.

Melody Keath is in her fourteenth year of teaching, starting off predominantly as a health and PE teacher, then branching off into coordination, timetable and organiser roles as she progresses her education career in Victoria. She got into teaching to impact kids’ lives and has always enjoyed spending quality time with young people as she helps them grow academically and reach their potential.

There is a scary statistic bandied about in education circles, one such source being the ABC, that up to 40-50% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years[2]. The question is: why? And how do we stop great educators packing up and leaving an education system that desperately needs their expertise and passion?

Based off conversations with Melody Keath, as well as further research, there appears to be five main reasons for these alarming teacher attrition rates. According to EduResearch Matters, the reason is rarely ever teachers “fleeing their students” and relates more to feelings of disillusionment around such things as isolation, increasing administrative demands, lack of on-going learning and support, and insufficient recognition of their work[3].”

A further worrying statistic from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that “53 per cent of people who hold a teaching degree do not currently work in education[4].”

Melody says, “You stop and you reflect on the changes that have happened in education. I’m not sure if the statistics would be the same back when I started in 2008 for teacher retention as they are now. It’s tough on teachers now. The conversation around it is bigger too.”

1.    Unrealistic expectations (both from the faculty and graduate teachers entering the field)

The cliché that a ‘truly dedicated teacher’ will work many extra hours for free and spend their own money on resources is a tired one at best, a dangerous one at worst. With the misconceptions around teachers ‘clocking off at 3’ and getting ’16 paid weeks off a year’, the reality of a teaching year is vastly different to what many teaching students think they’re signing up for when they see the low ATAR score requirement in Year 12.

Among challenging conditions like large class sizes, excessive paperwork and unrealistic expectations, many teachers are feeling ready to break with the “unsustainable” workload they’ve been given. Readily admitting she takes home a minimum of 10-15 hours’ work each week, Annie, a public primary school teacher in Melbourne says, “Just when you think they couldn’t possibly ask us to do more, they do . . . If teachers actually worked to the hours we are paid, the whole system would collapse[5].” Another anonymous teacher from the same source refers to teaching as “highly undesirable” due to these factors.

When asked about whether she has seriously considered leaving teaching, Melody says, “Absolutely. Usually, the reason is because I’m feeling as if my work and my job is taking over my life. It just doesn’t switch off.”

When asked how many hours a week she works, both paid and unpaid, she says, “I don’t even want to calculate it.” She has now progressed to a school administrator job and currently teaches three classes, saying she would never go back to a full-time load with classroom teaching because it is “just too mentally, physically and emotionally draining, and you just don’t stop,” and commenting, “‘There’s no way that I would be doing this job if I had a family.”

When asked how often she thinks above leaving, Melody says, “All of the time. It’s taking over my life and I can’t do certain things I want to.”

Many say that it is too easy to get admitted into a teaching course, and with the low ATAR score (caused in part by the high attrition rate), it’s little wonder that some students are picking it under the mistaken impression that it is an ‘easy career choice’. While the Labor Party has proposed raising “university entrance scores for education degrees, in a bid to lift teacher quality,” according to a 2019 article by Shannon Molloy, many agree with former principal Adam Voigt that while it was an “admirable idea”, it would “do little on its own to help[6].”

She agrees with other teachers that the university course doesn’t truly prepare young teachers for the realities of teaching and that they’re “just not prepared for what they’re going to hit.”

2.    Excessive paperwork and less time teaching

More and more teachers are finding themselves buried under mounds of paperwork that Adam Voigt describes as “pointless box-ticking and red tape that offer[s] little-to-no value to the school environment[7]” and less time in the classroom actually interacting with students – the reason teachers got into education in the first place. Complaints abound of an unhealthy emphasis on testing and a neglect of practical and real-world application and preparation.

A graduate teacher told ABC News: “Teaching is awesome until you have to do something other than teach, which is about 80 per cent of the time[8].”

The constant micromanaging has hordes of teachers echoing Melody’s sentiment of “Should I be bothered?” when it comes to going the extra mile to organise extracurricular activities or excursions, which are usually very memorable and beneficial for students.

She describes it as an “ongoing battle” and says that much of the administration and data collection is “about funding and money . . . I think it’s all about proving yourself as an educational institution as opposed to [being] ‘here for the kids’ and about their welfare.”

Former educator Gabbie Stroud says in 2020 article by 7 News, “I’m not a teacher anymore . . . I’m a data collector . . . just a cog in the machine jumping through the hoops[9].”

When asked what single change in the education system would improve the lives of teachers the most, Melody says, “Change the way the funding’s delivered. It’s just crazy, the way they want all of that documented. We’re the ones that know our kids the best, but we’re not trusted in that. We have to actually prove everything.” She says it creates unhealthy competition between neighbouring schools and that it’s all about “what you look like on paper, not actually what you do in the classroom.”

3.    Low salaries and limited room for career advancement

When compared with other professional jobs of similar years’ experience in the corporate sphere, the salary for teachers could hardly be called an incentive and makes all the extra unpaid hours grate even more.  This also results in the teaching roles having “limited appeal for high-achieving graduates[10]” then exacerbated by lower-performing students seeing teaching as an easy alternative.

4.    Problematic parents and student behavioural issues

While the students themselves are rarely blamed for teacher dissatisfaction, the parents have often proved problematic, with a modern-day tendency to blame the teacher or school for everything, including their offspring’s’ issues that have nothing to do with school.

In a 2019 article from Elizabeth Mulvahill, teacher Carole R is frustrated by “lawnmower parents, who expect their child to get an ‘A’ when they are only doing ‘C’ work[11].”

Former educator Gabbie Stroud tells 7 News, “Parents need to step up and do the work of a parent at home so that I can do the work of a teacher at school[12].”

Melody says that disciplinary issues vary across different schools, saying that when she started at her latest school, “I was spending more than 50% of my time dealing with student management and behavioural problems … making phone calls to parents and then documenting all that evidence. That’s been a huge challenge for me …. and that’s probably going to be the thing that pushes me out of education. I don’t know if I can keep doing it for the next 20-30 years.”

“The student cohort that we’re dealing with now – and technology and social media – made this next generation that much more challenging. It’s amazing how much has changed in the last 14 years.”

5.    A lack of support and lack of respect resulting in high stress

A lack of support from both the faculty and education department, as well as a lack of respect from the wider community has a lot of teachers stressed out and thinking “What for?”

While Professors Ewing and Riley cite “a lack of mentoring from more experienced teachers as one of the biggest problems affecting graduates[13],” more experienced teacher Sally McKinnon, who quit after 13 years of teaching, has other ideas.

“I was at the end of my tether. My time was up. I didn’t want to be a teacher who just didn’t give a crap and was turning up for a job. Kids deserve more than that. They deserve passion and energy. But it’s so hard to maintain that, and I wasn’t alone[14].”

The fallout

The devastating result of all this trouble with retention in the education industry is passionate and skilled educators are lost, a high turnover rate (resulting in less stability for students), a young average teacher age (meaning less experience across the board) and the education department’s investment in training new teachers that just leave is essentially wasted, among other things.

In their 2020 article about teacher attrition, Stephanie Garoni and Jo Lampert explain, “As teachers leave the profession, we are finding that schools serving historically marginalised communities are often being staffed with the least experienced educators. Beginning teachers are faced with the extra challenges of coping with professional and geographic isolation, placing them at an increased risk of suffering burnout before they their career gets started[15].”

A study from the University of Melbourne agrees and refers to the retention of highly skilled teachers in high-needs school as “first and foremost an equity issue[16]”.


While finding a solution to these myriad of complex problems sounds impossible, if some changes aren’t made at the department level, schools run the risk of facing chronic teacher shortages, which puts students in danger of missing out on the top-tier education they have come to expect in Australia.


[1] Guardian Readers 2021, ‘It is Unsustainable: The Guardian Readers on the Crisis of Australian Teacher Shortages’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jun/30/it-is-unsustainable-guardian-readers-on-the-crisis-of-australian-teacher-shortages, accessed 28 September 2021.

[2] Stroud, G 2017, ‘Why Do Teachers Leave?’, ABC, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-04/why-do-teachers-leave/8234054, accessed 28 September 2021.

[3] Garoni S & Lampert J 2020, ‘Speculating on teacher attrition in Australia: Might COVID-19 be ‘the straw that breaks the camel’s back’?’, EduResearch Matters, <https://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=6669>, accessed 28 September 2021.

[4] Stroud, G 2017, ‘Why Do Teachers Leave?’, ABC, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-04/why-do-teachers-leave/8234054, accessed 28 September 2021.

[5] Guardian Readers 2021, ‘It is Unsustainable: The Guardian Readers on the Crisis of Australian Teacher Shortages’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jun/30/it-is-unsustainable-guardian-readers-on-the-crisis-of-australian-teacher-shortages, accessed 28 September 2021.

[6] Molloy, S 2019, ‘Australian teachers are ‘at the end of their tethers’ and abandoning the profession, sparking a crisis’, News.com.au, https://www.news.com.au/finance/work/at-work/australian-teachers-are-at-the-end-of-their-tethers-and-abandoning-the-profession-sparking-a-crisis/news-story/43c1948d6def66e0351433463d76fcda>, accessed 28 September 2021.

[7] Molloy, S 2019, ‘Australian teachers are ‘at the end of their tethers’ and abandoning the profession, sparking a crisis’, News.com.au, https://www.news.com.au/finance/work/at-work/australian-teachers-are-at-the-end-of-their-tethers-and-abandoning-the-profession-sparking-a-crisis/news-story/43c1948d6def66e0351433463d76fcda>, accessed 28 September 2021.

[8] Stroud, G 2017, ‘Why Do Teachers Leave?’, ABC, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-04/why-do-teachers-leave/8234054, accessed 28 September 2021.

[9] Carson S & KyTea J 2020, ‘Teachers in crisis: Why so many quit the profession, and the shocking stats around male teachers’, 7 News, https://7news.com.au/the-daily-edition/teachers-in-crisis-why-so-many-quit-the-profession-and-the-shocking-stats-around-male-teachers-c-737923>, accessed 28 September 2021.

[10] Dr Dadvand B & Dr Dawborn-Gundlach M 2020, ‘The Challenge To Retain Second-Career Teachers’, Pursuit: University of Melbourne, https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/the-challenge-to-retain-second-career-teachers>, accessed 28 September 2021.

[11] Mulvahill, E 2019, ‘Why Teachers Quit’, We Are Teachers, https://www.weareteachers.com/why-teachers-quit/>, accessed 28 September 2021.

[12] Carson S & KyTea J 2020, ‘Teachers in crisis: Why so many quit the profession, and the shocking stats around male teachers’, 7 News, https://7news.com.au/the-daily-edition/teachers-in-crisis-why-so-many-quit-the-profession-and-the-shocking-stats-around-male-teachers-c-737923>, accessed 28 September 2021.

[13] Stroud, G 2017, ‘Why Do Teachers Leave?’, ABC, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-04/why-do-teachers-leave/8234054, accessed 28 September 2021.

[14] Molloy, S 2019, ‘Australian teachers are ‘at the end of their tethers’ and abandoning the profession, sparking a crisis’, News.com.au, https://www.news.com.au/finance/work/at-work/australian-teachers-are-at-the-end-of-their-tethers-and-abandoning-the-profession-sparking-a-crisis/news-story/43c1948d6def66e0351433463d76fcda>, accessed 28 September 2021.

[15] Garoni S & Lampert J 2020, ‘Speculating on teacher attrition in Australia: Might COVID-19 be ‘the straw that breaks the camel’s back’?’, EduResearch Matters, <https://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=6669>, accessed 28 September 2021.

[16] Dr Dadvand B & Dr Dawborn-Gundlach M 2020, ‘The Challenge To Retain Second-Career Teachers’, Pursuit: University of Melbourne, https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/the-challenge-to-retain-second-career-teachers>, accessed 28 September 2021.

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