Committee for Children Blog

What Are You Doing to Reduce Teacher Turnover?

This post was written by guest bloggers Doug Fisher, PhD, and Nancy Frey, PhD, authors of All Learning Is Social and Emotional and professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University.

We hope your answer isn’t to throw your hands up and say, “I can’t pay them any more. Salaries aren’t within my control.” To be clear, we believe teachers deserve much higher salaries than they currently receive, but salaries aren’t the reason people are leaving the profession in droves. Fortunately, there are things that do reduce teacher turnover. When adults feel safe, trust and have good relationships with their peers and leaders, and understand the impact of their efforts, they’re less likely to leave. In other words, educator social-emotional learning can help stem the tide of people who are leaving teaching.

Collegiality in a school is often cited as an important factor in teachers’ decisions to leave or stay. When teachers are connected with the other adults in the school, they’re much more likely to remain in the profession (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2018). People who feel isolated in their work are much more likely to leave. Thus, focusing on building trusting relationships between the adults in the school can be a protective factor for turnover. When teachers have trusting relationships with their colleagues, they’re more likely to talk openly with each other, give and receive feedback and help, and develop a supportive, healthy school culture.

Connectedness among staff can begin with regular, low-stakes conversations. Try this as a starter: have people at the next staff meeting tell the story of their name to one other person. Getting to know someone’s story opens the door to stronger relationships. Over time, you can have people sit with different colleagues and share their name story (or other personal stories) to begin building trusting relationships.

Lack of agency is another reason teachers leave the profession (Zee & Koomen, 2016). People lose agency when they feel as though their efforts don’t result in anything positive. But when they feel their efforts make a difference, their sense of agency increases. Unfortunately, some teachers focus only on long-term outcomes and get frustrated when they don’t see the effects of their work. Imagine how frustrating it must be to limit the definition of success to achievement on a state test or the elimination of problematic behavior, and never see change on a day-to-day basis. Try this: help teachers set short-term goals and collect evidence of their impact. Then celebrate those wins and set new goals. Keep repeating the pattern so each teacher sees the difference they make.

For teachers already experiencing burnout, consider the role compassion fatigue may be playing. The dictionary defines compassion fatigue as “the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.” When teachers are repeatedly confronted with painful situations, especially situations over which they have no control and that they can’t solve, they can develop this exhaustion and withdraw. In essence it’s secondary traumatic stress, or the emotional duress that comes from hearing students’ firsthand experiences with trauma. There’s a survey professionals can use to identify their risk factors, but the signs are pretty clear (Pfifferling & Gilley, 2000):

  • Abusing drugs, alcohol, or food
  • Anger
  • Blaming
  • Chronic lateness
  • Depression
  • Diminished sense of personal accomplishment
  • Exhaustion (physical or emotional)
  • Frequent headaches
  • Gastrointestinal complaints
  • High self-expectations
  • Hopelessness
  • Hypertension
  • Inability to maintain balance of empathy and objectivity
  • Increased irritability
  • Less ability to feel joy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Workaholism

Try this: get the person some help before it’s too late. Sometimes this means professional help. Other times, it means giving the person time to decompress and talk about their experiences. Emotional check-ins with teachers can help. Having a focused, connected, and meaningful conversation each day with someone can be a protective factor, as can having quiet time alone each day. We recognize that it’s hard to do in busy schools, but it’s still important to find a place and time for teachers to decompress.

Being on the lookout for and recognizing compassion fatigue are the first steps. Remember, school leaders are especially vulnerable to compassion fatigue. If you develop it, it’s likely to spread around your school, resulting in more teachers who leave the profession. Taking care of teachers also means taking care of yourself. By modeling self-care, a healthy work-life balance, and an openness to checking in emotionally, you signal to staff that these are hallmarks of professionalism. And isn’t that what effective leaders do? Let’s revise our definition of a great leader to include one who understands the impact of social-emotional learning on adults and works to foster an environment that builds and maintains educator social-emotional skills.


Committee for Children is collaborating with Dr. Fisher and Dr. Frey to develop a new social-emotional professional learning program for K–12 educators. Learn more at SecondStep.org/SELA

Skaalvik, E. M., & Skaalvik, S. (2018). Job demands and job resources as predictors of teacher motivation and well-being. Social Psychology of Education, 21(5), 1251–1275.

Zee, M., & Koomen, H. M. Y. (2016). Teacher self-efficacy and its effects on classroom processes, student academic adjustment, and teacher well-being. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 981–1015.