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Milwaukee Has A Problem Attracting and Retaining Teachers

The number of teachers leaving their jobs across greater Milwaukee has increased nearly twenty-five percent in just the last five years.

It’s happening all over the country: more teachers are leaving the field of education. On top of that, fewer young adults are entering the profession. It’s a phenomenon happening right here in the greater Milwaukee area.

Mary worked as a public school teacher in Milwaukee for 18 years. We’re not using her full name because she still does some work for her former district.

Mary loved her job. She specialized in reading, and says helping kids learn that crucial skill was fulfilling. “I love the relationships that I build with children, and of course I like when they like me, and we have fun,” Mary remembers.

But now she has moved on from teaching. Mary says she felt burned out. “I wasn’t giving children what they needed. I always promised myself when I became a teacher, that if I ever was frustrated I wasn’t giving the children what they need, I would leave.”

Mary is not alone.

Credit Public Policy Forum
The cover of the Public Policy Forum's "Help Wanted: An Analysis of the Public School Teacher Pipeline in Greater Milwaukee" report.

The Public Policy Forum released a study Monday analyzing greater Milwaukee’s teacher pipeline over the last five years.

Spoiler alert: the title reads “Help Wanted.”

Study author and senior researcher Joe Yeado explains that the number of teachers leaving their jobs across the region has increased nearly twenty-five percent in just the last five years. 

“In any given year, about 10 percent of the workforce turns over,” Yeado says. “Since 2009-10, we’ve seen the number of teachers leaving the workforce increase by about 23 percent. So we do have more people leaving the workforce.”

Why is teaching becoming a less attractive job?

Yeado says some attrition is normal. For instance, teachers retire every year. But he says part of the dip can also be attributed to stress teachers like Mary feel. Others may leave for family reasons, or because they think they can make more money in a different field.

And Wisconsin has this thing called Act 10, which stripped most public teachers unions of collective bargaining rights. Yeado says that law has also played a role.

“In the year immediately following the adoption of Act 10, the number of teachers leaving the workforce spiked,” Yeado explains. “And it spiked again in the most recent year, which corresponds to the end of union contracts in large districts like Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha.”

Public Policy Forum senior researcher Joe Yeado explains his study, "Help Wanted: An Analysis of the Public School Teacher Pipeline in Greater Milwaukee."

But this is not just a retention problem. The supply of new teachers is also shrinking.

Right now in Wisconsin, about 9,000 students are studying to be teachers, according to the Forum’s research. That number is down about 28 percent over the past six years.

Our neighbors are feeling the pinch, too. Enrollments in teacher prep programs across Michigan and Illinois have dropped close to 50 percent.

Linda Darling-Hammond heads the national Learning Policy Institute. She says downward trends won’t change until policies affecting the teaching profession change -- issues such as pay, opportunities for mentoring and exchange, and even an improvement in public attitudes toward teachers.

“There are teachers in every community who are doing extraordinary work, often all by themselves in an egg crate classroom where nobody else gets to learn from it, see it,” Darling-Hammond says.

Even though Mary is no longer teaching in a classroom, she hopes more young people take on the challenge. Her own niece has hinted at wanting to teach.

“I would encourage her to be a teacher, with reservation!” Mary adds with a chuckle. “Maybe it will change someday, but right now it’s very difficult.”

If movement in nearby states is any indication, Wisconsin policymakers will likely discuss the teaching profession as the next school year – and legislative session – approach.