Led by Professor Robyn Brandenburg from Federation University, researchers have canvassed the key reasons for why 256 former educators decided to opt out of schools and the classroom, and what they’re doing now.

While participants flagged multi-faceted causes behind their exit –  such as an intensifying workload, a less than ideal workplace environment, poor student behaviour and a general lack of respect –  almost 18 per cent reported that problems with school leadership was the main reason they quit.

'Patronised' by leadership

One participant, Paul, a former secondary teacher who had between 16 and 20 years experience, indicated that teachers were treated ‘like an infant’ by school leaders who simultaneously demanded professionalism from their staff.

He said he felt “greatly undervalued and patronised by members of the leadership team” and got “no sense of personal satisfaction from classroom teaching nor recognition from leadership for the amount of time and energy put into teaching”.

Brandenburg tells EducationHQ it was devastating to read through participants' responses.

“Honestly … it was gut wrenching, heartbreaking, because a lot of them didn't want to go. They just felt pushed,” she says.

“And often it was a self-protection mechanism, like, ‘if I don’t go, my wellbeing will continue to suffer.’”

Often the demands and administration pressures placed on teachers came ‘from the top down’, Brandenburg says, but personality clashes with school leadership were obviously a factor for why people left, too. 

“But you can't just identify the principal and say it's completely as a result of a broken-down relationship with [them], it’s often more than that,” she clarifies.

“It comes back to healthy relationships within the school, across all teachers [and staff], because school is basically a little micro-system, and an effective micro-system irons out these issues.”

Multiple factors at play

Many teachers cited a lack of professional trust and autonomy had eroded their love for the job and contributed towards their choice to leave.

“A dichotomy between ‘actual teaching’, which was often seen as pleasurable, and intolerable aspects of the job was highlighted by many of the teachers surveyed,” researchers observed.

Brandenburg says the team were surprised by the lengthy period of time teachers and school leaders sat with the idea of quitting, with most grappling with the decision for 2-5 years before calling it.

Some 10 per cent toyed with it for even longer.

Most felt that leaving was the result of not just one challenge in isolation, but rather a combination of issues that compounded over time and made their jobs untenable.

“It was often they felt anguish, they really considered it,” Brandenburg says.

“So, it’s not reactive: 'I'm leaving, I'm walking away', it's a very considered exit.

“Because when you think about it, they've done four years of an undergrad degree, [and] they've really invested in a profession.

“A lot of them felt pushed from what some said was a broken system.”

Many teachers are waiting in the wings

One significant finding was that more than 80 per cent of participants kept their teaching registration, offering hope that a huge cohort may not be permanently lost to the school system.

Indeed, more than 15 per cent stated that they would probably return to teaching, and while just over one per cent indicated they would definitely come back, almost half indicated they had not ruled teaching out entirely.

However, significant changes would need to occur for teachers to be lured back into the classroom, the researchers say, despite their often ‘deep personal and moral commitment’ to education.

One early-career secondary teacher, who left the independent school sector for the first time in 2018, planned to re-enter the classroom last year.

“I left twice,” she says in the survey.

“The first time was after 3 years. My mental health was broken due to poor student behaviour and disrespect/bullying … This year I’m supplementing my writing with CRT work because I can see how desperate the system is. I’m curious to see how it’s all changed since COVID but I’m anxious about it.”

The study also revealed that 20 per cent of teachers quit with 7-10 years' experience in schools, and Brandenburg says the loss of this expertise risked creating a 'leadership vacuum' across the system.

Where do teachers end up?

More than half of the former educators were employed in jobs that drew on the knowledge and skills they’d honed through teaching, the study found.

These included fields such as sports coaching, social work, counselling and the wellbeing industry.

Brandenburg says the narrative around the teacher attrition crisis ought to take on a more positive outlook here.

“We've got to change a negative narrative into [one that highlights] the value and the critical importance of the teacher in our society,” she says.

“But we also know that there are positive reasons for teachers leaving, and that's healthy....”

Nevertheless, the researcher and former primary teacher says she’s never seen the profession in such a dire state, with attrition rates peaking and schools scrambling to plug mounting holes.

“Then there’s that flow on effect: what happens to those who stay, and they remain in a school?” she says.

“[It’s going to take all education system stakeholders] to really get together and say, ‘Well, how can we move the profession forward?’

“And it's not a scattergun approach. It's not putting money here or there, or this project here.

“To me, it needs a revision.”