Exit Interview

Nicole Wolff Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom

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It’s the last week of the school year and I’m powering through end of year routines. But this year is far from routine. The school year that everyone thought would be more “normal” has been everything but. It’s been a year filled with unexpected challenges, from a pandemic that seems endless to unreasonable expectations to staffing shortages (and a million other pressures in between).

Stuck in the middle of it are teachers, desperately struggling to preserve their passion in a career with increasing demands and decreasing incentives. The struggle has consequences and the impact is going to be felt in force next year.

Throughout my career I’ve been fortunate to work in schools with stable and consistent staffing. We typically only must fill a handful of positions a year. The few times I’ve experienced significant teacher turnover staffing was complete by the end of May. We were able to transition to summer feeling prepared and optimistic for the new year to begin in August.

This year I’m feeling dread because the school year is over and we still have multiple unfilled positions with no incoming applications.

It’s not just my school, it’s my whole district. And it’s not just my district, it’s the state of Arizona. We are in a serious teacher retention crisis. Arizona has the fewest number of teachers willing to teach since 2004.

While the masses have been screaming about it for years, the alarm bells have been ignored. The situation is about to get a lot worse as teachers scramble for an exit. The devastating part is no one with power or influence seems to want to help change the trajectory.

It’s common in the business world for companies to administer exit interviews as a means for improving staff retention and employment practices. None of the districts I’ve worked for have utilized exit interviews as a means for improving teacher retention. How can we possibly fix a problem if we aren’t seeking and using the input of those we wish to retain?

I’m so deeply bothered by the amount of teachers I know leaving their positions this year. I feel an intense need to find root causes. I want to be well-informed so I can effectively advocate for teachers in a way that will keep them in classrooms. So, I did my own version of an exit interview.

I sent a questionnaire to teachers I know personally who are leaving their current positions. I asked questions about what influenced their decision to leave their present job, what might have made them stay, and if they would ever consider returning.

Salary was the most cited reason for leaving. Almost every respondent indicated salary as their number one reason for resigning their position. Two respondents are moving out of Arizona to teach in states with much higher salaries and a lower cost of living. Others are leaving teaching to earn more in the private sector. This isn’t surprising given the financial implications of being a teacher in Arizona. Considering the rising cost of housing in our state, particularly in the metro areas, it’s nearly impossible to live on an Arizona teacher’s salary.

Micromanaging was the next most mentioned influencer for leaving. Many respondents said the lack of trust to do their job is what ultimately pushed them out the door. With an intense focus on standardized tests, their districts micromanaged them in a way that made it difficult to make pedagogical decisions they know are in the best interest of their students. Being professionally hampered in this way caused acute job dissatisfaction many teachers couldn’t overcome.

Lack of administrative support in the aftermath of COVID was the third most stated reason for leaving current positions. Many teachers reported students having much different behavior needs this year and the support to meet those needs didn’t materialize. There was a lack of accountability around identifying and problem-solving student behavior concerns. Given the abysmal teacher compensation in Arizona, many teachers decided the anxiety and legitimate concern over student and staff safety wasn’t worth the meager pay they receive.

The thing that struck me as I read through the questionnaire responses was the interconnectedness of the top three reasons for leaving the classroom. Feeling unsupported and micromanaged leads to job dissatisfaction and when your compensation is ranked in the bottom nationally, there are few reasons to stay. Low pay and poor working conditions are a recipe for disaster and Arizona seems intent on being the worst for both.

One silver lining that emerged in the questionnaire is that teachers haven’t completely lost their desire to teach. All but one said they would be willing to return to teaching and possibly to their current district if conditions change for the better.

What will I do with this information? I plan to fight for working conditions and salaries that will keep teachers in classrooms. If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll fight with me.

Actions you can take:

  • Elections matter, vote for people who commit to investing in our public schools so we can raise teacher pay and improve working conditions.
  • Attend your school district’s governing board meetings. Find out their plan for increasing teacher retention and hold them accountable to it.
  • Volunteer for pro-public education organizations like Save Our Schools Arizona that are working diligently to change the trajectory of public education in Arizona.

These are long-term actions you can take. But right now, go find an overworked, undervalued, underpaid teacher and tell them thank you. Maybe your genuine gratitude can prevent one from heading for the exit.

Photo by Anna Tarazevich:


I'm a California native. However, I've spent my entire career teaching in Arizona public schools, as well as instructing at the university level. My passion for teacher advocacy and support led me to become an Instructional Coach in 2013. I am currently a coach at a K-8 school in Goodyear and love the students and teachers I get to work with every day. I have spent my career actively involved in instructional improvement, chairing many committees including Response to Intervention, Academic Accountability, and Professional Development Committees. I was named Dysart Hero (teacher of the year) in 2012. I was honored to serve as a 2017-18 Arizona Hope Street Teacher Fellow. I earned a Bachelor’s in Elementary Education and a Master’s in Education/ESL from Ottawa University. I am a National Board Certified Teacher. I’m also endorsed as an Early Childhood Specialist, Reading Specialist, and Gifted Specialist. In my free time, I enjoy reading, camping, and spending time with my family.

Comments 1

  1. Sandy merz

    Unsupported and micromanaged is a two-edged sword. I’m lucky to work in a district that does do a lot of management, but provides a lot of support and room to exercise autonomy. It’s not often mentioned how important status us to job satisfaction, but it really is. Not necessarily in the sense of awards and titles, but in being recognized for the originality of your work and given the autonomy – or “micro-autonomy” to work within boundaries and have influence.

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