Nearly half of all teachers quit during their first five years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but the numbers alone don't convey the full severity of the problem.
"It's not just the number of teachers leaving, but the quality of teachers," said Don McMahon, a 40-year veteran teacher from Mesa, Ariz., who has done extensive study in the area of teacher dropout rates. "Everyone knows we have a dropout problem among high school students, but most people don't realize that the dropout rate for teachers is even higher. It is often the best qualified teachers who leave first because they have the easiest time finding employment in other fields."
Locally, the Shoals seems to buck the trend when it comes to losing teachers within the first five years of their career, although most school district administrators can recall losing one or more teachers to what they consider a more lucrative career.
Sheffield Superintendent Richard Gardner said he is surprised the numbers aren't higher - in the 55-65 percent range - and even though it isn't a problem in his school district, he understands the mindset of some new teachers.
He said there have been newer teachers in his district who didn't have their contract renewed - particularly because of funding shortages - and they ultimately sought employment in other fields.
"It's no secret that people can find jobs in the private sector making a lot more money," Gardner said. "The economy can drive people to other jobs, which can also offer more stability."
In Alabama, with cycles of proration in the state's education budget commonplace, cutting teaching jobs is a constant threat.
That worry, along with stricter-than-ever accountability laws through the federal No Child Left Behind and significantly more paperwork, teachers suffer burnout more quickly than they did 10 years ago.
For Kerry Arnold, a seventh-grade math teacher at Deshler Middle School in Tuscumbia, becoming a teacher three years ago fulfilled a passion.
In her tenure year at the school, Arnold said there is definitely stress involved in the job because of all the normal pressures of teaching as well as her additional worry over gaining tenure status at the end of the school year.
"There's definitely stress for any teacher who wants her students to really learn, but there's so many focuses teachers today must have besides just loving the students and teaching them," she said. "The state adds a lot of stress with mandates of high test scores, and then there are all the new things that are important to the politicians every four years that we have to adapt to. It's a lot of pressure."
As for her own time in the classroom, Arnold admits it's been a much different experience from what she had as a student teacher.
"Until you're fully in charge of these students and what they're learning, you don't really understand that responsibility," she said. "There's a lot of paperwork, and yes, it can seem overwhelming at times. I can see how new teachers could be so overwhelmed that they'd change their mind about the profession. I just happen to love it and am figuring out how not to dwell on all those things."
Arnold said she has friends who are getting out of teaching, opting for higher-paying jobs.
"I know I could probably make more money doing something else, but as a teacher, having time at home with my child (a kindergartner) is a huge plus," she said. "It's a great career choice for me. Some teachers don't stick around long enough to make a sound judgment about it. I'm in it for the long haul, and I'm finally learning what's going on with middle schoolers, so understanding them is a huge factor."
Arnold's principal at Deshler Middle School, Robert Mullen, recalls one former teacher who left the profession after the first year.
"He did a good job and had the potential to be a really good teacher and coach but he just decided (education) wasn't the job for him. It was partly the money thing."
Lauderdale Superintendent Bill Valentine said it is rather surprising that the teacher dropout rate isn't higher because of the "tremendous amount of documentation that has to be kept for every single program."
"Teachers are constantly watching test scores, comparing data and keeping records, and all that can eat into instructional time which they're told not to let happen," he said. "For a teacher coming into his/her own classroom, it isn't necessarily what they've been told in college."
Lee Hurren, chairman of the University of North Alabama Department of Secondary Education, is familiar with the teacher dropout rate and said he tries to stress the classroom responsibilities for his future teachers.
"I can't argue the statistics on teacher burnout because I've seen many friends and colleagues leave the field," Hurren said. "I'm always open and honest with the students because I don't want them going in with any misunderstandings, but I also emphasize the joy of teaching."
Hurren said he realizes there are some rigid stipulations placed on teachers because of No Child Left Behind, but school districts still must give teachers the freedom to teach.
"I'd say it's all about the person's attitude and not getting sucked into the faculty lounge talk, backbiting or any other school politics," Hurren said. "From day one, if (a teacher) hangs out with the complainers, that's what he/she becomes. Teachers simply have to be positive toward the kids and in their ability to help them."
Hurren's teaching experience includes 12 years in Nevada high schools. He knows dealing with kids can be tough.
"The bottom line is that, as teachers, we have the opportunity to change lives, and literally, in some cases, save lives," he said. "A teacher's attitude toward the kids can, and has, saved lives. The voice of those kids who behave badly can't become the dominant voice in the teacher's mind."
The solution to teacher burnout won't come through a "business as usual" approach, McMahon said. And he stresses the importance of keeping great teachers, no matter what it takes.
"We need innovative, new incentives for teachers to remain in education," he said. "Government can't do this alone - the private sector also needs to play a role."
Lisa Singleton-Rickman can be reached at 740-5735 or lisa.singleton-rickman@TimesDaily.com.