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Poll: Teacher Engagement Starts Low, Worsens With Time

K-12 teachers in the U.S. tend to become less engaged at work after their first year, according to a just-released Gallup poll. For educators with between six months and a year of teaching, professional engagement is at 35.1 percent. But that figure goes down to 30.9 percent for teachers who have been on the job for one to three years, and it continues to drop for teachers in their third to fifth year. At more than 10 years, there's a slight bump back upwards, bringing engagement to 31.8 percent.

The Gallup poll categorizes people in three ways: engaged, not engaged, or actively disengaged. Gallup defines engaged workers as those who are "deeply involved in and enthusiastic about their work and actively contributing to their organization" and not engaged workers as "satisfied with their workplaces, but ... not emotionally connected to them."

The results (below) are based on phone interviews conducted with a random sample of 151,284 adults, including 7,265 K-12 teachers, between January and December 2012.

Workplace Engagement for U.S. K-12 Teachers 2012

A decline in teacher engagement over time is, well, not really news. As University of Pennsylvania's Richard Ingersoll, a renowned voice on teacher-workforce trends, has noted, nearly half of all teachers leave within their first five years on the job. Plus, it stands to reason that people would begin a new career with enthusiasm—and that that would wane as reality sets in. The Gallup research indicates that this pattern is similar with other occupations—but it's notable that "the measurable decline in engagement by years of experience is smaller for those in other types of jobs [than for teachers]."

What's also worth noting is that, while Gallup says teachers start with a higher level of engagement than workers in non-teaching jobs, only about one-third of teachers are engaged six months into their first year. So yes, they're doing well in relative terms. But according to Gallup, two out of three first-year teachers are not engaged.

In other comparisons, the research indicates teachers are doing well, too. Only managers/executives, physicians, and nurses are more engaged overall than teachers (though not by much—only about a third of your medical providers are engaged, too). The results are similar to those from Gallup's research on well-being within careers, which found that teachers top all other professionals except for physicians in overall well-being.

That said, according to a previous Gallup release, teachers are less engaged than their students.

So what's the upshot? Gallup points to a need for better principals in schools, saying the organization's research "has consistently shown the critical role of managers in engaging their team members." Sure, great principals would help—and states are now beginning to look at ways to measure principal effectiveness, an area on which there's been limited research up until lately. But schools are very different than other workplaces. So perhaps there's more going on here.

Teachers, what are your thoughts? Why does engagement decline faster in teaching than in other professions? Are the majority of new teachers really not engaged, or is there a problem with Gallup's definition of "engagement"? Could teacher-preparation programs—perhaps even the student-teaching piece—play a role in boosting new teacher engagement? Is there a chance these programs are contributing to new teachers' disengagement?

U.S. Employee Engagement By Occupation 2012

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