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  • Perceptions of Violence:The Views of Teachers Who Left Urban Schools
  • Deborah L. Smith and Brian J. Smith


This study offers an interpretive exploration of teachers' perceptions of violence, and its links with their decisions to leave urban schools. The study presents the stories of those who began their career in urban districts and then left within five years. In-depth, semi-structured interviews with twelve former urban educators are the main source of data, but ethnographic descriptions, document reviews, and general observations were also used to substantiate the results. In general, these educators perceived inner-city schools as violent and chaotic places where anything can happen. While the stories of those who persevere in the inner city have been told on numerous occasions (Ladson-Billings, 1994, Hunt 1998, Stanford, 2001), we know very little about the perceptions of those who leave urban districts. While much literature exists on school violence, its contributing factors, effects, and the social context which produces such violence, the link between attrition and perceptions of violence has not been systematically explored or documented. In fact, despite an extensive review of the literature on urban education and urban teachers, we have been unable to find any information on such educators' perceptions of violence and how those perceptions link with attrition. This article addresses this important research gap, and offers some suggestions for trying to lessen teacher attrition in urban districts. It explores a few important research questions: Why do teachers leave inner-city schools? To what extent and how can this leaving be linked with perceptions of violence?

Background on Attrition

The need for teachers is so desperate that television commercials are aired often in order to recruit new candidates to the field. At this time of crucial need, approximately one out of every three beginning teachers leaves within the first three years of teaching; the figures are even higher in inner-city schools. Addressing the teacher shortage crisis is not simply a matter of recruiting new teachers; retention of the currently employed teachers is needed to increase stability and achievement. Current research on teacher attrition shows that 30 to 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first [End Page 34] five years (Brunetti, 2001; Gritz & Theobald, 1996; Stanford, 2001). This situation is further complicated by an aging teaching population with an expected retirement rate of fifty percent in the coming decade (Murnane, Singer, Willett, Kemple, & Olsen, 1991). These rates are even more dismal in low income districts where teachers are even more likely to leave in the first five years because of inferior working conditions (Haberman & Rickards, 1990; Mont & Rees, 1996). According to Matus (1999), "the average career of an urban teacher is between three and five years, and in every five-year period approximately one-half of the urban teaching force leaves the profession" (p. 37). This teacher shortage in distressed urban areas becomes cyclical because the positions are filled by more unqualified, naive teachers who are overwhelmed by the problems associated with urban teaching and leave the districts. Aaronson (1999) effectively summarized the complexity of teacher attrition when she stated "most U.S. teachers start their careers in disadvantaged schools where turnover is highest, are assigned the most educationally needy students whom no one else wants to teach, are given the most demanding teaching loads with the greatest number of extra duties, and receive few curriculum materials and no mentoring" (p. 335). Given these conditions it should be no surprise that many leave and that those who do not merely learn to cope rather than flourish in their environments.

Moving beyond the statistics that reveal a disproportionately high turnover rate for teachers at inner-city schools, there is a need to focus attention on urban education because American schools are failing to meet the needs of inner-city students. In general, students who are socio-economically disadvantaged are more likely to fail in and/or drop out of school. We are "inundated with stories of inner-city mass failure, student violence, and soaring drop-out rates" (Delpit, 1995, xiv) and yet many teachers continue to be unprepared for teaching these students. Most graduates of typical teacher-education programs know little...


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