Thinking of Becoming a Teacher?

Over the next decade, many teaching positions will open up as the baby boomers retire, marking the first shortage of teachers across the country in many years. The National Education Association reported, “The shortage is critical. We need to hire two million teachers over the next 10 years.” This news has led many undergraduates and those now entering college to consider teaching. However, teacher aspirants beware! Despite the forthcoming availability of positions, the longevity of teaching careers and the perils inherent should be considered. Approximately 20 percent of all new teachers are no longer teaching after five years, and in some urban school districts, the percentage is considerably higher.

The reasons why young teachers do not remain in the classroom are multifold and well documented. Premiere among them is an inability to control a classroom and lack of support from administrators. Poor working conditions and low salaries add disenchantment. And when teachers (in this female-dominated profession) become parents themselves, affordable childcare does not exist. This is especially true when compounded by the necessity to pay back hefty college loans. Teacher education programs that provide opportunities to discuss the problems new teachers encounter are helpful.

When asked why they chose teaching, many state they love children. However, this is love in the abstract and not sufficient to run a successful, well-ordered classroom. Romanticized ideals of children are far from the diverse and needy groups that teachers encounter in every classroom. To reduce teacher burnout and increase retention, school districts employ different strategies. Mentoring programs in which experienced teachers are assigned to novices are cost-effective and often implemented.

However, unless carefully structured, these programs are often inadequate. The mentors themselves are often overworked and, no matter how well meaning, they do not have the time or energy required to support another. Conversely, when given enough time, mentoring over the course of several years can be invaluable. When a new teacher makes it through the first year, the next will be entirely different. ”No classrooms are exactly alike as no children are exactly alike” is an educational truism. The ability to respond to students’ needs according to the dynamics of a particular classroom is crucial and difficult to adequately address in teacher education programs.

The curriculum may be standard, but the presentation of that material cannot. Each class has its own dynamic based on the personalities involved and their interactions. Successful teachers need to be flexible and observant; careful not to replicate an approach that may succeed one year if it does not seems profitable the next. This flexibility may take several years to develop along with extensive research and practice with different methods of presentation.

That research can be hard to come by. Teacher education programs in the United States are most often poorly funded. Resources are limited as is the time given over to extended practicum. However, more highly regarded training programs are attached to university sanctioned schools where student teachers can spend hours observing children and volunteering before taking over a classroom.

Seminal among such programs are the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools founded by philosopher John Dewey more than a century ago. These schools serve 1,700 students from primary through high school. The focus is on progressive education theory, which is child-centered and has less of an emphasis placed on testing.

Chicago is not unique in operating laboratory schools. Individuals thinking of becoming teachers would benefit and be less likely to leave a career early when they seek out and apply to such programs. Three months of student teaching is the norm in some education programs and much too short especially since most of the time is spent observing an experienced teacher. Observation is important, and the more classrooms a student teacher goes into, the better.

However, some have only one week of actually standing before a group of children before being assigned their own class. This is in a practicum before taking a position and is hardly enough time to become a competent, self-confident teacher. The impending teacher shortage is an ideal time to examine existing teacher education programs and to implement new strategies. The information is available, and it would behoove interested parties to demand changes in the manner in which many teachers in this country are prepared.

I cannot believe any teacher entering a school thinks their commitment will be short-lived. They have worked hard and spent a considerable amount of money on their own education to have it cut short because of burnout or a lack of support.

Simple solutions have been postulated, including allowing young teachers to choose their first school and a mentor rather than being handed the most difficult assignments. A reduced teaching schedule also would help with the adjustment from their schooling to the classroom.

Another important incentive would be if teaching licenses were standard and not changed from state to state. In our mobile society, excellent teachers are lost because credentials do not transfer. Such adjustments could make a real difference in the retention rate of teachers. Now is the time to address such long-standing and critical problems.