Being a teacher is among the most rewarding professions out there, and among the most abjectly demoralizing.
A dedicated, well-trained teacher can ignite a lifelong love of ideas and knowledge in a classroom of students, and help send them on their way to success in whatever endeavors they pursue once they leave the K-12 ambit. Sometimes, though, what those dedicated, well-trained teachers have to put up with while instilling that lifelong love of ideas and knowledge can be brutal: The pay is not good compared to other professions; students, parents and community members can be Scrooge-like in extending respect; testing regimes can rob teachers of creativity and autonomy; and the list goes on.
It shouldn’t be any wonder that Pennsylvania and other states are now looking at a teacher shortage. However, some of the details that emerged in a story by our Karen Mansfield in last Sunday’s Observer-Reporter were eye-opening. For instance, since 1996, the number of undergraduates majoring in education has tumbled by a little more than half. In the last decade, the number of teaching certificates issued in Pennsylvania has dropped by a staggering 71 percent. California University of Pennsylvania’s education program had 100 fewer students enrolled last fall than just four years before.
Diane Fine, a professor in Cal U.’s program, told us, “These are definitely challenging times, no doubt, in education. I tell my students that they’re entering teaching at a challenging time. It is tougher to recruit students into education programs.”
She also cited the fact that, among many, “teaching is not a well-respected profession. So many people think it’s an easy job, with weekends off and holidays off and summers off, and teachers aren’t respected for what they do.”
Teachers are getting to be in short supply, but not across the board. Well-to-do school districts are able to attract top-drawer instructors, but it gets harder for districts lower on the income scale, particularly in STEM subjects like mathematics and science. A fear of violence is one of the issues that drives teachers from the profession, and impoverished districts tend to attract teachers with less experience. Those novice teachers are more likely to bolt, leading to high turnover and reducing the quality of classroom instruction as the revolving door keeps spinning.
But even teachers who love what they do, are supported by parents and administrators and can shrug off the less fulfilling parts of the job can feel compelled to find other forms of employment because of the paycheck they are bringing home. Compared to other college-educated professionals teachers are paid poorly, and, according to a study by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, about 60 percent of teachers in the United States moonlighted in other jobs to help make ends meet.
What should be done? As in any other profession, people stick around when working conditions are tolerable or better. Receiving professional development and, yes, respect is important. Perhaps most importantly, teachers need to be paid what they are worth.
We should take to heart what writer and historian Henry Adams once said: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”