The hours are long. The customers are challenging. The pay can be good, but it will be publicly debated every few years. More often than not, the deck-taxpayers, politicians, pundits-seems stacked against you. The rewards, though, are unlike those offered by any other profession: the opportunity to help young minds reach their full potential. But college enrollment numbers seem to hint that fewer young adults see teaching as a goal.
The hours are long. The customers are challenging. The pay can be good, but it will be publicly debated every few years. More often than not, the deck-taxpayers, politicians, pundits-seems stacked against you. The rewards, though, are unlike those offered by any other profession: the opportunity to help young minds reach their full potential, the ability to stoke imagination, inspire and give the lifelong gifts of learning. But college enrollment numbers seem to hint that fewer young adults see teaching as a goal.
When was the last time a presidential candidate cracked wise about your job during a debate or stump speech?
Gov. John Kasich piqued thousands of teachers when he said in an August speech in New Hampshire, "If I were not president, but if I were King of America, I would abolish all teacher's lounges, where they sit together and worry about 'woe is us.' " It was a colorful quote and one that inspired copious indignant Facebook posts and tweets, but it was par for the course when it comes to the mixing of politics and education.
The two have gone hand in hand as long as education has been a public matter, but some industry watchers and scholars think the politicization of education and teaching could be turning off a potential next generation of teachers.
By several measures, fewer people are enrolling in programs that lead to teacher certification at colleges and universities. Ohio saw a 26 percent drop in enrollments between 2013 and 2014. That followed a 9 percent drop between 2012 and 2013 and a 2 percent drop between 2011 and 2012, but a 15 percent increase between 2010 and 2011. Nationally, the number of education majors dropped from 179,000 in 2011-12 to 164,000 the following year.
There doesn't seem to be any immediate danger of filling jobs in Central Ohio school districts-several districts report they still receive plenty of applications for any available jobs-but challenges loom on the horizon in specific subject areas (special education, English as a second language and the STEM fields, among them), and in the rural districts that lie outside the state's metropolitan areas. Yet to be known is the impact of the increased politicization of teaching on the high school seniors who'll declare their majors at college in the next several years.
Mark Kretovics, interim dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Services at Kent State University, takes the long view. "I think what you'll find is education [like other professions] is cyclical in nature. It does fluctuate based on supply and demand. People watch and see if there's a glut or a shortage. That's part of what you see with some of these swings. If you track this over the last 20 to 25 years, there's a decline every seven or eight years. The decline we're experiencing is most likely due to a natural cycle," he says.
But experts who study and teach education at Ohio colleges and universities say the profession must respond-urgently and definitively-to multiple factors that could affect its long-term prospects. Some say young people are more focused on the bottom line of a profession, rather than on the emotional or mission-driven satisfaction it might bring. "Both at the university and societal level, we have de-emphasized the need for mission-centered approaches to our careers," says Andrew Saultz, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University. "As universities, sometimes we talk about future careers in terms of future earning potential and not the opportunity to make a difference."
Educators also criticize themselves for failing to speak with a unified voice-their ranks are as fragmented as the thousands of school districts that wallpaper states. And the job is becoming only more challenging, with fewer human and financial resources, ever greater expectations, and state and federal policies that shift like sand with each new administration.
In Hilliard City Schools, it's Brian Lidle's job to make sure new teachers aren't distracted by the considerable public noise outside their classrooms.
"It's an extremely tough job," he says. "We're not going to sugar-coat the fact that not everybody can be a teacher."
Lidle runs the Ohio Resident Educator Program in the district-a sort of long-term orientation and training program for teachers just out of college. They go through additional training, get paired with an experienced mentor and, at the end of a few years, if all goes well, they qualify for their five-year professional teaching license. Lidle started as a teacher before moving into assistant principal and principal positions at the middle and high school levels. As a young teacher, Lidle says, he wasn't immune to the worry that came with levy season. "There were times when I got to the point where I didn't know exactly where things were headed," he says. "I was that young teacher who was on the bubble if a levy didn't pass. It's tough."
Questions about levies, politics and union negotiations do come up when he talks to undergrads and young teachers. "Policy and politics have made it more difficult," Lidle says. "I do hear from undergrads who say they're not so sure they want to go into this knowing how difficult it is, and the politics have not made it any easier. But we're motivated by our kids and seeing them succeed."
In Hilliard, he says, "We've adopted a philosophy of, you've gotta worry about the kids in front of you and focus on the things you can control. If you get caught up in the minutiae of policy or the fear of a levy not passing, you wind up being frozen by that fear. The job is hard enough. You've got to focus on those kids. That doesn't mean you're not active, or you don't support what's right, but we have to be relentless in the education of those students."
Like any other employer, school districts try to stand out from one another to attract the best teachers. Gahanna-Jefferson schools tend to have abundant applicants for jobs and good long-term teacher retention, says Matt Cygnor, the district's executive director of human resources. He says the district places an emphasis on mentoring, professional development and employing teachers for the long term. In Gahanna, he says, the result is a sense of tenacity and resolve among teachers. "They're like, 'OK what's next? What do we need to do to move on?' " Cygnor says. "I'm always impressed that teachers ultimately know what they need to do. Tell us what we need to do this time. We'll get over this and move on."
Lidle compares becoming a teacher to becoming a doctor-after all the study, the only thing that can lead to strong practice is lots of reality. "You could work on skeletons. You could work on cadavers. But it's a very different thing when you're working on a live human being," he says. "You can go into a student teaching situation, but you don't know what it's going to be like when you're the only one in the classroom. They're still not 100 percent there. There's certain things these young teachers need, and a lot of it has to do with matching them up with the right mentors and giving them some historical perspective."
Politics and policy aside,the teaching profession faces critical shortages in several specialties and subject areas, and scholars say high schools and undergraduate programs may not be doing enough to make these specialties attractive options for undergrads.
"If there was one thing I could tell a prospective teacher, I would say, look at special education. Every district struggles to find enough candidates for that type of position," Lidle says, adding, "When you get out into the rural districts, they see a lot of teacher turnover. A lot of times that comes down to teachers in those districts don't make very much, and they want to get to a suburban school district with a better scale of pay. Those rural districts really struggle."
Erica Brownstein, the assistant dean for educator preparation in Ohio State University's College of Education and Human Ecology, started her career as a high school chemistry and math teacher in Perry County and Columbus City Schools. As a kid, she was the student who excelled at school science fairs and was one of five students in her high school physics class.
"I was not a straight-route person. I didn't know what I wanted to do," she says. Her zest for science led her to education, where she made it her mission to inspire all her students to be successful. Now she's helping train the next generation of teachers-including, she hopes, people who wish to study science like she did.
"To say we desperately need agriscience teachers is an understatement." In a state that relies so heavily on agriculture, teachers who teach the business and career of farming are in demand and will continue to be as the industry continues to evolve and become more technologically advanced.
"Physical education, too," she says. "There's now more options for people in those fields, like sports management, that didn't exist before. It's important to be trained safely. If you don't have a trained physical education teacher, they might do things that cause injuries."
At Ohio State, first-year education students take a one-credit class aimed at helping them explore teaching specialties they might not previously have considered. "There are a lot of people who come in interested in early childhood education, but once they start to see there are other avenues where there's greater demand," they can be persuaded to change their minds, she says.
Other specialties that need more qualified teachers: family and consumer sciences, business education, Spanish and other foreign languages, all areas of special education (including education for visually or hearing impaired students, gifted students and students with intellectual disabilities). And then there are the STEM fields: science, mathematics, engineering and technology, which are in incredibly high demand, but which require highly specialized training.
"They have an enormous amount of content in science or mathematics, as well as the education classes," Brownstein says, describing the curriculum. "That's a lot to ask of a person."
Kretovics says Kent State is keen on recruiting students specifically for STEM fields and special education because of the known shortage of qualified teachers in these areas. "The hard part is students are unclear what they'd really like to do," he says. "They were motivated by a teacher, and they think I'd really like to do [what that teacher did]. It takes them a year to figure out what they'd really like to be doing."
Ohio State is also refocusing on the overall job of training teachers. Beginning with the 2013-14 academic year, Ohio State students could once again enroll in an undergraduate education program. In the 1980s, Brownstein explains, "There was a movement to professionalize the teaching profession by having the content preparation (teaching subject) at the undergraduate level and the pedagogical (teaching method) knowledge at the graduate level."
Ohio State has a highly ranked graduate education program, but over time, the college noticed that graduates lacked diversity, Brownstein says. And that was a priority-producing teachers who resemble the students in their classrooms. After looking carefully at the data, the college reintroduced the bachelor's degree and recommitted to graduating teachers in four years.
"By having a master of education program, we ended up keeping out first-generation and minority students, the very students we're trying to encourage to go into teaching so that they look like the students in front of them. Ohio State wisely decided we needed to bring back the undergraduate program. We need to make it possible for all our students to be done in four years."
Unsurprisingly, scholars at colleges and universities are critical of alternative programs like Teach for America, which was built to put teachers in often undesirable classrooms where they are desperately needed, but which may have the unintended consequence of producing low-commitment educators.
"I've talked with students who have talked about Teach for America and said, 'Maybe I'll teach for a couple of years, but then I'll go on to something else,' " says Saultz, of Miami University. "The message is you don't have to be a teacher forever. You can do it for a short time period. But people don't reach their maximum potential as teachers until five to seven years in the job. There's a financial cost for districts, and a cultural cost, as well."
One of the biggest long-termchallenges facing the teaching discipline, experts say, is the lack of cohesion and unity among teachers across the country. Teachers as a profession, says Brownstein, are not good at publicity.
"What we in education do well is conduct research, change our curriculum, adapt to what schools want. What we don't do well is public relations. We don't educate the public. We don't help people understand all the changes that have occurred in education," she says.
Saultz agrees: "There needs to be cohesion among teachers as a way of identifying the value that they add and articulating that to society."
The thinking goes that, because there is a vacuum of information among teachers, the opportunity is open to policymakers, politicians and anyone with a microphone to offer the latest criticism-and the newest, best solution to the nation's education woes.
Kretovics says the public discussion about education changed in 1979, when the Carter administration created the federal Department of Education. "It became highly politicized," Kretovics says. "And it is a hot potato. Right now, with an election year, everybody's got a solution. The reality of it is, there are no simple solutions. Every school, every district has a unique situation, and unfortunately, politicians like to have a one-size-fits-all solution. We make blanket assumptions that we would not expect in any other industry. We don't appreciate the diversity of education, and that's unfortunate."
There is no shortage of private money being thrown at the "problems" and "challenges" of education. The Gates Foundation funds initiatives for college-ready education and access to postsecondary education, whether at four-year institutions or professional certification programs. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla have given a combined $220 million to schools in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Newark, New Jersey. The money that went to Newark during former mayor Corey Booker's tenure has, critics say, failed to produce any improvements in student achievement. Instead, millions have been paid for consultants, and the district has been embroiled in political change and infighting.
"While everybody would like more money, one of the things we need is to quit changing the rules every year. Think about it: Every time we have a change in the political landscape, the rules for teachers get changed. It's hard to go three or four years without a structural change. Most change theorists would agree that's too short a time to see if there's any impact [from a given policy]," Kretovics says. "Since we've had a lot of political involvement, we've seen our national and international scores either stagnate or decline. My view of it is we've tried to implement too many changes without fully understanding what any of them do, and then we cannot disaggregate our outcomes. You've got politicians, not researchers, looking at this. They want whatever's going to sound good."
To Saultz and others, it's folly to think politics could be extricated from education in America. Instead, they say, changing the nation's perception of educators-and, along with it, the chances that the profession will continue to inspire new teachers-must come from within ranks.
"I don't think you can take the politics out of education, because it's such an important part of the fabric of society," Saultz says. "Instead, I would advocate for political leadership that works to uphold teaching, to inspire. I feel like we have a bipartisan consensus that is looking for ways to find bad teachers. I don't find as many people applauding the teachers who have been in the classroom, who are serving as mentors. People are using education to their own benefit. I wonder if, instead, they talked about education as what we should prioritize, what good political leadership could do."Wanted: Teachers
Think you want to teach first graders, or maybe high school English? Ohio colleges and universities are encouraging education majors to consider spending their careers in one of these other fields, all of which are experiencing teacher shortages and are in high demand:Agriscience Physical education Family and consumer science Spanish and other foreign languages STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math Business education Special education, including teaching visually and hearing-impaired students, gifted students and students with intellectual disabilities ranging from mild to intensive
Source: Erica Brownstein, College of Education and Human Ecology, Ohio State University