Most education experts believe that we are in the throes of a national teacher shortage. There is no lack of opinion on the primary cause.
Some point to a decade-long, weakened economy that has led to unprecedented teacher lay-offs, causing potential applicants to shy away from teaching over job security concerns. Others believe that the shortage is being driven by a strengthening job market with more options to enter higher paying professions. Female students, who traditionally made up the majority of the teaching force, are being heavily recruited to enter the once male-dominated professions of engineering and technology.
Increased certification requirements may also be having unintended consequences, along with concerns about the classroom climate. There is a simmering negative perception of the current classroom environment being fueled by news reports about school and classroom violence, the lack of respect shown to teachers, and the political debate over such reforms as Common Core and standardized "high-stakes" testing. In survey after survey, teachers express frustration about losing opportunities to be creative in their classrooms and decry ever-changing policies made by non-educators who haven't set foot in a classroom in decades.
Whatever the underlying reasons, the fact remains that teachers are leaving the profession and the number of students enrolling in teacher preparation programs is dramatically declining. In Maryland, between 2012 and 2014, 2,500 fewer students enrolled in teacher preparation programs. During the same time frame, pre-K through 12 education gained nearly 30,000 more students.
States are rushing to adopt emergency remedies. Teaching certificates are being issued to college graduates with no education coursework, no student teaching experience and no expectation that these requirements ever be met. States are looking to retention bonuses and incentives to stem the "bleeding" of teachers out of the profession. Others are hoping to attract students through scholarships and student loan forgiveness programs. These remedies may provide short-term relief, but we must still answer the question of why fewer and fewer college students see teaching as a desirable career path.
For the last several years, it has been my privilege to serve as the Presidential Scholar at Towson University. I am fortunate that I get to interact with Towson's talented students and faculty on a daily basis. As we discuss career aspirations, I am dismayed that fewer and fewer millennials express an interest in teaching. Towson's outstanding College of Health Professions now registers the largest contingent of students, surpassing its College of Education.
In the 2014 Harris Poll on "the most prestigious occupations in America," teaching was edged out of the top 10 by athletes. Doctors, military officers, firefighters, scientists and nurses were seen as the top five most prestigious occupations. More telling, 73 percent of people over 69 years of age held teaching in high esteem, while only 57 percent of millennials (ages 18-37) had a favorable impression of the teaching profession.
In those countries where elders are venerated for their knowledge and life experiences, teachers are still admired and revered. By contrast, in Western society which has moved toward a more "youth-centric culture," the role of the teacher is not afforded the same level of respect. If states are serious about attracting new teachers, they must develop marketing strategies that appeal to millennials, who embrace opportunities to change the world around them. Teachers must be portrayed as creative, empowered change-agents that transform young lives.
We must seek out and accept only the highest achievers for entry into our teacher preparation programs. Teaching cannot be the default program for those who are not accepted into other majors. Nor should it be a "stop-gap" along another career trajectory because it looks good on a resume.
Some teacher preparation programs have been mired in a bygone era for too long. We need to actually give new teachers the tools to make them want to stay in the classroom and to be effective. Far too often new teachers tell us that they want to better engage students with disabilities and English language learners, but they just don't know how to do it effectively. Teacher preparation programs must train students to manage the classroom — the No. 1 source of frustration for new teachers. Maryland's Kennedy Krieger Institute is world renowned for its research in how students learn; our colleges and universities should embrace this research and train students in the neuroscience of learning.
It is time for Marylanders to answer this call to action. Let us acknowledge that teachers make all other professions possible and work collectively to elevate the teaching profession and teachers to heights they richly deserve.