When I decided to become a special education teacher, I could not help but sense others’ disappointment: “A teacher? But you’re so smart!” They didn’t sway my decision, but I can’t count how many times I’ve been advised to pursue other fields, even from teachers themselves.
While it seems strange that so many would disapprove, it’s an example of one of the biggest hurdles to improving the state of education: the failure to recruit high-achieving individuals into teaching.
In kindergarten, almost everyone wants to grow up and be a teacher or doctor. However, at some point this changes, because I know more people at my university who take the MCAT than student teach—though I am aware that this is not representative of the overall trend. Even within my education major, about half of my classmates are pursuing something outside of teaching. At Vanderbilt, where I will be a junior this fall, we have highly regarded schools of medicine as well as education. Although both schools lead to important careers, teaching is often overlooked. Based on my experience, it seems many of the smartest people with the most potential don’t consider becoming teachers. Our acceptance of this fact—whether conscious or not—perpetuates the problem.
According to a 2010 report, the “U.S. attracts most of its teachers from the bottom two-thirds of college classes, with nearly half coming from the bottom third.” The meager representation from the highest achieving group is appalling—there must be enough effective teachers to have one in every classroom.
One explanation for the lack of interest in teaching could be what was found in the 2011 MetLife survey: the lowest teacher job satisfaction rate in two decades. To compound the problem, it is predicted that a third of the nation’s teachers from 2009 could retire by next year, according to a New York Times article. With so many veteran teachers reaching retirement, it is likely the country will experience a shortage, potentially forcing schools to hire less effective educators.
Convincing high-achieving college students to consider teaching must be a top priority. However, if nothing is done to improve teacher job satisfaction, students will continue to ignore teaching. Increasing teacher appreciation, raising the standard of teachers, increasing professional development, and increasing teacher recruitment are all possible solutions.
A conscious effort by districts and schools to appreciate teachers is a first step. Increased salary is one way to demonstrate appreciation, but small gifts or encouraging words from principals could also be effective. A recent report offering suggestions for strengthening the profession recommends raising expectations of teacher performance and student learning because teachers are more likely to stay at schools dedicated to success. With the report, the authors hope to erase “the dangerous message that great teachers are expendable and that anyone can make a career out of teaching, regardless of how well they perform.”
Enhanced professional development has potential to increase teacher satisfaction as well as student achievement. An encouraging step has been the new teacher evaluation system that is based in part on student achievement and value-added measures, providing the necessary information to target support for low performing teachers. Also encouraging is the group of exceptional Tennessee teachers named as Common Core coaches who were trained in the new standards to help other teachers in their implementation. Improving the system of teacher mentoring is another important change. Pairing a new teacher with a veteran provides invaluable support, which could also decrease turnover.
Recruiting teachers should begin in high school and college. A group of high-quality teachers speaking at high schools and recruiters attending college job fairs would serve to remind young adults that teaching is a rewarding, important, and accessible career.
While there are steps being taken to improve the profession, a more dedicated effort is needed. We don’t accept the status quo for the academic success of our children, so why should we accept it for the quality of their teachers? When the most intelligent and innovative people teach, remarkable academic outcomes are possible for their students.