Teachers Wanted

It should have been a season of hopeful beginnings, but for Jill and Larry Jackson of Conyers, Ga., the opening of school this fall has meant only anger and frustration. Their 11-year-old son, Nicholas, is in a sixth-grade special-ed class taught by an assistant and a substitute. The regular teacher quit after three weeks of school, and the class of 13 is out of control. "We can move Nicholas to a special-ed class in another school that has just five kids," says Jill, "but that teacher is leaving in December. I phoned the district, and they told me that they have five special-ed positions to fill. And I asked them if they think they'll have a certified special-ed teacher in that class by December, and they said, 'That's the least of our problems right now.' And I said, 'Well, it's the biggest problem in my life right now'."

The teacher shortage is a big problem all across the country, as schools scramble to fill vacancies. Hardest hit are cities and the fast-growing South and West. At the top of just about every educator's wish list: more math, science and technology teachers to replace those lured away by private industry in a booming economy. There's even a shortage of substitutes, says Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "We've lost not only our pitchers," he says, "but also our relief pitchers and the entire bench."

And it could get worse. The Department of Education predicts that the nation will need more than a million new teachers by 2010, nearly half the current force of 2.6 million in elementary and secondary schools. Many of them will be replacing the generation of veterans, now in their late 40s and 50s, who are expected to retire in the next decade. At the same time, the demand for smaller classes means a number of districts will have to expand their staffs beyond current numbers.

Where will all these teachers come from? The simple answer is everywhere--and that in itself is a kind of revolution. Established teachers colleges with courses in pedagogy are no longer the only route; half of their graduates never even set foot in a school. To fill the void, districts around the country are opening their doors to everyone from idealistic career-switchers to immigrants from Europe, Africa and Asia with hard-to-find math and science expertise. As the vacancies add up, teachers' unions have lowered their resistance to widening the pool. Some educators think the crisis is just the jolt public education has long needed to upgrade the profession. Teachers are the heart of schools, the single most important factor in a student's success. "If it wasn't for the pressure the market is playing, we'd be doing the same ole same ole," says Carlos Ponce, personnel director for Chicago schools.

While some worry that the shortage will produce an uneven and inexperienced generation of teachers, Ponce and others think it's an opportunity to rewrite the resume for the perfect teacher. What we need above all, many say, is educators who have a deep understanding of the subjects they're teaching so they can help students meet higher standards. A teacher should also be up on the latest research on how kids' minds work, understand how to use technology and be comfortable working with students from many different ethnic and economic backgrounds.

Pay is going up all over the country, and both presidential candidates have proposed spending billions to attract new teachers. Vice President Al Gore would earmark $16 billion for recruiting a million teachers in the next 10 years, while Gov. George W. Bush wants to spend $5.3 billion, much of it for teacher training. Still, it won't be easy to attract and keep these people. That's why hard-pressed districts are already coming up with new incentives--everything from offers of low-interest mortgages to college-loan reimbursement. In high-priced Silicon Valley, schools are even building affordable housing to lure new teachers. These perks cost money but are a good investment for taxpaying parents. Many studies have shown that kids learn best in schools where teachers feel respected and connected to their colleagues and the community. Parents can also help by getting involved in their school, making sure teachers have the support they need--or even thinking about a career change themselves.

Given the right encouragement, it's amazing who will show up on the school doorstep. This spring, New York City--the nation's largest public-school district--solicited midcareer professionals for its Teaching Fellows program, an experiment to bring fresh troops to needy schools. By the July 15 deadline, surprised city officials had more than 2,300 applications, although salaries were only in the mid-$30,000s. After a monthlong summer training session, the 325 chosen for the first class began working in the city's lowest-performing classrooms. (They'll also enroll in an accelerated master's degree program.) They included lawyers, doctors, at-home mothers, a retired judge and a 29-year-old musician named Rassan Salandy, who's doing his best to bring some harmony to his class of 30 fifth graders at Mother Hale Academy in the Bronx. The first day, he says, he was "terrified." His lesson plans went out the window. "I created this elaborate document," he says, "but once things started, I didn't use a word of it." But Salandy has also learned a few tricks. The other day, he kept some boys in during recess because they'd been acting up in class. The boys complained. "I looked them in the eye and said, 'If you really think you deserve recess and you're innocent, you can go.' The boys paused and then said, 'No, Mr. Salandy, we shouldn't have recess'. "

Some cities have taken a few tips from the way private industry recruits. Houston offers signing bonuses and stipends for teachers in highest demand. Bilingual teachers, the most difficult to find and hire, get $3,000 when they sign up. Teachers also get a wide variety of discounts at local businesses like auto-repair shops and dry cleaners. Urban districts have started scouting way beyond their borders, as well. In December the Chicago schools, desperate for math and science teachers, launched their Global Educators Outreach program, which has brought in 44 new hires from as far away as India, Colombia and the Philippines (the school board sponsors work visas, which are good for up to six years). Most were teaching at the college level in their home countries, says Gery Chico, president of the city's Board of Education and the brains behind the plan.

Among the first to apply were Nigerian scientists Joshua and Sussan Oladipo, who recently moved to Chicago with their two young children. Now Joshua, 36, is teaching physics and earth science to 11th and 12th graders and Sussan, 35, teaches chemistry. The cultural differences have been eye-opening. The Oladipos say capturing pupils' attention is easier in Nigeria, even though the classes are much larger. "Most of the students here are interested in football and music," Joshua says. In an effort to capitalize on that, he has them write rap lyrics about velocity and other properties of physics. Sussan says that despite the dislocation, she's happy with the big move. No matter where she teaches, she says, "it is the same satisfaction. I am doing what I like to do best."

Keeping teachers like Salandy and the Oladipos will take as much creativity as it did to hire them. "We have good people coming in," says Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, "but we lose almost 50 percent in the first five years." Money is a key reason. "If someone lasts four to five years," Feldman says, "they see that they can teach, but they can't support themselves or their families." Even with higher salaries, Feldman and others say teachers also need to be treated more like other professionals and less like glorified babysitters. "Schools need to become more like dot-com outfits," she says, "where people sit around and brainstorm and figure out what to do next." Smaller schools would also give teachers a chance to have more of an impact on their kids--a major draw for many. "Schools have to be interesting places for adults, as well as children," says Deborah Meier, a prominent education reformer who runs a charter school in Boston. "Teaching may be good for the soul. It may be God's work. But if it doesn't provide stimulation and opportunities to know kids well and give you a sense of nurturing, it won't be enough."

Teachers also say they need to know how to do their job better if they're going to stay in the profession. More than 12 percent of all newly hired teachers enter classrooms without any training, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. And poorly trained teachers are the most likely to leave, creating a revolving door in the worst-performing schools.

While more training is being done on the job, some will have to come from traditional teacher programs, which are reassessing their mission. For decades, most of these revolved around lectures and classroom work to the almost complete exclusion of time in real classrooms. Art Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University, would like to see a greater emphasis on clinical training with apprentices and mentors, similar to the kind of experience new doctors get. With that approach, he says, "you graduate teachers who are far more ready for the classroom and more likely to stay in the field." He also thinks teacher education needs to be more multidisciplinary, incorporating new research in brain development, for example.

Another important reform, many experts say, would be to create a kind of career ladder for teachers that keeps them in the classroom without making them feel stuck. "Teaching is the only job where people who are just beginning are expected to do the same thing as people who have been doing this 25 years," says Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union. He and others advocate programs that reward experience, advanced skills or additional degrees.

More and more communities seem to be getting that message. In their State of the State speeches this year, nearly half of the nation's governors homed in on the need for professional development. North Carolina, for one, has been a leader in encouraging teachers to go for the next level and earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a nonprofit group whose exam requires that teachers show mastery of their subject and skill in the classroom (only about 5,000 teachers have taken the test so far). The state gives teachers the equivalent of three days off to study for the exam, pays the test fee and forks over $10,000 if they pass, along with a pay hike. Now six other states--California, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oregon and South Carolina--are following suit.

But some educators worry that these well-meaning efforts won't be enough and that in the rush to get the right quantity of warm bodies into the classroom, districts will sacrifice quality. "The danger," says Levine of Teachers College, "is, we're going to have the highest standards in the world for teachers, but many children will be in classrooms with uncertified teachers." That's already the case for up to 12 percent of California's classrooms, because of the state's mandate to lower class size. "The problem is getting worse, not better," says Doug Stone, a spokesman for the state department of education. "This is not a shortage. This is a crisis. We are literally attacking it as if we were in round-the-clock combat."

On the front lines in that war are teachers like Nanette Terrenal. She's overworked and underpaid and refuses to give up on her fifth graders at Arlington Heights School--despite its distinction as one of Los Angeles's 100 worst schools. At 46, she's starting teaching after 18 years in the fashion industry. She took her first graduate education course in the spring of 1998 and a year later signed up to be a substitute. She hasn't stopped working since, although her credits still don't meet the state's minimum for teachers.

Working in a struggling school is much harder than she expected. "I had children who could not read and children who could not write," she says. "You have language and cultural issues to deal with as well. It requires you to use every last resource available to you." Not surprisingly, the school has a high turnover rate and a large number of beginning teachers. One is a former actor; another was in personnel management. "They are people like me who have 'been there, done that' and now want to do something that makes them proud to look in the mirror," she says. Like many teachers, Terrenal buys many of her own supplies. She arrives every morning at 7 and doesn't leave until 5--and she isn't the only teacher still in the building three hours after school has ended. All this for the underwhelming salary of $32,400. She's honest about her current abilities. "Am I a good teacher now? No. But I'm gonna be. I'm gonna be a great teacher!" She hopes to have a full teaching credential next Spring, and a doctorate in education five years from now. What keeps her going? "When I get a kid who's struggling not to drown in a life that's harder than any 10-year-old should have to endure, and he tells me he's really going to try hard on his homework, yeah, I'm happy. That's what I'm here for." Five days a week, 180 days a year--and they're lucky to have her.

Join the Discussion