Thursday, November 6, 2014

New teachers face a hostile environment

Posted By on Thu, Nov 6, 2014 at 1:11 PM

Out of the roughly 150 people who attended a community forum last night called “Why Would Anybody Want to be a Teacher Today?” more than half were students from area colleges preparing to enter the tumultuous world of public education.

The forum was put on by Writers & Books and partners. 

The data on new teachers and enrollment in college teaching programs is sobering. There is a sharp decline in the number of students who want to go into the field. In California, for example, enrollment in college teaching programs has dropped by more than half over the last five years.

And many students who make their way into the field don’t last beyond five years. The result is a national teaching force that is increasingly new to the field and less experienced in the classroom. 

Organizers of the event, one of a series of education-related programs, cited a survey by Metlife measuring job satisfaction. It indicated a 15 point drop in satisfaction among teachers since 2009. Two-thirds of teachers reported seeing layoffs in their school during the last year and 34 percent said that they feel insecure in a field that was once known for its employment stability.

Students and more experienced teachers at last night’s event cited multiple reasons for the trends: too much testing, union busting and pressure to eliminate tenure, societal ills that have fallen on teachers to manage in the classroom, and a general societal resistance to address growing poverty and income inequality in the US.

The negative influence of corporations and wealthy individuals who seek to privatize public education and a general mistrust of government are also factors.

But the central question, “Why become a teacher?” illustrates a core difference between those who promote education reform and those who are against it. Many people last night described teaching as a calling. Teachers need to be nurturers and love their students, some said. And the ability to help people better their own lives, as well as equip them to address world problems is a noble cause.

But reformers frequently see teaching through a different lens. They often describe teaching in consumer marketing terms: achievement, competition, and performance values. They often cite the per student costs of education compared to tangible results, and they defend practices that try to offer incentives for those results, such as merit pay for teachers.

Some people at last night's meeting talked about mounting some kind of state and national push-back on the reform movement. But one rather timely question that wasn’t asked: How many people in the room voted during Tuesday night’s election?

The answer would have been insightful. Though it’s hard not to appreciate the idealism many expressed last night, teachers are caught in a difficult position. Longtime alliances with Democrats are less fruitful. It’s been at the behest of a Democratic president and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that reformers have received some of their most ardent support.

Before changing the world, many of these young teachers will have to change the politics of education. Changing the world might be easier.

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