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Revealing rewards of teaching

THE UNITED States Department of Education estimates that 2.2 million elementary and secondary teachers will need to be hired in the next decade. The need for teachers exists because of increased student enrollment, high teacher retirement rates, and smaller classes in the primary grades. Many school districts already are experiencing difficulty in hiring qualified teachers, spurring the districts to offer such incentives as signing bonuses, reduced mortgage and car loan rates, and pay supplements.

As states develop higher standards for what students are expected to know and be able to do, policymakers are recognizing that quality teaching is the single most important ingredient in helping children to meet these high learning expectations. The Education Trust, an organization created to promote high academic achievement for all students, kindergarten through college, concluded in a recent report that "the difference between a good and a bad teacher can be a full [grade] level of [student] achievement in a single school year."

Good teachers are increasingly seen as the missing element in the drive to raise academic standards in K-12 schools. States can raise standards for children and youth, but if they don't have good teachers, students won't make progress toward achieving these high academic standards. Parents always have known that who teaches their children matters a great deal. Good teaching does make a difference.

So why is the United States experiencing this shortage of well-qualified teachers? There are a number of reasons why more bright people choose not to enter teaching, including: inadequate pay, poor working conditions in the schools, increased number of children with learning deficiencies as a result of poverty and other societal ills, lack of public respect for the work teachers do, higher standards for licensing teachers, and availability of other job opportunities with high pay and prestige.

Yet, in spite of these negative inducements, some of our brightest and best students are choosing to teach in the elementary and secondary schools. For example, teacher education students in the Curry School include numerous Echols Scholars, Phi Beta Kappans and many members of leadership organizations at the University. These bright leaders have chosen teaching primarily for the intrinsic rewards that it brings.

The attraction of working with students, with the daily contacts, the conversations and intellectual exchanges, and even the struggles to motivate a student provide deep satisfaction for many teachers. Seeing children learn, grow and develop -- seeing them able to do things that they were unable to do at the beginning of the school year -- is a genuinely fulfilling experience.

Some choose teaching because of their love of a particular subject matter and their desire to instill a similar love in young people. Almost everyone can name a particular teacher who made a positive difference in his life by igniting in him a passion for English or biology, or for nurturing him during a particularly trying time in his life.

For many teachers, knowing that they are doing important work for the good of society provides the greatest satisfaction. Teachers have flesh-and-blood reminders of the importance of their service directly in front of them. For some teachers the deeper motive is a religious one; they see teaching as a way to serve God through service to the young.

Since teaching essentially is a craft devoted to the development of the intellect, recruiting people who are smart, as well as caring, should be a high priority. Recruitment, however, is not the only answer to the teacher shortage. Retaining good teachers is also important. Teacher education programs must be improved to better prepare teachers for the jobs expected of them. The five-year program in the Curry School of Education often is cited nationally as a model for teacher preparation. Creating better induction and support systems for beginning teachers, and developing professional working conditions that provide incentives for continual learning are important elements for keeping good teachers. By improving teacher preparation and school working conditions, prospective teachers will be better prepared, will derive greater satisfaction from their jobs as teachers, and will be more likely to stay in teaching.

I am reminded of the conversational exchange that occurs in Robert Bolt's play, "A Man for All Seasons," between Sir Thomas More and Richard Rich, after Rich asks More for guidance in selecting a career.

More: Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher. Perhaps a great one.

Rich: And if I were, who would know it?

More: You, your pupils, your friends, God -- not a bad public, that.

For those readers who might be thinking of teaching, I urge you to give it serious consideration. Our nation and our children need bright people who are less motivated by money and status, and more motivated by love of children, love of subject matter, and who want to make a most important contribution to society. The intrinsic rewards and satisfactions of teaching are great.

(James M. Cooper is a Commonwealth Professor of Education in the Curry School.)


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