Monday, March 27, 2006

Math Monday: Why One Math Teacher Quit The Classroom

There is a critical nationwide shortage of qualified math and science teachers. Veteran Utah math teacher Jonathan Lawes explains why he quit the job he "loved." Even though Lawes speaks of conditions in Utah, I believe that he echoes the sentiments of many working teachers throughout the country:
Occasionally there comes a time when one is in a position to speak up and shed light on an issue of great importance. I express my opinion here only because I know I speak for many others who remain silent. Education is the most important issue facing our state and our nation. However, education is suffering, badly.

The main reason is that high-quality people are not being drawn into the profession. Utah schools benefit from many dedicated, passionate and knowledgeable teachers. There just aren't enough of them. Moreover, those in power, especially in the state Legislature, are not doing enough to attract and retain high-quality teachers.

I taught for 12 years in Jordan School District. I have a bachelor's degree in math and two master's degrees, one in educational counseling and one in math. I have taught every secondary math course from the most basic remediation courses to the most advanced courses.

During each of the past three years I taught an Advanced Placement calculus BC course at Bingham High. This course is the equivalent of the first full year of college calculus. Of the 95 calculus students I taught, 94 of them took the AP exam. Ninety-two of them passed and 56 of them earned the highest score possible. My results were not unique, nor is what happened next.

I took a leave of absence last summer when a friend offered me a position at a small, but honest, mortgage company in Draper. Why did I leave a career that I loved? Money. I love teaching math. I love helping students get started on the path to success. I really love helping students learn that they are capable of doing something they thought was impossible. But love doesn't pay bills.

The situation is worse for beginning teachers, and it's getting more difficult for them to live on what they are paid. The starting salary for a teacher in Jordan School District in 1990 was about $17,500; in 2005, it was $26,382, a 51 percent increase. By comparison, the median home price in Salt Lake County in 1990 was $88,000; in 2005, it was $183,300, a 108 percent increase. Using standard underwriting guidelines, a starting teacher today would barely be able to afford a $100,000 home.

Educators should be paid a salary that attracts the most skilled and most talented individuals to the classroom. The selection process for teachers should be competitive and exclusive. There is a cliché: "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." This idea seems to have taken a strong foothold in Utah.

There are many who believe that because they can teach a church class on Sunday, they could teach chemistry to juniors or adjectives to fifth-graders.

Everyone can remember two or three teachers they loved - teachers who excelled and expected their students to excel. Imagine an education system in which every graduating senior had 40 outstanding teachers whom they loved instead of just two or three. That would truly be a world-class education. But this will not happen until the teaching profession and salaries are raised to a level that will attract and retain high-caliber teachers.

I'll be the first to admit there are some teachers, both new and experienced, who have no business being in a classroom. It's a shame. Due process should be followed to get rid of such teachers. But who will fill the vacancy?

I had the opportunity to teach the "cream of the crop." When I asked my students if any of them wanted to become teachers, most just laughed. It's a cruel irony that the best and the brightest of today will not consider a career in education to help the best and brightest of tomorrow.

I'd like to think that I did my part for 12 years. I have resigned my position as a teacher and now I use my skills in a job I enjoy, but that also makes it easier to pay the bills and secure a solid future for my family. The future of education seems more problematic.

The problems could be solved by knowledgeable, passionate, caring teachers. Great teachers should be the rule rather than the exception, but you have to pay them what they're worth.
The school district in which I am employed is located here in California's rural "Imperial" Valley. During the past five years, the purchase price of even a smallish "starter home" has more than doubled and now costs approximately $150,000. The standard 3 bedroom-2 bath-2 car garage house is $250,000 or more.

The price of everything from gasoline to groceries to electricity continues to inexorably rise.

During that same five years, teachers in our school district have received no increase in take-home pay. In fact, due to rapidly-rising health insurance premiums, teachers who have more than 12 years classroom service (such as myself) are actually bringing home less than we did during the 2001/2002 school year.

At this point, I don't think that I would urge any talented young person to enter the classroom. With stagnant (or even declining) pay and ever-increasing performance expectations, public school teaching just doesn't seem to offer much in the way of long-term job-satisfaction.

When it comes to choosing a career, our best and brightest college graduates have choices. If large numbers of them are to be attracted to the classroom, then something must be done to make teaching more attractive.

And in our consumer-oriented society where one's status is largely determined by the size of one's paycheck, I just don't see significant salary increases in the near-future for most public school teachers. Therefore, I don't see the status of classroom teachers improving in the foreseeable future.

As for promotion, the old saying "it's not what you know but who you know," is oftentimes true in a great many school districts. Sadly, there is little or no chance of advancement based upon merit as well-entrenched superintendents frequently distribute administrative positions like so much Halloween candy to their political/personal cronies.

All of this adds-up to the sad fact that a large percentage of talented young people will not even consider public education as a career choice. There are just too many more attractive options out there.

So I believe that it is probable that the shortage of truly well-qualified teachers in all subject areas will continue and even worsen.

And that's a shame, because every child deserves to be taught by a great teacher.
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