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Published in Print: April 1, 1999, as No Thanks

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A college senior explains why she and her friends aren't likely to become teachers.

I never appreciated the anxiety of finding a job after graduation until I returned to college last September for my senior year. Late-night bull sessions that used to revolve around classes or upcoming vacations are now all about life after college.

Teaching often comes up in these conversations, as many of my friends want both to help people and to be intellectually challenged. The more we talk, though, it becomes clear that few of us will teach, and even fewer will end up in public schools.

Admittedly, low salaries deter some of us from the profession. But what discourages us most are the restrictive paths to the classroom and the poor reputation of schools of education--and, as a result, of teaching itself.

Seth Pollack, one of my friends and classmates at Haverford College, has decided he wants to teach. But because he does not have an undergraduate degree in education or a teaching certification, his options are limited. He knows he could go to an education school for a master's degree, but like many other students here, he believes that these programs are a waste of time. The recent failure of aspiring teachers in Massachusetts to pass basic-skills exams simply proves the point, he argues.

It is the certification process, then, and not a lack of interest that steers us away from teaching. Education programs-and this is particularly true of undergraduate courses-focus on theory, leaving many graduates unprepared to face a room full of kids every day, let alone guide them through diagramming a sentence. Carrie Van Wyk, a recent graduate of Penn State's education program, told me that not only was she badgered by classmates for choosing an "easy" major, but that in four years, she had had only one opportunity to student teach.

Haverford and other colleges have certification programs that provide students with both a teaching certificate and a degree in their chosen discipline. But to complete Haverford's program in four years, students have to commit to it by the end of their sophomore year. Aimee Brown, an English major, completed the program, but she knew before she came to college that she wanted to teach in public schools. Fulfilling the requirements was difficult, even for someone as focused as Aimee: She had to organize her own independent classes in the department and spend summers completing coursework.

Not surprisingly, the majority of my friends who want to teach will wind up in private schools. Though private schools tend to pay less than public schools, they don't require teachers to be certified, and they aggressively recruit on college campuses. It is almost too easy to find a job at a private or independent school, says Marjorie Merklin, adviser to Haverford's education program. "As a result, even certified students go to private schools."

But for some of my friends, private schools do not offer enough challenge or diversity. These friends are turning to alternatives such as Teach for America, which places recent college graduates in some of the most underfunded school districts in the country for two-year stints. This backdoor route into the public schools has proved extremely popular among liberal arts students—3,000 people apply for 500 TFA slots each year. Last year, the program accepted six Haverford seniors, and this year many of my friends are applying-and not just because they would rather spend five weeks in TFA's required training than two years getting a master's degree. Several of them are drawn by the prestige of the highly competitive program, as well as the continuing classroom support that it provides to young teachers.

That has meant a lot to Rishi Bhandari, a graduate of Vassar College, who completed his first year in a Baltimore public school under Teach for America. Older teachers and administrators offer little help to new teachers in public schools, he says, but from Teach for America, "we can expect support." And though Rishi admits that his summer training in Houston did not prepare him well for the classroom, he didn't find himself at a greater disadvantage than teachers who had come through traditional education programs.

'The notion of throwing people into teaching is foolish,' says one critic of Teach for America.

The very aspects that make this program appealing to people like Rishi draw criticism from some educators. "The notion of throwing people into teaching is foolish," says Bil Johnson, clinical professor of history at Brown University. "It is a rare individual [who] knows how to teach," he says, labeling Teach for America "hideously elitist."

Elitist or not, there are a few state and local programs similar to Teach for America. New Jersey created an alternative certification program in 1984 that places liberal arts grads in schools if they pass a test on the subject they plan to teach. Each new teacher is trained by a veteran teacher throughout the first year and attends after-hours classes on education theory. These "alternate routers" do well in the classroom and don't seem to suffer from inadequate preparation, says Ellen Schech ter, who runs the program for the New Jersey Board of Education.

The number of liberal arts graduates who have joined the New Jersey program has nearly doubled over the past five years—713 entered schools last fall. "If you only allowed education majors to be teachers," Schechter points out, "it is a very narrow pool." Unlike states that have resorted to emergency placement to fill classrooms, New Jersey is not facing any teacher shortage-a fact that Schechter attributes to the state's program. The alternate routers have a significantly lower attrition rate than traditionally certified teachers during the first year in the classroom, she says, and over time they have proved to be just as likely to stay in the field.

I'm convinced that if more states had programs like New Jersey's, and if universities offered stronger curriculums in education, more students-including many of my friends at Haverford-would become teachers at public schools. If that were the case, my friends and I would be staying up late talking about where and what we plan to teach.

Vol. 10, Issue 7, Pages 48-49

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