Q& A: Scholar Finds Teaching’s Appeal Limited in Blue-Collar Town

March 20, 1991 4 min read

To test a theory that teaching is the route to white-collar professions for youths in declining blue-collar communities, two researchers from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, examined high-school graduates in Clairton, Pa., where the closing of the usx steel mill in 1982 drove the unemployment rate as high as 50 percent.

Surveying the 71 students who graduated from Clairton’s public and parochial schools in May 1990--less than half of the 167 who were 1st graders in 1978-79--Edgar V. Epperly, an education professor, and Kenneth A. Root, a sociologist, found that, in fact, teaching was not the career of choice for the youths.

Mr. Epperly, who presented his findings this month at the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, spoke about his study with staff writer Karen Diegmueller.

Q. You theorized that these students might find teaching an appealing alternative, as have previous generations of blue-collar workers seeking entree into the professions. Did your thesis hold up?

A. No. Very few of them expressed an interest; only one actually said they thought they would be a teacher. A majority, 56 percent, said they planned on going to college. It looked to us like they were recognizing the reality that the old route of going down the hill to the mill was blocked, and so they were realizing we need more education, but teaching itself didn’t seem to appeal to them.

Q. What did they want to do?

A. Nursing was probably the most popular, which we suspect relates to the relative [local] availability of nursing education. There were some who talked about things like accounting or business. There wasn’t any clear dramatic group.

They’re probably pretty confused. Even though they said they were going to go to college, they didn’t give any evidence ... that they really wanted to do that. They said that they didn’t think college was important, and their friends weren’t pushing them to go to college, their parents weren’t pushing them, the school wasn’t pushing them. They feel trapped into it, kind of a forced choice.

Q. What does your study say, then, about breaking this historical relationship between first-generation college entrants and teaching? Will we continue to have difficulty recruiting from these traditional sources?

A. It’s a hard question to answer, but that is one of the areas we are going to continue to look at.

What we are really saying in the study is that these youngsters’ vision of their educational possibilities needs to be raised beyond high school. Starting out, their performance on both standardized-achievement and standardized-aptitude tests was very typical. We infer that, given normal progress, a substantial number of those kids would do well in school, could aspire to professional and college training.

Disadvantaged, lower-class, lower-socioeconomic youngsters have difficulty in middle-class schools, and ours did, too. So their prognosis for college success didn’t seem to be particularly good, even though they felt they needed it. Somehow it seems to us you have to intervene early. You don’t really have to change the kids; you have to change society in some fashion.

Q. What needs to be done to make teaching an attractive prospect?

A. The model we tend to be inclined toward--and certainly it’s not the only model--would be to have a kind of cross-age fertilization so that the high-school students who are interested in or are at least exploring education would work with younger kids.

We think that would accomplish two things. One, it would acquaint them with somewhat of the reality of teaching. They would have a hands-on experience somewhat early in their potential career. Second, it would serve as a role model for the very young children who haven’t thought about teaching. Now they start to see people that they know and look up to and respect ...

Related to that, it does seem that most of these youngsters are financially severely strapped. They also are probably oriented toward immediate real events in their life.

The possibility of getting them to go away to the state university may not be so good. But if they could as a graduate get a job working for the school system as a teacher aide under a supportive program and maybe take their first college course in some kind of extension or junior-college setting where they were doing work in the school, getting paid for it so they had re6spect associated with salary and a real job, [college might be viewed as] an extension of the high school.

Q. The students who said they wanted to go to college performed relatively poorly in school. Furthermore, their attitudes about the importance of college and education seem to make them poor candidates to imbue the love of learning in children. Why, then, would we want these less-than-stellar students to be teachers?

A. If I was confident that those were accurate measures, I [would] think that’s a very valid objection. We need talented people to be teachers. In fact, that’s been one of our real problems: our willingness to just fill the classrooms.

That’s why I keep going back to their relatively successful performance when they were younger. I don’t see anything in their early record that suggests they don’t have the whole range of potential that we see in any school. So the fact that they are performing poorly as high-school students is, I think, a function of the disordered environment they have been forced to grow up in.

Given specialized programs, given specialized efforts, we could see that potential that was there when they were younger blossom, and they would meet these kinds of minimums we want to have for all our teachers.

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as Q& A: Scholar Finds Teaching’s Appeal Limited in Blue-Collar Town