The new breed of teachers: Fewer choose education careers, but those who do have passion, dedication


NORTH ADAMS -- Public school teachers today face challenges and pressures almost unknown a generation ago. Mandatory, standardized student testing, onerous performance evaluations, stagnant school budgets, flat-lining pay and employment levels are among the suspects behind a trend of fewer college students considering teaching as a career.

But if the numbers have slipped, the idealism and enthusiasm for teaching remains as strong as ever, according to administrators at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

"We experience a high level of passion among our candidates who are choosing teaching as a profession, in that they see the great value and impact teachers have on the lives of their students," said Howard J. "Jake" Eberwein, dean of graduate and continuing education at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. "That said, there seems to be a nationwide trend of a decline in the number of students interested in teaching. We hear this from colleagues across the state and nation, and it has been true in the region as well."

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 6.1 percent of all students graduating college in 2010 had bachelor's degrees in education, compared with the 10.1 percent who held the same kind of degree in 1991 and 21 percent who held the same in 1971. There's been an approximately 11 percent slide in master's in education degree holders over the past four decades, with 26.3 percent of grad school candidates walking away an education degree in 2010 versus the 37.2 percent who earned a master's in education in 1971.

Still, "teaching remains a very viable career major," said Cynthia F. Brown, vice president of academic affairs at MCLA.

The requirements have "never been more rigorous than they are now, but what we want is people who are dedicated to the field. It is historic with us -- we started as a teaching school," she said.

The college that became MCLA opened in 1894 and for three decades was known as State Teachers College of North Adams.

The MCLA education department, which also offers advanced degree programs for teachers and administrators, has seven full-time faculty members and several part-time instructors, often teaching in specialized areas. This academic year at MCLA, there were 216 students enrolled in education programs, including 118 undergraduates and 98 graduate students.

Brown said the requirements for a teaching license in Massachusetts haven't changed significantly in recent years, but for more than a decade the course requirements, license testing and other aspects of becoming certified have made it an extremely challenging process.

In addition, she said, changes being discussed on the state level could add new requirements related to the Common Core curriculum standards and a new statewide educator evaluation model now being implemented.

Teaching candidates work with advisers early on to chart their coursework, Brown said, aiming for a degree in education and a second degree in English, math, a science, an interdisciplinary program or another subject. Those seeking a secondary school license will need a degree in their chosen subject.

The norm now is to complete a double-major and then do a semester of student teaching, which Brown said means students are "really motoring right through" their college years.

She said students maintain a rigorous schedule, especially when they student-teach, because it "gives them a good idea of what being a teacher is like. Teachers are people who work a lot of hours."

In addition, students must pass state Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure, or MTEL tests, in the areas in which they plan to teach. And they must have completed the required number of hours in a student teaching program, typically a minimum of 300 hours.

MCLA tailors some of its courses specifically to prepare teaching candidates for math or other testing they must pass, Brown said, and the department constantly adjusts its education curriculum to meet field standards.

Eberwein also acknowledged the work of faculty in developing specific math or other courses for teaching majors.

"We have also added courses in Sheltered English Immersion that help students understand how to differentiate curriculum and instruction for students for whom English is not the first language," he said.

Katherine Yon, a retired teacher who is chairwoman of the Pittsfield School Committee, said the critical period for a new teacher begins the moment they become responsible for a class of students on their own. That, she said, "is when they really experience it, on their own. It can be very challenging, and I think they still need a lot of support."

Student teachers typically have a period of observing established teachers and maybe working with one or more classes, Yon said, before practicing classroom instruction. During that semester, students work with a teacher, an adviser at the college and attend seminars at the college to discuss their experiences and progress.

Even after a first-year teacher is hired, having a mentor for two or three years can be a valuable asset, Yon said. Through its Readiness Center, MCLA trains veteran teachers throughout Berkshire County to support new staff.

"We continue to attract students who wish to pursue teaching due to their personal experiences and having had wonderful teachers who inspired them." Eberwein said, and there has been an increase in adult learners "choosing to become teachers because they feel a professional calling -- because they want a career that feels meaningful to them."

To reach Jim Therrien:,
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