SURE, THE DROPOUT RATE among high school students is troubling. But an equally frightening statistic is the number of young teachers who leave the profession every year.
The national dropout rate among teachers is nearly 50 percent over five years. If that pattern continues, half of the teachers who entered the profession this September will leave before they finish their fifth year in the classroom.
But at the University of Washington, a new partnership between the College of Education and the College of Arts and Sciences is working to reverse this trend. Armed with a $5 million grant from the Carnegie Foundation, the two colleges have opened the Washington Center for Teaching and Learning.
The center's goal is to get potential teachers when they first arrive on campus, nurture them as they earn a B.A. in their chosen subject and their master's in education, and then give them the support they need when they finally step into their own classrooms.
"Our overarching goal on this campus is to provide a continuum of support for teachers," says Pat Wasley, dean of the College of Education.
"Nothing prepares you for that first day in your own classroom," says Deirdre Duffy, a 2003 education graduate who took her first job at Bothell High School in suburban Seattle. "For all the student teaching and lesson plans and all the excellent discussions, you're not born until you get up there and do it that first day."
Gretchen Wilkinson, '01, '03, another education graduate, agrees. Before coming to Seattle, she had taught for five years in rural upstate New York and then ran her own business for 12 years. When she began at Seattle's Garfield High School, she was more mature and more professionally successful than most of the new teachers in the district. Still, the adjustment to a large, urban district was not easy for Wilkinson, who grew up in mostly white and relatively wealthy Palo Alto, Calif.
"The first time I saw a fist fight was when I was working as a sub in a Seattle middle school and these two people were just ready to punch each other's lights out," Wilkinson recalls. "That really shook me up because that is a level of anger and a behavior that I had never seen before."
"When you don't have very much, the world is a lot rougher," she says. "It's rougher to you and you deal with it in a rougher way. If you live in a household where bill collectors are always coming to the door, where your mother is afraid to open the door without a knife in her hand, then you learn a different way of dealing with people."
If it takes a more seasoned teacher like Wilkinson time to adjust, imagine, she says, what it is like for teachers in their early 20s with little or no real-world experience. She can't emphasize enough the importance of supporting those young teachers.
"In an urban setting, there are complexities that can be unexpected because of the ethnic diversity, the socio-economic diversity and the diversity in ability levels," Wilkinson says. "If the teacher is someone who was raised in Bellevue, it seems so close-but this is completely foreign.
"No one should be put out there without a really tight mentor who is encouraging, supportive and lets them know what is possible," she adds. "It can be really discouraging, and yet, teachers are just sent out there and told to go do it. I just don't think that's fair."
It hardly sounds like a radical idea, providing nurturing support for young teachers as they learn the ins and outs of the profession. But according to faculty at the new UW center, society has always undervalued teachers, the amount of work they put in and the university-based training programs that prepare them.
"Teaching is not regarded as a serious profession," says Boeing Professor of Teacher Education Bill McDiarmid. "It couldn't be serious, right, because it's mostly women," he adds sarcastically. "That's the first strike against it. Secondly, everyone's an expert. People think teaching isn't hard, that you can just get up there and tell students what to do. So there's this perception by people who've never taught-and never would teach-that it's not a difficult task."
Susan Jeffords, the vice provost for academic planning who worked to develop the center while serving as a divisional dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, recalls a study conducted at the University of Texas. Students were surveyed as freshmen about their prospective career choices and a significant percentage indicated that teaching was high on their list.
But by the time they repeated the survey as seniors, almost none indicated an interest in teaching. That study speaks volumes to Jeffords. She recalls being a senior in high school and telling an educator she admired that she, too, would like to be a teacher.
"He looked at me and his face just fell," she recalls. "He said, 'Oh dear, no. You're better than that. You have a better future than mine. You don't want to be a teacher.' The sadness on his face was just horrible."
Whether or not that message is still being delivered, Jeffords says, too many students are coming to college and losing interest in the teaching profession. "I think we need to change some of the messages that we send to our students," she says. "For those who have that enthusiasm for teaching when they come to our campus, let's give them a chance to act on it and continue with it and grow while they're undergraduates here. Let's nurture the interest that students bring with them to campus."
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