Matching applicants to needs of schools Teachers: A key strategy for education majors seeking employment is preparation for areas with critical teacher shortages, such as computer science, art, music and special education.

October 07, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Towson University graduate student Marcus Gates could turn his political science degree into a teaching certificate in high school social studies. Instead, he's set his sights on elementary school.

"There are a lot of male social studies teachers," he said, explaining his choice. "I know that schools need male elementary school teachers."

It's a savvy strategy, at a time when school districts in Maryland and nationwide face teacher shortages in some key subjects.

Maryland suffers a critical shortage in computer science, general and physical science, English as a second language, art, music and special education, a recent report to the State Board of Education showed. Now, worried board members are discussing tuition incentives and other strategies that could steer students into those areas.

Colleges and universities -- knowing they must make students aware of the market -- have redesigned some programs, customizing them to help students become certified in more than one subject.

Still, they continue to graduate large numbers of early childhood and elementary education majors, who are not in demand, while skimping on math and science majors, who are. Some students say they hear little about where the jobs might -- or might not -- be.

"I don't think anyone in this room has been told, 'You know, there are a lot of social studies teachers out there,' " said Brion Townshend, a Towson student.

"I think it's going to be a compromise," added Simon Drew, a secondary-education student at Towson who intends to be an English teacher. "I want to teach out in Western Maryland, but I know there aren't a lot of jobs out there."

Nationwide, shortages exist in science, math, special education and foreign languages, said Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association in Washington, and the problem is "most critical in cities."

Part of the imbalance comes from personal preference that draws students into certain subject areas.

"It's just human nature to choose what you like," said Toni Ungaretti, an assistant dean in the School of Continuing Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. "People fall in love with a discipline and they want to teach that discipline."

Teaching choice factors

But economic, demographic, cultural and even philosophical factors also can drive the supply of teachers in a particular area, educators say. For example:

Elementary schools are more attractive to many teachers because they and their students are considered safer than middle and high schools.

High school teachers have more prestige because they concentrate on a particular subject, be it literature or Latin.

Special education is particularly demanding, and the burnout rate is high.

Educators also say that students who major in mathematics or science generally have more career choices than others.

"These degrees validate you for lives of money and fame," said Chris Blake, assistant professor of secondary education at Towson. "If I graduate with a math degree I can go to work with IBM, and they are going to pay me a lot more money."

Some students choose a particular teaching area because it is comfortable, educators say. That's one reason for the abundance of teachers in early childhood and elementary education -- traditional fields for women, who remain a large majority in those classrooms.

"I like 'em little," Samantha Crowther said of her future students. "They are a lot of fun when they are little."

For career-changers

Crowther is working toward a master of arts degree in teaching at Towson, one of several area programs designed for career-changers who have undergraduate degrees, though not in education.

"I can say, 'Why don't you do something that breaks the norm?' " such as pursue a math or science degree, said Blake. "But at 18, they want to achieve the norm," not digress from it, he said.

At the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, which graduated about 200 teacher candidates this year, Sister Sharon Slear encourages elementary majors to also become certified for middle school or special education.

Using staffing reports as a guide, she has encouraged students to specialize in foreign languages with an eye toward teaching English as a second language.

At Frostburg State University, seven foreign language students are in secondary education this year, compared with only two last year, said Alice Alexander, coordinator of field experience in the education department.

Alexander said her department recruits would-be teachers from other departments, alerting math and science majors, for instance, to the availability of teaching jobs and certification requirements in those subjects.

Personal preferences

Although the recent report to the state board did not designate localities that need teachers, educators say personal preferences play a big role in the supply across Maryland.

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