Schools try to hang on to teachers

Officials say about 30 percent leave within 5 years

Support is `biggest issue'

$15 million proposed in next year's budget to hire mentors

August 22, 1999|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

At the rate things are going, teachers in Maryland will leave schools sooner than their students.

Amid a nationwide teacher shortage, educators are paying more attention to recruitment, offering signing bonuses and other incentives in the scramble to fill vacancies. But little energy has been spent on keeping those teachers from burning out and giving up -- meaning that hundreds leave after a few years in the classroom.

"We hire them and it's sink or swim," said Karl Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. "They leave because they don't get the support that they need."

The average number of years teaching for the 44,000 MSTA members has dropped from seven years a decade ago to five years last year, Pence said. And though state law requires that children stay in school for 11 years, about 30 percent of Maryland teachers quit within five years of being hired, state officials say.

That means 1,680 of the 5,600 teachers hired last year in Maryland's public schools are likely to quit by 2003.

High turnover, exacerbated by a wave of baby-boom retirements, has sparked a nationwide teacher shortage that has educators scrambling to fill vacancies. Maryland officials predict they will have to hire as many as 11,000 new teachers by the start of the 2001 school year just to keep up.

But the inducements for teachers to get out of the field are great. Baby boomers who began careers teaching in the 1960s and 1970s may be the last generation to consider teaching an attractive lifelong occupation.

Often, new hires say they are daunted by classrooms with 30 or more students, skimpy instructional material, too little time to plan lessons and a lowered regard for teachers in society overall.Many other jobs pay better and aren't as emotionally draining.

In Maryland, retaining teachers can be difficult because some states' schools pay better and offer better working conditions. Teachers and their union officials also complain about the burden of unimaginative curricula here that require them to teach to state-mandated tests.

Mentors sought

"Support is the biggest issue," said Pat Jones of Anne Arundel County Schools staff development. "Helping them to be as successful as possible as soon as possible before they get discouraged."

State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is trying.

She included $15 million -- up from the $5 million being spent this year -- in her budget proposal for next year to hire mentors for inexperienced teachers. Last spring, she won legislative approval for a $25 million package of incentives that included tax breaks for teachers who take college classes, financial incentives for retired teachers who come back to teach at high-risk schools and extended probationary periods for struggling teachers.

"I think we have to expand the mentoring efforts and not just look at it for first-year teachers," she said. "There should be mentors at least until teachers are into their third year."

Grasmick also is working on a master teachers program that would allow teachers who want a career boost an outlet other than the principal's office. Experienced teachers might work part time in the classroom and spend the rest of their time on new staff development projects.

"We need to expand the career ladders for teachers," she said. "This would give them additional recognition."

'Lowest' pay Salary, Grasmick said, is a major issue. The average Maryland teacher's salary -- $41,100 -- is the lowest in the mid-Eastern region, according to the National Education Association.

The money is tied in with respect, she said. "Generally, in our nation, teachers don't get enough recognition and in our society, money translates to respect."

Teachers' union officials in Baltimore County began a two-year survey this summer to pinpoint reasons teachers leave that district, but union representatives throughout the area suspect that workload is the main culprit.

"At the elementary level in particular," said Susie Jablinske, president of the Anne Arundel Teacher's Association, "teachers say they are tired and they just can't keep up."

Howard County School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey has appointed a task force of teachers and community leaders to come up with a plan to retain teachers. The 20-member task force is expected to report to the school board in November, in time for new programs to be incorporated into next year's budget, said Mamie Perkins, director of human resources.

"We need to get ahead of this problem," she said. "The teaching shortage is not going to get any better; it's only going to get worse."

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