Schools hunt for teachers when wages fail to attract

November 18, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SOMETIMES prosperity's a bummer. The new technology produces jobs everywhere, and the old professions become yesterday's business. The schools, for example: Who wants to teach science at scrub wages when private industry's calling with money to make the eyes go round?

Consider a few numbers: In all of Maryland colleges last year, a total of one student graduated with the intention to teach high school physics. In 2002, the state will need 11,000 new teachers to fill the expected void left by baby-boom retirees and increasing enrollment. But the state now graduates only 2,500 education majors a year.

"Across the board," says John Smeallie, director of personnel for Baltimore County Public Schools, "we're having trouble finding people."

"The need for teachers is moving into a crisis mode," adds Mary Jacque Marchione, director of professional development for Baltimore County Public Schools. "We're studying the reasons now. But we know that, in the technical fields, people can leave college and make twice the salary they would make teaching school."

Marchione's office trains and mentors new teachers, realizing they're sometimes holding shaky hands.

"If a teacher leaves," she says, "there's no replacement. There aren't people waiting in the wings the way there used to be. People are choosing to do other things. This is a blessing, because education is all about about opportunities. But we're facing a situation where we don't have the teachers that we need."

She and Smeallie are speaking for Baltimore County, but they're echoing a lament everywhere. Partly, it's simple economics. Who wants to teach science when private industry is hiring science majors at twice the salary of teachers?

And partly, it's simple sociology. Women who once found themselves professionally limited -- a generation ago, they became nurses, secretaries or teachers, or settled in to raise a family -- have the world open to them.

"Also," says Smeallie, "when you have low unemployment, everyone has options. The work force is mobile. When I came out of college, people said, `I'll establish a relationship, I'll be a teacher for 30 years.'

"The work force isn't like that today. You have two-career partners. One person moves, they both do. People explore things they never did before. It's part of the culture. So we hire a teacher with promise, and he moves on. They tell you, `I've always wanted to work in the Peace Corps.' You can't argue with that, but you lose a great teacher."

"We have so many opportunities for beginning careers that weren't even in existence five years ago," says Marchione. "Sometimes, they don't even require college degrees."

She's talking, for the moment, about science and technology. The computer has changed everything. But she also points to critical teaching needs in math and special education.

But, adds Smeallie, "It's not just technical areas. Look at family studies. It's what we used to call home economics. It's still taught in virtually every public school system, in middle and high school. But there are no college programs in the state that teach this. I can remember when we were laying off people, and now we can't find enough of them."

As a result, school officials turn increasingly elsewhere. They've focused more intently on recruiting out-of-state people.

"And this is fine," says Smeallie. "It gives us a nice diversity, geographical diversity. Every state does this. The problem now is that every state is looking at the same kind of shortage."

So the schools also look for civilians seeking a change in career. Accountants become math teachers, for example.

"Sometimes this works," says Marchione, "and sometimes not. There are people who come in and say, `Wait a minute, this isn't what I thought it would be.' They leave. We wind up with long-term substitutes.

"We've always had more than enough English and social studies teachers, and elementary school teachers," says Marchione. "But we don't have the drawers full of people waiting. People are choosing to do other things now."

All of this, naturally, is part of the normal boom-and-bust, supply-and-demand cycle the country's always going through. When jobs become tight, teaching is always a fallback.

But there was always something else going on. Teaching was a calling. It was a job with an implicit mission, which transcended mere money. But money's the national god now. So, for the schools, the competition for souls keeps getting tougher.

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