Shortage of teachers not simple arithmetic

April 10, 2001|By Michael Olesker

HER NAME was Miss Padanji, and I do not wish to malign her 43 years after the fact. She did the best that she could. She was a nice young lady who arrived here from somewhere in Europe, and the thinkers in the public schools tried to make her something that she wasn't. And I can imagine such a thing happening again now, by the thousands.

The morning paper says Maryland's schools are running out of teachers. This is a variation on a mathematical equation: Too few teachers, or too many students -- either way, it equals crowded classrooms, overmatched (or mismatched) teachers and everybody left wondering why the kids don't seem to be learning as much as they should.

Miss Padanji was supposed to be a music teacher. About music, she knew everything; about English, she knew enough to put a noun next to a verb. As memory serves, she came here from one of the Scandinavian countries. But, in the spring of 1958, in that baby-boom era of classrooms routinely bursting with 35 and 40 kids, she was pressed into service as an English teacher at Garrison Junior High School in Northwest Baltimore.

It was the best the school could do. There were too many kids swelling the schools in those post-war years, and not enough teachers. So they had a shop teacher teaching math, and a history teacher teaching geography, and the music teacher, Miss Padanji, just coming to grips with her new language, pressed into service teaching English because this was where she was needed.

And the thing I remember about Miss Padanji's English class that year is that we spent a fair amount of time listening to Puccini, and listening to Beethoven, and sometimes wondering what subtleties of grammar and punctuation this nice young lady from Europe was trying to get across to us in that occasionally indecipherable accent of hers.

And now, I read in the morning newspaper, there is trouble in the classrooms, and it takes me back to Garrison Junior High School all over again because the numbers are coming up wrong all over again. Too many veteran teachers are preparing to retire, and not enough young teachers want to replace them, and we need more than an arithmetic teacher to explain this new math.

As the aging baby boomers are getting ready to wipe the chalk dust off their hands and retire in unprecedented numbers, the Generation X kids coming out of college, scanning the horizon for jobs, seem less inclined than ever before to make a living inside a classroom.

As The Sun's Joanna Daemmrich detailed yesterday: At the start of the 1990s, Maryland's public schools needed to hire only about 3,000 teachers a year. But with more teachers reaching retirement eligibility -- more than 22,000 by 2003 -- the Maryland State Department of Education estimates that schools will have to hire as many as 12,715 teachers two years from now. That's about one-fourth of the state's teachers.

And, judging by the number of college education majors today -- and the courses in which they want to specialize -- filling those positions (and filling them with qualified people) will not be easy.

A year ago, Maryland colleges graduated a grand total of 65 people who want to teach math (about a tenth of what was needed). Serious shortages also exist in science, special education, foreign languages and high school English.

Current teachers issue the time-honored complaints about their profession: not enough pay or respect, not enough hours in the evening to grade the papers they've assigned during the day, and too much time they're forced to devote to instructing kids how to pass standardized state tests.

But other things have changed since the days of Miss Padanji and teachers who were pressed into service to teach subjects they did not know. Women, for example. When the baby boomers were kids, their mothers were housewife-mothers, or they were secretaries or nurses -- or they were teachers.

Women's choices were far more limited then. Today, women who once might have been nurses are becoming doctors; those who might have been secretaries are, given the full shot, running companies. And those who might have been teachers are scanning the horizon. But that's not all.

In a national survey of college freshmen four years ago, 75 percent said they viewed higher education as an opportunity "to be well-off financially." Only 40 percent mentioned expanding their minds. Two things to keep in mind about this: These were the students who are now about to graduate. And, their responses were the direct opposite of freshman responses 30 years earlier.

Many who enter teaching see it as more than a way to make a living. It's a noble way to spend a life, to contribute to something more than a personal bank account.

But increasingly we're a people who measure our value by the dollar sign. Community service is for chumps, and doing well is better than doing good. So the schools will scramble for teachers, and maybe they'll get lucky. But maybe they'll wind up with crowded classrooms -- or with perfectly suitable music teachers standing in front of English classes, simply because nobody else is available.

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