Teachers matter. Tremendously. As adults, we remember our favorite teachers and joke about the worst ones. As parents, we listen to which teachers are challenging, engaging and fair. Our children often spend more time actively engaged with their teacher than they do with their families on school days.
In Maine, we are blessed with good teachers. There are more than 16,000 teachers in our 737 schools. With 44 percent of those teachers age 50 and older nearing retirement age, we as a state need to ensure a pipeline of high-quality new teachers. Some of the highest numbers of job openings each year in the coming decade are projected to be for education-related jobs.
School districts in other states are in crisis as schools open because they do not have enough qualified teachers. Their children will face a school year with rotations of long-term substitute teachers or underqualified teachers. Places such as Newark, New Jersey, and Baltimore, Maryland, are building taxpayer-subsidized housing for itinerant teachers through Teach for America who commit to just two years. Because of their dependence on temporary teachers and ongoing struggles with teacher retention, some schools have 80 percent new teachers. Now those are the horror stories of public schools caused by a lack of public policies that supported the infrastructure for preparing high-quality teachers. In Maine, only 3 percent of our teachers are first-year teachers, but this will change soon with projected retirements.
Teaching is under attack as a profession in the United States with high costs of preparation, diminishing job security, low pay, growing challenges in classrooms and absurd evaluation systems. Teacher preparation program enrollment is down 53 percent in California in the past five years.
Successful industrialized nations invest in their teachers as essential for growing their workforce. Singapore, Finland and South Korea provide full college tuition and living stipends for teacher candidates who have graduated from the top 20 percent of their high school and college classes.
In Maine, we have great teachers — in fact, some of the best in the world. Nancie Atwell was the first winner of the $1 million international Global Teaching Prize, considered to be the Nobel Prize of teaching. Maine has 284 Nationally Board Certified Teachers, Teachers of the Year, one-third of our teachers have a master’s degree or higher with a state average of more than 16 years of experience. And many of our teachers earn their students’ “best teacher” awards on an annual basis.
We as a community need to value our teachers and let them know with notes and letters of appreciation. I see these heartfelt messages remain in teachers’ desks for years to help sustain them through the challenging times.
We as voters and taxpayers need to ensure that our public policy supports teachers and makes high-quality teacher preparation accessible and affordable. Quality teacher preparation is at risk in our state with years of cuts to our public higher education system.
My own experience is that in 2000, when I was hired in the Department of Teacher Education in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Southern Maine, there were 16 faculty with 12 on tenure-track lines. This year, I am one of two remaining tenure-track lines in the graduate teacher preparation program in the School of Education and Human Development, along with two lecturer position hires in June and a contract person hired in July. We have just had to turn away 10 qualified students from the waitlist because of our lack of capacity, including math and science teaching candidates.
The issue of preparing our next generation of teachers is complicated, and Maine has to address this to ensure a quality workforce in the future. We don’t have to repeat the mistakes of other states.
Flynn Ross is associate professor of teacher education and coordinator of an Extended Teacher Education Program cohort at the University of Southern Maine. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.