Layoffs remain an option in Central Florida districts, especially in Volusia County, as they struggle with ever-tightening budgets.
With job prospects so gloomy nowadays, why would anyone want to go into teaching?
The answer: jobs — hundreds of thousands of them — within the next decade as waves of aging baby boomers retire, leaving districts with lots of openings to fill.
But that promising outlook likely will come with a high price: increased job scrutiny and pay based in large part on performance instead of seniority. So-called merit-pay proposals, spurred by the promise of extra federal dollars, are leading public schools in Florida and across the country to change the way they evaluate educators and the way colleges train future teachers.
The upshot: Being a public-school teacher won’t be as secure a job as it once was, even if finding a position becomes easier in coming years. In 2018, nearly 500,000 new hires at both public and private schools will be needed nationwide by federal estimates.
Yet while some may balk at teaching in public schools, plenty of students at public universities still see teaching as a potentially fulfilling career.
Elementary education is the No. 1 major at the University of Central Florida and many other big public universities.
“I keep hearing, ‘Just hang in there; the jobs will be there in a few years,’ ” says Tracy Salmon, an aspiring teacher graduating from Valencia Community College’s Educator Preparation Institute, which helps people with degrees in disciplines other than education get into teaching.
While she waits for her big break, she and others like her can pursue jobs as tutors or helping parents of home-schooled children develop lesson plans, she said.
“I love working with kids,” Salmon said. “I’m going to make it work no matter what.”
Job security has been one of the chief incentives for people to take on teaching in public schools, a demanding profession that offers not-so-hot pay depending on location, tons of unpaid work and the aggravation of students and parents who expect teachers to do a lot more than raise standardized test scores.
Teachers are called on to play multiple roles, and the needs of children change daily and hourly, said Molly McIntire, director of Valencia’s EPI and a former classroom teacher.
“They’re parents, advisers, confidants,” McIntire said of teachers. “Because of FCAT, they’re already under pressure.” Under some merit-pay systems, she said, “creativity goes out the window.”
In Florida, the merit-pay bill that Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed had a provision that would have removed pay increases for teachers with advanced degrees. The proposal was of concern because it could have affected enrollment in graduate programs, said Sandra L. Robinson, dean of UCF’s College of Education.
But the provision was “shortsighted” because a small bump in pay isn’t a main motivator for teachers to invest their own money in a master’s degree, she said.
“The master’s makes a difference if it’s in the area they’re teaching,” Robinson said. “The best teachers are the ones that never stop learning.”
Of greater concern, she said, is the potential effect of an even stronger emphasis on standardized tests in Florida and elsewhere.
“What would the classroom environment be like?” she said. “How can I as a teacher do what I need to do? There was no discussion about the children. It’s easy to talk about the growth-factory model. But all students are different. The needs of children in the Panhandle are going to be different from those in Oviedo.”
Students need core knowledge in math and language, of course. But future teachers, she said, will be challenged to inspire students motivated by a love of music and the arts — subjects that often suffer during bad economic times.
Colleges of education, including UCF’s, have had to adapt by coaching future teachers about standardized testing and training them in technology that today’s students are already comfortable using.
“Children are used to texting now while watching TV,” Robinson said. “Engaging them is a new challenge teachers now have.”
Technology also will play a bigger role in how teachers track student progress, Robinson said.
Sea change ahead
Like many teachers in public schools, Ronald Wilson insists he didn’t take the job for the money.
He and many other public-school teachers in Florida admit to feeling frustrated and discouraged during the big fight over merit pay. But they also know that attempts to tie their salaries to student scores on standardized tests, as well as other changes, are not going away.
And that’s been forcing some college students to question their choice of public education in Florida as a career.
Margarete Fleure, 32, of Sunrise worries about the professional world she wants to inhabit as she works to earn a bachelor’s degree in English education at Florida International University in Miami.
“In one year, I’m going to be done with my degree,” Fleure said. “Am I going to be able to use it in Broward County is the question. It’s frustrating. It affects all of us, too. We’re thinking, ‘Is this worth it? Is it going to pay off?’ ”
Fleure and others in her position hear the calls for reform, as well as criticism over teacher training itself.
Last year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said “many, if not most, of the nation’s 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom.” He was referring in part to the use of computer technology in classrooms that today’s children are growing up with and are comfortable using for rapid communication.
At a policy forum in Washington earlier this year, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, of which Robinson is past chairman, presented a report on the teacher-preparation pipeline.
The need for more diversity in the candidate pool and the growing importance of training teachers to use computers and other technology were key findings, with a major conclusion being more and better data on teacher preparation are needed to improve the profession.
Whatever appears next on the political front, “I’ll certainly stick with teaching,” says Wilson, who about six years ago while in his 50s looked into switching careers after years of working in government and for nonprofits.
For years, friends and family had been telling Wilson he ought to be a teacher. He got a job as a substitute teacher and found he had a knack for it.
He now teaches honors English to ninth-graders at Evans High.
“I enjoy the work and watching students mature and learn,” Wilson said. “It’s never boring.”
Akilah Johnson of the ( Fort Lauderdale) Sun Sentinel contributed to this report. Luis Zaragoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5718.
Source: OrlandoSentinel.com, Teaching: It’s a hot career choice as boomers retire, by Luis Zaragoza, June 16, 2010.