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Why Become a Teacher Today?

Whatever happens first in California tends to eventually happen elsewhere. That's why the news out of Sacramento is worthy of close attention. In a front-page story on Apr. 4, the Los Angeles Times reported that the number of students preparing to become teachers is plunging, with all signs indicating that the trend will continue ("Today's teacher layoffs threaten tomorrow's college classrooms").

The Commission on Teacher Credentialing said that the number of credentials issued annually fell 29 percent over the past five years, from 28,039 in 2004-05 to 20,032 in 2009-10. Although the decline was most evident in state colleges and universities, private colleges and universities also saw decreases. Even National University, a nonprofit school that offers mainly online credential classes, reported a drop of about 30 percent since 2006.

As troubling as these numbers are, they come as no surprise. Teaching has never paid new teachers well. (In California, annual starting salaries average about $35,000.) But at least teaching was always a secure career, which allowed autonomy in the classroom. Neither of these is true any longer. Some 20,000 teachers statewide received pink slips, and those fortunate enough to hold onto their jobs find themselves increasingly regimented because of the standards movement.

The changing landscape is not limited to California. Virtually all states are undergoing similar experiences. The result is that teaching has lost its appeal for far too many college graduates. The timing couldn't be worse. Large numbers of baby boomers are starting to retire from teaching just when even larger numbers of children enter elementary school. Who will teach them?

The larger question is why would anyone want to teach them? There was a time when teachers were respected, even though teaching was never a career for those who sought power, fame or wealth. What teachers had was pride. But rarely a day goes by when teachers are not subjected to another round of bashing. It's little wonder that their morale is at an all-time low. I wrote an op-ed about this subject that was published in The Christian Science Monitor on Apr. 6 ("The beatings will continue until teacher morale improves").

I'm not saying that no one will want to become a teacher in the years ahead. But teaching should not be a default choice. Instead, it should be the No. 1 choice for the most talented and inspirational in this country.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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