Recruiting the future of education; Students learn joy of teaching at A&M system’s summer camps

Monday, July 23, 2001
Page 1A

Recruiting the future of education
Students learn joy of teaching at A&M system’s summer camps

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

COMMERCE – “I want you all to close your eyes.”

Gwen Boyter, an education professor at Texas A&M-Commerce, is talking to about 45 high school students. They do as told.

“I want you all to have a vision of the future. Think about going to college. Imagine yourself graduating from that college.

“Then imagine the teaching job you might have after you graduate. Imagine a day in that job that would be truly rewarding. Maybe it’s the day a student comes back and says, ‘Thank you for what you did for me.'”

The students had to open their eyes a moment later to watch a video. But Dr. Boyter – and state officials – hope their visions will become reality soon enough.

The students were taking part last week in a summer camp for potential future teachers. The camp is one part of an organized attack by state agencies and universities on one of Texas’ biggest educational problems: the shortage of qualified teachers.

“It’s scary how much work there is to do,” said Michel Zuch, coordinator of teacher recruitment for the A&M system’s Institute for School-University Partnerships.

At camp, that work begins with convincing students that teachers can change the lives of others.

“You see the look on a kid’s face when he learns something and you know that teaching is very special,” said Brittany Nobles, who will be a junior this fall at Sour Lake High School near Beaumont.

The high rate of turnover in the profession has meant schools have had to work to find new teachers each year. But the collision of several trends has made the task more difficult. The rising number of students and class-size requirements in lower grades have forced districts to hire more teachers.

The fastest-growing group of students – Hispanics – often require bilingual or English-as-a-second-language teachers, who are among the most difficult to recruit. And low unemployment and a strong economy have pushed many teachers into better-paying jobs.

It might get worse. Dr. Zuch said that 80 percent of the Texas school employees enrolled in the state’s teacher retirement system will be eligible to retire in the next 10 years. “That’s pretty scary,” she said.

Last year, Texas school districts had nearly 40,000 teacher openings, according to an A&M study. While the vast majority were filled, about a quarter of the new teachers were not fully certified in the areas they were hired to teach.

Detailed numbers for this year won’t be available for several months. But Dr. Zuch said anecdotal evidence has told her “things weren’t as bad last year as they are this year.” As of last week, Dallas-area school districts had hundreds of teaching positions to fill for the upcoming year, including more than 300 in Dallas.

The high school students who attended the program at A&M-Commerce could be part of the solution to the problem. Not all are sure they’ll become teachers, but they all seem committed to promoting the value of the profession.

“There’s nothing in the world that makes me happier than teaching,” said Chandra Perkins, 17, of West Mesquite High School.

Chandra plans on being a dance teacher and says she was inspired by a fifth-grade art teacher.

“She made me feel like I was living in a different world,” she said. “She gave me a passion, and I wanted to be like her and give my students a love of something.”

Jocelyn Majors, a senior-to-be at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst, said she has wanted to be an elementary school teacher since the eighth grade.

“I know I want to be around kids,” she said. “I’d be baby-sitting five kids at one time, and people started telling me I had a knack for dealing with them.”

She attended the camp last year and said the experience boosted her confidence immeasurably.

“Before, I could never get up in front of anyone and talk,” she said. “Now I can. It really brought me out of my shell.”

Micah Elliott, Jocelyn’s classmate at Bell, isn’t as sure he’ll become a teacher, but he said he tries to get as many other people interested in the profession as he can. “I’ve always had fun teaching other people to do stuff – it’s an epiphany to them,” he said.

Persuading students to become teachers is particularly important for rural school districts. Statistics show they have the toughest time filling vacant positions, and studies have shown that new teachers often return to their hometowns after college to teach.

Patricia Guthneck, who sponsors the Texas Association of Future Educators club at Florence High School (enrollment 274) in central Texas, said that local students have to be a vital source of future teachers.

“A first-year teacher in Florence only makes $20,000, so it can be hard to attract people to the job,” she said. “But once you get them working with young people, you get them hooked.”

The Texas A&M system has made an institutional commitment to produce more teachers – about 800 more a year by 2005. About 2,500 teachers come out of the system annually now. The system started conducting the summer camps last year on three of its campuses; this year, all nine campuses in the system will have the camps.

The students who attended the Commerce session were all members of their schools’ chapters of TAFE, a group founded in the 1980s as a way to bring more people into the profession.

Campgoers had a few ideas on how to bring more people into the profession. Add more teacher education classes to Texas high schools. Have more summer camps such as this one. And, most commonly suggested, raise salaries.

“There’s no pay in teaching,” Micah said. “I think I might work as a computer programmer for a while, make some money, then become a teacher. It’s sad to have to do that.”

But Dr. Boyter, who also directs A&M-Commerce’s teacher-training project, said camps such as these can help convince students that it’s worth sacrificing a few dollars to teach.

“As a profession, we’ve gotten a lot of criticism. Students don’t necessarily see it as a rewarding career,” Dr. Boyter said. “Hopefully, they come out of this thinking about teaching in a different way.”