Exams are looming for the freshmen students in ED 100, the introductory class in NC State’s School of Education. But instead of looking stressed or worried, the first-year education majors have a spring in their step as they settle into the lecture hall on this late afternoon.
Maybe it’s because most know exactly why they are here: to become a teacher.
That resolve has been tested, of late.
“I have had a lot of people try to talk me out of it,” says Becka Townsend, a first-year student from Apex. “I was debating between engineering and education for a long time because it’s one of those things where a lot of those teachers, if you want to teach at the high school level, have the intelligence, as you would say, to do a profession where they might pay more. But I just felt like this is where I was being led and I really have the heart to work with kids, especially.”
Of all the pathways to becoming a licensed teacher in North Carolina, the UNC system schools produce the most, about one-third. It’s also arguably the most important sector. According to research out of UNC-Chapel Hill (pdf), teachers trained in UNC system schools have better student performance outcomes and they stay longer in their careers.
In other words: they are the backbone of the profession in the state.
“The goal is to actually have career educators who are committed for a lifetime,” says Dr. Jayne Fleener, the Dean of the School of Education at NC State. “It saddens me to think teachers like my mother, who was a phenomenal teacher, and spent her career being a teacher in the community and everyone would know her and she would go out to eat and all the students and former students would come up to see her, I would hate to see that go away.”
SCHOOLS OF EDUCATION HAVE CHANGED OVER THE YEARS.
Instead of the old model of three-and-a-half-years-in-lecture-halls and then a semester of student teaching, undergraduate students do a mix of content and methods classes, project work, extensive and varied class placements, and, finally, mentored student teaching. It’s by far the most comprehensive – and longest – path to becoming a teacher.
But some say it’s not always the best path. The National Council On Teacher Quality is an advocacy organization based in Washington. It released a report earlier this year that blasted university-based programs as lacking rigor.
It singled out four schools in North Carolina as being among the worst in the country: Fayetteville State, UNC-Pembroke, Greensboro College, and Catawba College.
“Some of it is a function of the students that are admitted,” says Terry Stoops, the Director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh.
“They’re not as selective with their initial enrollments and those kids end up in the education schools and getting education degrees. So I think a lot of it has to do with entry and making sure those standards are high. I think that’s one way to improve the quality of the teacher workforce.”
QUANTITY VS. QUALITY
While some criticize Schools of Education for not attracting high-caliber students, others criticize them for not producing enough teachers.
That puts the programs in a squeeze. Add in factors like Baby Boomers retiring and the perception that some hold the teaching profession in low regard and it adds up to a potential problem.
“We know that our teacher preparation programs across the state have told us they have fewer people enrolling,” says June Atkinson, the Superintendent of Public Schools. “If we do not raise teacher salaries, the masters degree payment, and we do not show we value our teacher than I am worried about the supply of quality teachers to teach our young people.”
Last year, 122 freshmen enrolled in NC State’s School of Education. This year, it’s 97. And many of those 97 are steadfast in their choice, despite the current climate for teachers.
“I’d definitely say undaunted,” says Randi Gibbs, a freshman education major at NC State from Youngsville. “I’ve definitely considered changing my major, but I think in the end I will probably stay in education. I know this is where I am meant to be.”
But Gibbs does admit that all the talk around the future of her chosen profession has affected her thoughts on her options. Instead of staying in state, she says she may look at teaching overseas after graduation.
These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.