WASHINGTON — The nation's top teachers love their jobs, but worry that their profession is not respected or even understood by the public.
"In California, a veteran teacher can't qualify for a housing loan in 80 percent of school districts," says Stephen Bock, California's Teacher of the Year.
Mr. Bock and 121 other state Teachers of the Year and finalists met in Washington last week for the fifth-annual National Teacher Forum, sponsored by the Department of Education.
One focus group discussed how to ensure that there are talented teachers in every classroom. Here are some of the group's recommendations:
Value teaching as a profession. "Sometimes when I do roll call, I ask what occupation would you never want to do. After clown and sanitation director, teaching comes up the most frequently," says Lauren Hildebrand, who teaches gifted education classes at the Sandburg and Hosterman Middle School in Golden Valley, Minn.
Improving teacher status, these teachers say, involves more than increasing salaries, which average $35,549 a year. An administrator who won't give a teacher the keys to the supply room "because they're afraid we might steal a box of paper clips" undermines respect for the profession. So does the student who abuses a teacher in the classroom, and is not punished by school authorities.
"Most people, including students, judge a profession by how teachers are treated. I see teachers humiliated in the classroom, and kids not kicked out of school. If kids see this, it's not surprising that they don't want to be teachers," says Silas Granderson of Elmwood Junior High School in Rogers, Ark.
Teachers also need to be willing to recommend their profession to others and challenge the public perception that "anyone can teach" or "if you can't do, teach." An Alabama teacher noted that the one profession not represented at a recent career night at her school was teaching.
Give incentives to stay in the classroom. Or at least don't give incentives to get out. The farther you get from the classroom, the higher your salary gets, and that dynamic is driving out good teachers, teachers say. Someone should do a count of the number of Teachers of the Year who are still in the classroom five years after winning this award, they add.
"Your reward for being a good teacher is to move into administration. This summer I was offered a job as a supervisor, at double the salary. Call me dumb, I stayed in the classroom because that's the most important place to be," says Jeff Johnston, Nevada's Teacher of the Year from Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School, in Fardnerville.
Improve teacher training. "Education classes for teachers are boring kids out of the profession, several teachers say. Often, departments of education are isolated from the rest of the university, and are not respected by other faculty members. As a result, many promising students are discouraged by their advisers from looking into teaching as a career.
In addition, many beginning teachers are given the most challenging teaching assignments.
"Beginning teachers are often on probationary contract and given three sink-or-swim classes that no one wants. We've all heard it: 'If you're in it for the love of teaching, you'll survive this year.' But, in fact, many don't," says Mr. Johnston. Some 22 percent of teachers drop out of the profession in the first three years, and it reaches as high as 50 percent in urban areas, according to the Department of Education.
The teachers applauded a Massachusetts program that assigned exceptional teachers as mentors to help newcomers. "A new colleague was having trouble. The school hired a substitute teacher for him so he could stay with me every Monday, and a substitute for me so that I could mentor him on Fridays. The system is designed to stimulate teachers to stay in the profession. We have a very supportive community," says Leonard Swanton, Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, from Estabrook Elementary School in Lexington.
Enforce professional standards. We need to start policing our own profession, including being willing to fail student teachers before they get into the profession and counsel out colleagues who are no longer effective in the classroom, several teachers say.
"We keep hearing that teachers unions are responsible for problems in the system, and there's some credibility for this. Unions have done some bad things in the interest of keeping teachers in the system," says Valerie Evans, Illinois Teacher of the Year from Northmoor School in Peoria.
"I love our union. I wouldn't have a salary I could live on without it. But protecting incompetent teachers lowers the status of our profession as a whole. We want to make this profession credible," California's Bock says.
According to a recent survey by the National Education Association, the number of teachers who would choose teaching again has increased steadily since 1981 - 62.6 percent say they certainly or probably would become a teacher again.
Among Teachers of the Year, that percentage seemed higher. Says Nevada's Johnston, "It's the greatest job in the world. I wouldn't want to lose it."