VARINA, N.C. — Asign in the hall outside math teacher Dee McKenzie's classroom says: "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you strong." Inside, at the back of his room, another says, "Math is simple."
Mr. McKenzie, a young guy with a friendly yet intense bearing reminiscent of actor Cuba Gooding Jr., is good at communicating. The fourth-year teacher will do nearly anything to spark student interest in math. He is not above using props like a tennis ball dubbed "Mr. Tennis" to help out. Whatever works.
In many ways, McKenzie is exactly the kind of the kind of new teacher North Carolina is hoping for to bolster its teaching ranks. He applied for and received a four-year, $20,000 scholarship to pay for college for having been admitted to the state's elite Teaching Fellows program.
Now he is fulfilling his half of the bargain with a minimum of four years of teaching in the state. Recently voted teacher of the year at Fuquay-Varina High School, McKenzie is today doing his usual teaching gymnastics to spark interest in Algebra among kids who might think they have little.
"Ladies and gentlemen, if you are still having problems with factoring you have got to do - what?" he asks a sophomore algebra class. "Get help!" several student shout back. "And why is that?" he asks. "Because math is easy," comes the sing-song answer. "OK," he says, "let's start with today's lesson."
"Are you going to use Mr. Tennis today?" one girl asks. "No I don't think so," he responds to groans of disappointment.
A competitive fellows program
In its 10th year, the Teaching Fellows program is getting more attention than ever as it carefully selects from among the best students in North Carolina. To even be considered, an applicant to the program must have a minimum SAT score over 1,100, a high school grade point average of 3.6, and class ranking in the top 10 percent. Those actually admitted in 1998-99 had, on average, SAT scores of 1,166, a GPA of 3.66, and were in the top 7 percent of their classes.
One of the best carrots the state offers is money - $5,000 a year for those who win this prestigious four-year scholarship. In return, graduates must teach somewhere in the state for four years. The problem: Right now fewer top high school graduates are applying - threatening to dilute the quality of the program, though officials say that has not happened yet. Most worrisome, though, is that too many fellows, who are arguably among the most bright and committed teachers the state produces, are leaving teaching after their tour of duty.
George Rose, principal of Fuquay-Varina High, is feeling the need to reverse the state's attrition of new teachers. "We need good teachers," he says. "I'm looking here. But there's not enough. So I'm also looking hard in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, where job markets are tight."
Subdivisions sprout where tobacco fields once did in the emerging bedroom community of Varina. Mr. Rose's school had 900 students in 1990, but 1,625 are expected this next year. As a result, the school is getting a much needed addition.
Yet the real need, Rose says, is for more and better teachers - and to keep them. To do that, he says, school principals need to stop the "sink or swim" approach: Overloading new teachers the minute they step in the door. Among the things they inherit are the least desirable classes, the toughest kids, after-hours coaching, advising, and even more out-of-the-way duties. One new teacher at another school, who has since quit, was even asked to drive a bus. This "hazing," as some call it, and low pay cause many promising teachers to bail out.
Fighting teacher overload
Principal Rose is vigorously fighting that. He won't let his new teachers get involved in more than one extra activity. He's also got a mentor program to help them day to day. In addition, new teachers statewide will soon find their minimum starting salary rising to $25,000, up from $21,330 this year.
But if Rose and other North Carolina education officials have any hope of reversing the attrition among new teachers - one-third of whom quit in their first five years - it will probably be seen first with recruits from its Teaching Fellows program.
In the past decade, 21,893 students applied for the program and 5,200 were selected. Today 1,267 teaching fellows are filling out their four-year commitment. But just 374 have been teaching five years or more in schools across the state.
"We are trying everything we can to encourage them to stay committed to teaching," says Gladys Graves, director of the program. Her hope rests with smart, committed young teachers like McKenzie.
Back in algebra class, McKenzie reflects, then launches into today's subject: quadratic equations.
"Okay, you guys are always asking me when am I ever going to use a quadratic equation in real life, so let's find out about my new pool. Now you guys know I purchased a new house. I have a big yard. And I want to build a swimming pool surrounded by a sidewalk of uniform width. I want the dimensions of the pool and the walk to be 16 meters by 20 meters. The pool has an area of 192 square meters. How wide should the sidewalk be?
"That's just to spark our lesson today," he says. "Does anyone know what a quadratic equation is?"
By the end of class everyone knows the definition of a quadratic equation -and how to use it. A few know something else, too. "I don't really like math all that much, but he makes it interesting," says Drew McQueen, a junior. "He gets excited about it - and I think that's why I like it now."