Victor Herrera, a freshman at Trinity University, recalls how his teachers used to discourage him when he spoke of the profession he hoped to enter: teaching. ``They used to tell me I was too smart, that I could be an engineer or a lawyer, so why would I want to teach?''
Too many students like Victor have been discouraged from entering teaching, educators say; too few of the nation's most talented college students are entering the teaching profession. A demonstration program at this small liberal arts college aims to help meet this problem by providing, in effect, a $26,000 grant to talented students who will commit themselves to a teaching career for two years after college.
Victor also had a coach in middle school ``who changed my life, made me feel good about myself. I thought then that I'd like to change people's lives, too.'' Later, in high school, he had an English teacher, ``a great teacher who knew how to capture your attention. You couldn't help but learn from her.''
Those teachers made Victor feel ``that teaching would be right for me,'' he says.
At Trinity, Victor is one of 17 bright, talented San Antonio-area students who have decided that teaching is right for them. And in exchange for a commitment to learn about education, and then to go out and teach, each will receive a four-year scholarship plus a $2,000 stipend for each of the first two years of teaching.
The program, funded with $450,000 from the Brackenridge Foundation, is seen as a demonstration project for studying three basic elements in forming a solid teaching profession: recruitment of top students, their preparation as teachers, and finally, their retention in education.
University officials say that, although the program was envisioned as a one-time experiment, they are working on finding the funds to keep it going -- and to help other schools to adapt it.
For reasons ranging from pay and support in the community to the job's perceived lack of professionalism, today's ``best and brightest'' rarely consider a teaching career.
``Our ability to attract and retain quality people in public education is a great cause for concern,'' says Ronald Calgaard, Trinity's president. The ``fixed pool'' of enthusiastic, well-educated, and mostly female college students who saw teaching as one of their best professional options ``has all but dried up,'' he says.
And the severity of the problem takes on a new urgency, adds Dr. Calgaard, when seen in the light of an expected teacher shortage.
``Up to four or five years ago, we considered that we had a surplus of teachers,'' Calgaard says. But today, a severe shortage looms on the horizon. The nation's schools will require about 1 million new teachers by 1990, according to the National Education Association. They say, however, that supply will meet only about 70 percent of that demand. The supply shortage is particularly vexing because it comes at a time that the nation's public schools are under fire to improve the quality of instruction. ``We're concerned that the efforts to improve teaching . . . will be lost under the sheer weight of numbers,'' he adds.
Recently a number of incentive plans have been adopted by states to improve teachers' salaries and make the profession more attractive. But the Trinity program is unusual in that it comes from a liberal arts college that traditionally has not been heavily involved in teacher education. And it includes more than just the financial incentive of a four-year scholarship.
The internships run in tandem with a major overhaul of the school's teacher-preparation program. ``Teacher education basically has not changed since I went through the program here [in 1959-60],'' says John Moore, chairman of Trinity's education department. ``We've decided to eliminate the old major in elementary education and replace it with a greater emphasis on the humanities,'' he adds. To help in this, the National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded the school a $300,000 grant.
In addition to this realigned education program, the 17 interns will also benefit from seminars focusing on particular topics -- issues in education, the school, and its community -- during their first two years of college.
The Brackenridge interns program could provide some valuable insight into what works in the recruiting, training, and retention of teachers -- and what doesn't.
``Already we found, for example, that very few teachers these days encourage their best students to go into teaching,'' says Dr. Moore, who brought the internship idea to fruition.
But the program has also revealed two other factors: that, like Victor, every one of the interns had a mentor -- a teacher or other educator who made teaching look like a fulfilling and worthwhile profession; and that, with some encouragement, talented high school students are willing to consider teaching.
``Originally we were going to have 10 interns,'' says Dr. Moore. ``But when we got through more than 100 applicants, I realized that there were these 17 that I just had to have.''
Dr. Moore says he hopes eventually to see the program endowed and branching out to include students from around Texas. But he adds that no program like this, no matter how widespread, and no boost in salaries alone, will be able to bring a steady stream of talented graduates back into teaching.
``I don't think that salary is the big reason people shy away from teaching, or end up leaving it,'' says Moore. ``The reason is the lack of support from all around, and the fact that teachers are not treated like professionals.''
For these reasons, ``I worry about our retention even of these kids,'' he says, after the two years' teaching they must complete to honor the terms of the grant. But to listen to a sampling of the 17, there is little doubt in their minds that they have made the commitment of their professional life.
Debbie Martilla, who is told she is Trinity's first physics major in 15 years to plan on teaching high school physics, says she had thought of becoming an electrical engineer. ``My main reason was the money I could make,'' she says. ``But I decided that just wasn't a good enough reason.'' For her, she adds, the chance to help students is.
Leslie Cartwright says a stint as a teacher's aide helped her see the difficulties teachers face, ``but I also saw myself having a good time at it. I guess there are always doubts,'' she says, ``but I plan to still be teaching in 10 years. I plan to stick with it.''
As for Victor, he says he had often thought of being a child psychologist, but that ``teaching will let me be more in touch with children.'' He says the decision probably meant a substantial difference in annual salary. But then he adds, ``Money is important, but there are so many other things I have to believe will make up for what I may lack in monetary rewards.''