Why Teach?

Susan Phillips
May 8, 2000

Through dozens of interviews backed up by the results of three national telephone surveys—one of teachers with a maximum of five years' experience, one of school administrators, and one of young college graduates who did not choose teaching as a career—"A Sense of Calling," gives voice to the attitudes, assumptions and concerns of these three groups.

And yes, the teachers surveyed—more than 900 of them, all with five years' experience or less—would welcome a substantial salary increase, and believe that they deserve it. But factors other than pay rank higher with most.

These young teachers want to find themselves facing a roomful of students who are well-behaved and eager to learn, with parents that are involved in their schooling and supportive of their school and teachers. They want smaller class sizes. They want mentors, and wish that their teacher education programs had spent a lot more time on classroom management, discipline, and strategies for motivating kids who don't seem to want to learn. They want principals who will stand behind them in difficult situations involving disputes over grades or discipline. They want to work with colleagues who are motivated and good at helping students become better learners.

For instance: given a choice between two schools in otherwise identical districts, 86 percent would prefer a school with significantly better student behavior and parental support, compared to a school with a significantly higher salary. Similarly, 82 percent would choose a school with strongly supportive administrators over a school with a significantly higher salary. And 77 percent would choose a school with highly motivated and effective teachers over one with a higher salary.

These new teachers firmly reject the view that teaching attracts people of mediocre ability in search of job security and long vacations. Instead, 86 percent said that only those with "a true sense of calling" should pursue a classroom career. Ninety percent say their profession requires more talent and hard work than many other professions. Ninety-six percent say that teaching is work they love to do. Concerns of teachers and administrators
While the teachers gave themselves pretty high marks in many areas, they are realistic—perhaps more realistic than many policy-makers—about the limits of their power. More than 70 percent said that they did not believe a failing school could be turned around by a team of exceptionally talented teachers alone. Parents, they said, must be involved. A substantial minority—42 percent—said that parental involvement and socioeconomic factors are more important than teacher quality in determining student achievement.

The survey found that about 19 percent of these young teachers expect to change careers soon. But the survey of young college graduates employed in other jobs found that 50 percent expect to do the same. The authors of the report suggest that recent concerns over high turnover rates among young teachers may be overblown, partly caused by a failure to understand how much more mobile the workforce has become overall in recent decades.

For their part, school administrators are pretty happy with the new teachers that they hire. More than half—52 percent—said the quality of new teachers has improved in recent years, while 39 percent said quality has remained about the same. Only 9 percent saw a decline. A bigger concern for the administrators was one of supply, with most reporting some difficulty filling teaching positions. However, the shortage is far from the crisis that experts have been predicting: 76 percent say the problem is serious but manageable, while only 24 percent say it is severe and hard to overcome.

One strength of "A Sense of Calling" lies in the clear limits of what it sets out to do. This report does not attempt to measure the quality of young teachers now starting out in the profession; or to determine whether teacher certification programs provide needed skills and knowledge. Instead, it looks at how young teachers perceive themselves, their colleagues and their work; how they are perceived by the school administrators who hire and supervise them; and how their contemporaries now working in other fields view the idea of a teaching career.

In this, it performs a valuable service, reminding us that what motivates a young dot-com striver to work 12-hour days in a tiny cubicle is not what motivates a first or second-year teacher to stay up late writing lesson plans. As the afterword of the report puts it, "The simple economic approach—pay higher salaries, attract people now going into higher-paying professions—overlooks incentives that are significantly more important to most teachers and would-be teachers. What appeals to them is the idea of teaching. What they most want is what they believe will make them more effective in their work—smaller classes and much stronger support from administration and parents." For more information on the report, visit Public Agenda's summary.



Susan Phillips is managing editor of Connect for Kids.