Lack of jobs leave many teachers wondering about future

Teaching no longer applies as a stable career choice, experts say

Monday, August 09, 2010

Four years ago, Peter Robertson thought he was leaving the uncertainty of a freelance writing career for the stability of teaching.

He'd always wanted his own classroom, and the 52-year-old was pretty sure he'd get hired — schools were eager for male teachers with life experience.

But that was in 2006, when he was completing his teacher training. A lot has happened to the profession since then.
Illinois' budget woes threw schools into a firing frenzy last spring, and many educators remain in layoff limbo. Other teachers have a job but are dreading a year of larger class sizes — followed by what is expected to be years more of budget cutting.

The whole notion of teaching being a profession where you could find a job, earn a comfortable paycheck, get tenure and retire with a tidy pension is changing, experts say.

"The days of teaching as a safe haven are gone," said Tom Carroll, president of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, a nonprofit group. "It's over. The new model is about turnover and churn … and that undermines student achievement."

Even with all the turmoil, education remains a popular career choice. It's still the No. 1 major at Illinois State University, Northern Illinois University and other state schools.

But many aspiring teachers graduating from those programs will not be heading right to the classroom.

Of the 1,100 education majors from ISU's Class of 2010, about 80 percent are still hoping for an offer, according to the career office. And even traditionally hard-to-fill specialties — math, science and special education — in impoverished communities are turning away applicants.

"The reality is that even high-need schools have an abundance of qualified applicants," said Karen Peterson, an education professor at Governors State University. "Jobs are scarce, funding is abysmal, class sizes are going up and programs are being cut. This is not an easy time to be a teacher looking for a position."

According to the Illinois State Board of Education, nearly twice as many tenured teaching positions were eliminated in 2009 compared with 2008 — and the widespread downsizing means districts often aren't filling those spots. The figures are expected to be even worse for the last school year but won't be known until November.

Teachers are not expecting conditions to improve anytime soon. School districts that avoided layoffs for the upcoming school year have eaten up their reserves, leading many to predict cuts will come next school year, said Michael McGue, president of the Lake County Federation of Teachers.

"This is the beginning of a three- to four-year trend," McGue said. "The loss of teaching jobs will continue."

The irony, of course, is that as newcomers beg to get in the door, teachers who have jobs are leaving them at a higher rate after being disappointed by life in the classroom and such pressures as school reform, demanding parents and an emphasis on testing.

Almost 40 percent of first-time teachers leave the field within three years, according to a recent report by NCTAF.

Kathryn Castle, president of the Elgin Teachers Association in District 46, where 332 teachers are still without jobs for the fall, said she mentored 16 first-year teachers last year. By the time the district had announced cuts, many were torn about the profession.

"They've chosen it as a career that they want to dedicate their lives to, but some of the pressures make it difficult to know that it's the right choice," Castle said.

More than 300,000 veterans nationwide left the teaching ranks between 2004 and 2008, driven by retirement incentives. And baby boomers also are headed for the exit ramp — especially in Illinois, where 54 percent of the teaching force is 50 or older.

The result? A revolving door, where consistency, stability and wisdom may go the way of the slide rule.

"School districts can't afford to replace the veterans, so you end up with bigger class size, fewer teachers and less experience. … It's a totally new picture — and it's bad for kids," said NCTAF's Carroll.

All of this leaves the current crop of new teachers in an anxious place. Some are pursuing options like teaching overseas, out of state, part time or even taking $10-an-hour hallway monitor positions while waiting for the market to improve.

"I'm not spending my waking hours filling out applications because there just aren't many jobs out there," said Robertson, a Flossmoor resident who is resigned to another year of substitute teaching. "I'm riding my bike and I'm drinking coffee."

Amy Cohen, of Morton Grove, a recent ISU grad who has five subject endorsements and spent her senior year in a Wheeling middle school, applied to 40 districts and attended several job fairs without a nibble.

ISU education Dean Deborah Curtis called her "one of the best-prepared new teachers you can find." In any other year, "she would have been scooped up long before now," Curtis said.

Instead, Cohen is baby-sitting and working as a camp counselor while continuing to send out resumes. When she gets discouraged, she reflects on her positive student teaching experience for inspiration.

"Although the job search can be frustrating, I feel that this is what I am meant to do … so I can't say I've really questioned my decision," she said. "I view this as a long-term career commitment … and I will fulfill my dream."