New teachers for a new millennium

New teachers for a new millennium

Jones, Wayne D

Who Was Your Favorite Teacher?

During your elementary and secondary school years, did one teacher stand out from the others and make an extraordinary impact on your life? Was it a charismatic, spirited and entertaining teacher who pulled out all the stops and breathed life into material that would otherwise have been boring? Or was it a stem taskmaster who never let you give less than 100 percent and who challenged you to achieve things you didn’t think you were capable of? Or was it a soft-spoken, quietly inspirational teacher who took a personal interest in your academic development, gave you counsel and nurtured your individual talents?

Great teachers may differ in personality and individual teaching styles, but they share a common devotion to excellent teaching. They also share a common enjoyment of their work and an understanding that, by helping to shape the minds of today’s children, they are making their imprint on tomorrow’s world. Perhaps most importantly, they share an unwavering belief in the capabilities of their students and an absolute commitment to enhancing the lives of the young people they teach.

As Ronald O. Ross, superintendent of the Mount Vernon, N.Y Public Schools says, “When you think about the most important teachers in your life, chances are that you remember them because they had faith in you, and not because they taught you who the 32nd president was.” So think back to those teachers who touched your life. Take a moment to acknowledge their importance in your own development and to thank them for their dedication. And consider the role that you can play in preparing our next generations by pursuing a teaching career.

The Decision to Teach

On the occasion of W.E.B. DuBois’ 90th birthday, he delivered a message to his newly born great-grandson. On the subject of work and the mission of one’s life, DuBois wrote:

“The return from your work must be the satisfaction which that work brings you and the world’s need for that work. With this, life is heaven, or as near as heaven as you can get. Without this…, life is hell.”

When it comes to opportunities for personal satisfaction and for doing work that the world truly needs, teaching is simply unmatched by other professions. A recent survey conducted by the Open Society Institute reported that 96 percent of new teachers loved their job, as opposed to only 80 percent of new college graduates overall. These teachers, the survey revealed, most appreciated that teaching enabled them to “make a difference.”

America is now facing the challenges of the information age, and teachers are playing an increasingly critical role in developing an educated workforce and an informed citizenry. Across the country and around the globe, institutions ranging from industry, health care, law and technology are undergoing tremendous change. The transformation of each of these fields is being driven by information and knowledge, and is occurring at an incredibly rapid rate. Moore’s Law, the universally-accepted theory that ongoing advances in technology will double the speed at which information can be processed every 18 months, demands that swift and constant change will continue to be the rule in practically all walks of life. The job of America’s schools at the commencement of the 21 st Century, then, is to prepare students to succeed in today’s economic and social environment while also strengthening their abilities to adapt to change.

As America’s schools and teachers adapt to their new roles in today’s complex and information-driven society, they are themselves confronting enormous challenges and changes. Tough new state learning standards are being adopted across the country, and debates over content and curricula are raging. Teacher and administrator shortages exist in most school districts, and will increase in the years to come. As the nation becomes more diverse, the demographic profiles of most districts’ student populations are changing dramatically. In most districts, the diversity of the student populations far exceeds the diversity of the districts’ faculties and administrations. In addition, schools and teachers must now establish effective strategies to integrate computers and learning technologies into their classrooms.

It is no wonder, then, that in poll after poll, education is America’s number one priority. In the highstakes information age-where the workforce demands and rewards only those employees who can learn and apply new information-the importance of teachers cannot be overstated. Teachers are the key players in the national effort to prepare our children for successful lives and careers in these demanding and fast-changing times.

To teach, then, is to accept the challenge of building and nurturing our next generations. It is to embrace the opportunity to use new technologies and teaching strategies to meet the needs of diverse student populations. It is to commit to helping children meet high standards and achieve success. The simple fact is that few professions are as challenging and rewarding as teaching.

Opportunities in the Teaching Profession

The demand for teachers has never been greater. Increased birth rates and immigration have resulted in explosive growth in elementary and secondary school student enrollments. By 2006, the nation’s schools will enroll more than 54 million students-roughly 3 million more students than today. At the same time, nearly half of today’s teachersmost of whom entered the profession during the baby boom student enrollment spike of the 1960’s-will have retired. As a result, school districts across the country are scrambling to identify, recruit and hire more than two hundred thousand new teachers each year.

The need for new teachers is greatest in inner cities and highpoverty areas. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 700,000 new teachers must be hired in inner city and high-need districts within the next 10 years. Teacher demand is also strong in the rapidly growing South and West, where student enrollments are expected to grow by more than 10 percent during the next seven years. In fields such as mathematics, physical science, special education, computer science and bilingual education, there is a strong need for new teachers in all regions of the country.

The nation’s growing demand for new teachers is also driven by the desire of many school districts to reduce the ratio of students to teachers in their classrooms. In the light of new research that links smaller class size to improved student achievement, reduced discipline problems and greater interaction between students and teachers, President Clinton called for schools to reduce class size in early grades from the current average of 23 students to 18 or fewer students. To support this, the U.S. Department of Education expects to spend more than $12.4 billion over the next six years for Class Size Reduction grants and related initiatives to reduce class size in the nation’s schools. For most districts, reductions in class size cannot be accomplished without hiring new teachers.

To address this need for new teachers, many states and school districts have adopted new incentive programs for new teachers. Among these incentives are:

Higher Salaries-Efforts are underway to raise salaries for new and experienced teachers in districts across the country. Although few people enter the teaching profession strictly for the money, many school districts are revising their salary structures to improve compensation for new teachers. Washington, D.C., for instance, increased salaries for first-year teachers by ten percent last year. The average salary for teachers in the United States is $40,574. The average salary for new teachers is $26,669. Teacher salaries are highest in Connecticut and New Jersey, where the average salaries for experienced teachers exceed $50,000. When cost-of-living indicators are considered, however, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois join New Jersey as the five highestpaying states for experienced teachers. Often, salaries in suburban districts are higher than in neighboring cities. In suburban Westchester County, for instance, teacher salaries are 25 percent higher than in neighboring New York City, and experienced teachers with doctorates in some Westchester County districts can earn more than $100,000 annually.

Benefits-To supplement teacher salaries, many school districts are experimenting with innovative benefits. These benefits range from housing subsidies and lowinterest (and even no-interest) housing loans to reimbursement for relocation expenses to on-site day care. In states such as California and North Carolina, and in cities such as Minneapolis and Miami, teachers receive financial support to achieve certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. California recently approved tax credits for teachers, and California Governor Gray Davis is advocating that teachers be exempted from paying any state tax at all.

Bonuses-In many school districts, new teachers can receive “signing bonuses” and other financial incentives, especially if they agree to work in high-need schools. New York City, for instance, provides a $2,000 bonus and special training to new teachers through its highly competitive New Teacher Project. Massachusetts provides a $20,000 bonus, special training and accelerated certification to selected liberal arts graduates and career-changers that agree to work as public school teachers for at least four years.

The Need for New

African-American Teachers

For African Americans interested in teaching careers, the national teacher shortage has created a uniquely favorable marketplace. Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s elementary and secondary school students are African American and people of color. These students will comprise more than half of the national student population within the first half of this century. Yet, less than seven percent of teachers are African American, and more than 45 percent of the nation’s public schools have no African-American teachers at all. Consequently, there is an especially strong demand for new AfricanAmerican teachers. In a recent poll conducted by the Council on Great City Schools, three-quarters of urban districts reported an immediate need for African-American teachers.

The scarcity of African-American teachers has a devastating impact on African- American children, the general student population and shaping of our education policies. The shortage of African-American teachers has resulted in fewer positive and professional role models for AfricanAmerican students, many of whom also lack such role models at home and in their immediate communities. Also, the life experiences that African-American teachers bring into their classrooms often make them better prepared to appreciate the needs of African-American children and to validate their self-worth. According to University of Georgia Professor Margaret Wilder, research has shown that African-American teachers tend to hold higher expectations for their African-American students than do white teachers, and that absenteeism and other discipline problems involving AfricanAmerican students tend to decrease when faculties include AfricanAmerican teachers. It is clear that the aspirations, achievement and self-confidence of African-American students are enhanced by the presence and perceptions of AfricanAmerican teachers.

Increasing the number of African-American teachers will help not only African- American students, but the entire student population as well. It is evident people of all races who are exposed at early ages to African Americans as experts and authority figures are less likely to discriminate and/or hold unfavorable opinions of cultural minority groups. Accordingly, students who are instructed by a diverse group of teachers are more likely to grow into adults who acknowledge that competent, conscientious and caring people come in all colors. AfricanAmerican teachers can thus improve cross-cultural understanding in their students and, by so doing, impact the future of race relations. This view has been validated by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy’s Task Force on Teaching, which reported that, “We cannot tolerate a future in which both white and minority children are confronted with almost exclusively white authority figures in school.”

Perhaps the greatest impact of increasing the number of AfricanAmerican teachers will be on the evolution of educational policy at the district, state and national levels. Tremendous changes are underway in elementary and secondary education, and the input of AfricanAmerican educators in the national dialogue on education is critical. In the next few years, America will review and perhaps overhaul the way students are taught, the way teachers are trained and the way schools are managed. As student populations become more multicultural, how will schools eliminate the achievement gap between African-American and white students that currently exists across class lines? Will public schools provide a “classical education” or will schools adopt new “brain-based” teaching strategies? Will the study of literature by “dead white males” yield to a reading cur-‘ riculum that includes more multicultural literature? Will schools continue to use bilingual education to address the needs of an increasingly language minority student population? How will technology be integrated into elementary and secondary curricula, and what will be done to bridge the digital divide? Will home schooling, charter schools and vouchers soon change the very makeup of elementary and secondary education across the nation? As these vital issues are debated, the input of African-American teachers is essential. Indeed, it is the participation of a new, vibrant generation of African-American educators that will ensure that the educational reforms of the coming decades serve all students.

Committing to Excellence in Teaching

The 1980s saw the development of the personal computer-a product that was completely outside the thinking of most Americans in 1980 but had become an absolute necessity for businesses and many households by the end of the decade. The 1990s saw the development of the Internet, which transformed the relatively inexpensive personal computer into a powerful tool for research, information-sharing, shopping, selling and global communication. From e-mail to online shopping to distance learning, this new development has revolutionized the way we do business and the way we live our lives. What world-shattering innovations will take place in the decades to come? How will they change our lives?

It is, to borrow a well worn but very appropriate phrase, a brave new world. And it is the next generation of teachers that must prepare an increasingly diverse student population to succeed in this increasingly complex environment.

The information society of the 21st Century rewards innovation, creativity and the development of effective new solutions to the problems we face. Nowhere is the need for new ideas, new perspectives and new strategies more evident than in the educational institutions that nurture our children. The contribution of new African-American teachers in creating-and fighting for-these new approaches to education is pivotal.

New African-American teachers must therefore commit to excellence in their teaching. They must demand nothing short of excellence from their students, their schools and themselves. Excellence in teaching means creating quality classroom learning environments where high expectations are maintained, where student achievement and self-worth are supported and in which all students can learn. Excellence in teaching also means actively working closely with parents and “speaking up” as advocates for their students. Critically, excellence in teaching requires that teachers dedicate themselves to continuous improvement through professional development, reflection and ongoing communication with respected peers.

To all who would join this new generation of adventurous and deeply committed AfricanAmerican teachers, you are to be congratulated for seizing the opportunity to prepare our youth for success in the decades to come. What you are doing is nothing short of helping to transform the world.

Wayne D. Jones is a nationally recognized education consultant specializing in strategic planning and resource development for educational organizations and nonprofits.

Copyright Black Collegian Feb 2001

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