Devaluing teachers hurts education

Crystal Zhong/Staff

As we are beginning a new semester at UC Berkeley, we sometimes take a step back and reflect on why we are here. Few of us question how we got here. Some attribute their success to the support they received from their parents, a guidance counselor who helped them throughout the college application process or a teacher who made a change in their educational trajectory.

Unfortunately, many students in high schools around the Bay Area may not have had the opportunity to engage with a teacher who could have changed their life. This past August, reports surfaced stating that the Bay Area was experiencing a shortage of teachers. The Oakland Unified School District was in need of 77 teachers just 10 days before classes began, and the San Francisco Unified School District was in need of 22 teachers. In one high school alone in Alameda County, there was a shortage of 20 teachers.

Shortages of teachers translate into multiple problems in schools. To begin with, when schools do not have enough permanent-position teachers to be placed in the classrooms, they resort to substitute teachers. Without a permanent teacher, students struggle through the difficulty of adjusting to different teaching styles and teacher expectations, creating additional student stress that could have been prevented. Instead of substitute teachers, some schools resort to hiring less-qualified teachers or assign teachers trained in another field or grade. As a result, students attempt  to learn material from teachers who lack the skills and knowledge necessary for quality instruction. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future has conducted studies that show that teacher expertise is the most important factor in student achievement.

Along with other universities in the UC system, UC Berkeley strives to ameliorate this issue through the University of California Science and Math Teacher Initiative, or CalTeach. CalTeach is making a prominent contribution to the supply of highly qualified science and math teachers by strengthening California’s undergraduate pipeline to teaching. Students majoring in math, engineering, science or technology have the opportunity to participate in the CalTeach program, which introduces them to teaching through courses and fieldwork experience while completing their major. Since the inception of the program in 2005, more than 1,374 students have earned a math or science teaching credential. In addition, more than 1,400 students who have completed the program have taken jobs in public school districts in California.

Despite the fact that CalTeach is doing an excellent job at attracting students to enter teaching, the trend continues. The number of people pursuing teaching credentials and the number of teaching credentials issued have declined dramatically in recent years.

There are several reasons for the decline in enrollment in teacher-training programs, but one issue is prominent: money. College graduates face increasing debt. College students often seek careers that will allow them to pay back the debt while maintaining a comfortable living, and teachers’ salaries in California are low. In many other countries, society views the teaching profession as highly valuable. For example, in Korea, teachers’ salaries reflect how much they are valued in their society. Teachers’ salaries are behind those of doctors and compete with those of engineers, which translates into a purchasing power in their local economy that is roughly 250 percent higher than that of American teachers. In Finland, where student achievement is ranked among the highest in the world, qualified teachers receive a three-year preparation program free of charge in addition to a living stipend. Teachers in California don’t go into the profession for the money, but while they help students succeed, they have to be able to pay their bills.

If we want to address the shortage of teachers in California, we must value the profession and recognize its importance. Teachers have one of the most important jobs in our society: developing the minds of our future. As we reflect on how lucky we are to be students at this great institution, some of us should re-evaluate whether we would be interested to partake in a profession that inspires and shapes our future generation: the teaching profession. Specifically, those students majoring in math, engineering, science or technology should consider taking up the opportunity of being part of the CalTeach program, and who knows, maybe they will discover a passion they never thought they would have.

Michelle Garcia is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley.

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