Capitol Journal

Why veteran teachers aren't surprised young people are shunning the profession

Judging from my email, a lot of California public school teachers are demoralized and questioning their career choices.

They're not at all surprised that fewer and fewer college students are going into teaching.

My column last week about a growing teacher shortage triggered a barrage of responses. Most of it came from current or retired teachers.

The volume and intensity matched what would be expected from a column about such contentious topics as guns, abortion or taxes.

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"I am a retired teacher who years ago encouraged my children to go into teaching," one woman wrote. "Sadly, we are now strongly recommending that it is the last profession that my college-aged grandchildren consider."

The former Los Angeles Unified teacher asked for anonymity because "I still have exhausted, discouraged but dedicated family members teaching."

The retiree, now a classroom volunteer, wrote about one 8-year-old who is "confused, bored and frequently unaware of the need to use the bathroom," yet is not in special education. That's probably because there's a particular shortage of special ed teachers.

A 7-year-old, she continued, is the daughter of a woman "in and out of rehab [who] has taught her child that she should never obey the rules. So the student refuses to work, lies on the floor and screams, bullies classmates and uses profanity that would make a truck driver blush."

The retiree cited "teacher bashing, general disrespect for the profession … out of touch politicians and parents who either neglect their children or who set an example of disrespect and entitlement."

She concluded: "Young people are well advised to look elsewhere until society takes a good, hard and honest look at what they have done to the profession."

Scores of emails echoed her sentiments. Only a handful hailed the profession.

"Teaching is a hidden gem of a career that only needs a slight nudge to get young people into," wrote Bob, a retired high school teacher from the San Fernando Valley. He recommended "a modest advertising program and not so many hoops to get a teaching credential."

As for being burdened with nighttime paper grading, he said, "I did it for years until I noticed that most teachers were car key teachers. That's the only thing being carried to the parking lot."

My late wife never achieved "car key" status.

She taught high school English — plus public speaking, debate and journalism — for 38 years and was always grading papers at night. That is, when she wasn't putting out the school paper, shepherding students through speech rehearsal or hauling debaters to tournaments.

She loved the kids and teaching. But she was frustrated with timid administrators, decrepit facilities and a new "reform" seemingly every year.

There also was the depressing fact that few parents ever showed up for "back to school" night to hear how their kids were doing. And when she called parents to caution them about their teens failing or ditching class, she'd get an earful about being an awful teacher.

I read similar stuff in the emails.

A decline in classroom discipline was the dominant complaint.

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"No one is going into teaching after hearing the horror stories emanating from the lack of discipline," wrote Dave, whose late wife taught. One day she came home and proclaimed "it isn't fun anymore."

"The straw that broke the camel's back," he said, was a boy who stubbornly refused to stop playing games on his smartphone in class. The teacher sent the student to the principal's office, but he returned shortly with a readmission note and a sneer. "She retired."

It can get worse. My wife had her purse stolen by a student after class while another kid distracted her by ostensibly seeking academic advice.

Gary, who taught in a country school near Modesto, wrote: "Poor discipline was reinforced by the administration. If a child of someone politically important in the community got in trouble, the administration looked the other way. Students knew it was a game."

Pay didn't seem to be the top priority for my emailers.

Annual starting salaries average from $40,000 to $44,000, depending on the district, according to the state education department. They top out at $89,000 to $92,000.

That's the fifth-highest pay in the nation. But the cost of living in California is high too.

Teachers get summers off. "College students don't understand that four to six weeks of time off in the summer is PRICELESS," wrote Gale, a nurse, who has tried to talk her children into becoming teachers. "They laugh at me."

California has the nation's highest average class sizes. Often teachers must kick in for their own supplies. The pensions are OK — averaging $38,000 at age 61 after teaching 26 years — but in California, they can't be supplemented with Social Security.

In the last decade, there has been a 70% drop in people preparing to be California teachers. Last year, 15,000 new credentials were issued, but 22,000 were needed, says state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

"It's a serious problem," he says, "and we've just seen the tip of the iceberg."

Fewer young people are entering the field. Baby boomers are leaving.

Torlakson and legislators are pushing some proposals: Earlier teacher training, even in high school. More mentoring. Student loan forgiveness.

But mainly, more teachers and retirees need to feel proud of their profession again. Then they can sell it to young people.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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