The number of young people choosing education as a career continues to plummet across the country.  Alabama is no exception.  In 2010 Alabama had 4,985 individuals complete teacher education programs.  That number dropped every year since and was only 2,506 in 2015.  That’s a decrease of about 50 percent.

Dr. Beth Vinson spent many years as both a classroom teacher and a professor of education at the University of Alabama and at Athens
State.  Today she is an elected school board member in Lawrence County.

Here are her thoughts directed to members of the legislature as to what is going on:

“We often hear: ‘How do we attract the best and brightest young people into teaching careers?’ My experience has been that the question is best answered by turning it around. ‘What are we doing to make the best and brightest young people NOT want to pursue teaching as their career?’

Within the next few months, seniors will be graduating from high school and declaring majors as they head to college. The wisest of them are predicting their own financial futures by witnessing how educators and education retirees have been (and are being) treated by the State of Alabama in regard to financial compensation. When these young people continue to witness the struggling economic conditions for educators, it makes it much more difficult to keep the ‘best and brightest’ attracted to teaching as a career.

We have a generation weighted down with overwhelming balances on their student loans. In response, counselors across the U.S. are teaching beginning college students to ‘make your price, match your reward.’ Here’s the best example I have heard:

‘When making a large purchase, such as a new automobile, the loan should not exceed the value of the automobile. You should never borrow $30,000 and make payments on that total when all you brought home was a $20,000 automobile. And, that’s what many of you will be doing with your college loans – borrowing more money to be qualified to do the job than the salary justifies.’

Nationwide, aspiring educators are being taught to take the estimated cost for completing the four-year degree in education and compare it to their probable salary as a first-year teacher. Some are very surprised to find that if they handed over their total paycheck each month to pay of their college loan it could take one, or even two years! We’re not even talking about interest payments or the fact that probably nobody uses his/her whole paycheck each month to pay on a loan.

So, if the “’best and brightest’ young people are willing to carry that loan and accept a less-than-professional paycheck, that’s fine. But, as they view the State of Alabama’s compensation for educators and education retirees, it gives them little hope for their futures. And, it makes it even more difficult for them to justify this decision to themselves and to others about how a degree in education, funded by a school loan, is a smart financial decision, given that they will barely be able to pay it back. ‘I love children’ and ‘I love teaching’ are great motivators for getting a degree in education – but they do not pay the bills. And, more and more of these high school seniors are being taught to ‘wisely’ invest in their education. They have learned that they should make their future compensation for the work match or exceed the cost of the college degree.

Also built into that equation is their prediction of the numbers they cannot see:  whether they will have fair cost of living raises during their careers, as well as throughout their retirements. If they are willing to accept the cost of the college degree, as well as the paycheck they will likely get, they also need to feel confident that future paychecks will be equally acceptable as the cost of living expenses rise.

Another issue debated in the Legislature is that of tenure. The job of an educator is already a struggle at best. Teaching is not a clock-in/clock-out job; students are multi-dimensional in every way imaginable; and assessments, requirements, and documentation get more complicated as the years go by. Aspiring educators are now concerned that it will take them longer to acquire tenure, if at all. Young people who are the best and the brightest are not worried about doing the job well enough to ‘earn’ tenure. Their concern is that they will not have the job security that those who have chosen other career fields will have (for example, employment contracts). Therefore, when the manipulation or removal of tenure is discussed in the Legislature, it serves as a deterrent to those who are seeking the smartest and most financially sound careers that will provide for themselves and their families in the future.

In summary, the biggest hidden recruitment problem in education involves what legislators say and do in regard to fair compensation and cost of living raises for educators and education retirees. Nobody has to go out and convince bright young people to become educators. They already know that they want to be educators.  They just need to be reassured that it truly is the ‘best’ and the ‘brightest’ financial decision to ‘spend’ their career as an educator.

Many members in the Legislature have probably never considered themselves as principal agents in recruiting the “best and brightest” young people into teaching careers. Maybe now they do.”

Time after time we hear lawmakers harp about improving the quality of teachers.  But it seems their actions seldom match their words as Dr. Vinson points out.