Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Attracting and Retaining High-Quality Professionals in Science Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Attracting and Retaining High-Quality Professionals in Science Education

Article excerpt

Heather Knapp has been in pharmaceutical sales for eight years now and has achieved considerable financial success. Yet she recently told Mr. Weld that she sorely misses teaching - a profession where her efforts "made a difference."

Heather Knapp was an outstanding teacher. We met during her sixth year as chemistry instructor and cheerleading sponsor at a suburban St. Louis high school where I had landed a job as a biology teacher. She was equally adept at inspiring her students in stoichiometry by day and choreography by evening, having won accolades for doing both. I relished our lunches together, when Heather's insights about young people, knowledge of our craft, and reflections about schooling nourished my own growth as a teacher. It was over one of those lunches in the spring of the year that Heather announced that she had accepted a job in pharmaceutical sales and was leaving teaching.

Heather had actually surpassed the mean survival time for chemistry teachers. The average number of years in the classroom that beginning chemistry teachers endure is an alarmingly short four years, according to a 1993 RAND Corporation study, and the average is only slightly better for physics and biology teachers.(1) Teacher attrition across the disciplines is a serious problem, but it is particularly acute in the sciences, and it is particularly disturbing when the teachers who leave are talented and reflective people. Any teacher can tell stories about "the good ones" who have left the classroom - whether to "move up" to administration or to leave education altogether. A study of 13,000 teachers who began their careers in Michigan during the 1970s revealed that only 56% were still teaching after six years. For chemistry teachers, the figure was 49%.(2) Furthermore, an older study showed that those with higher scores on the National Teacher Exam had stayed in teaching less time than those with low scores.(3)

The 'Boil Over' Effect

The institutional factors that led to Heather's difficult decision are malleable ones, which makes the loss particularly acute for future learners deprived of her talents. And the reasons are basically the same as those cited by teachers surveyed in a 1994 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) study, in which some common reasons teachers mentioned for leaving the profession were a lack of influence over school policy, a sense of collegial isolation, and a host of factors that diminish the professionalism of teaching.(4) But Heather, like many exemplary teachers, did not seem to be "ground down" by the system. Indeed, she was at peak performance after six years of honing her craft. To call her story one more case of teacher burnout would be a disservice to a professional with plenty of fire remaining. When good teachers leave teaching, "burnout" is a convenient label that removes from school administrations and parents any responsibility for their departure. It implies that a weakness within the individual led to the decision. But it might be more fruitful to consider a "burned-out" set of expectations as the reason a teacher "boiled over."

Heather had "boiled over" because of the inherent limitations of the school system. When she'd first begun teaching, it took all her considerable acumen to plan lessons, stay abreast of the subject matter, develop rapport with students, and learn all the nuances of daily life in teaching. After two or three years, she had grown into her role and had started to reflect more on systemic issues that she felt needed action. When reflective teachers turn their intellectual attention toward the school system, the frustration they feel can lead to disenchantment with the profession.

In the latter half of Heather's brief career, she worked hard to promote teaching strategies in accord with sound pedagogical research. She had partially dismantled tracking in chemistry by incorporating the honors section with her regular classes, while offering an independent contract for students who wished to earn honors credit. …

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