News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

May 1, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Hoosier college grads may want to consider teaching jobs elsewhere

TERRE HAUTE — Commencement ceremonies at Indiana State University and St. Mary-of-the-Woods College are just six days away. Some family members and friends may still be mulling the perfect graduation gift for the future teacher of the Class of 2011.

Here’s an idea — air fare.

The suggestion isn’t cynical. It’s simply practical.

College graduates intending to teach in Indiana face an unsettling job climate. The aftermath of the recession and curtailed tax revenues triggered staffing cutbacks in many Hoosier public school districts, so teaching positions are proving tough to find. That situation, though, accounts for only a portion of the gloomy job-market forecast awaiting folks who just completed their teaching degrees.

The state also endured a blunt battle over education “reforms” — advocated by Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett — which the Republican-dominated General Assembly approved, with only minor compromises. Their plan targeted teachers’ pay structure, evaluations and collective bargaining rights. The showdown featured a five-week walkout by Indiana House Democrats, protests by unions at the Statehouse, and sharp barbs about teachers and public schools that offended and disheartened many dedicated educators.

Is the perception of negativity toward public-school teachers by Indiana’s leaders affecting collegians planning to enter the profession? “Absolutely,” said Terry McDaniel, assistant professor of educational leadership, administration and foundations at ISU.

Applications for admission this fall, overall, are up at ISU, compared to this same time last year — 12,409, an increase of 170. Though business and health majors are growing, the number of applicants to ISU’s College of Education is down slightly from 868 in April 2010 to 838 so far this year. (Even with that drop, College of Education applications are significantly higher than the 601 at this time in 2009.)

“Certainly, news articles related to teacher performance, collective bargaining and teacher pay are making some young people think twice about careers in teaching,” stated John Beacon, ISU vice president for enrollment management, marketing and communications, who also cited districts’ budget and staffing cutbacks as a reason teacher prospects may be rethinking that choice.

Now, Indiana already struggles with “brain drain,” with 46.6 percent of graduates of the state’s colleges and universities going elsewhere to live and work, according to Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute statistics. And, Hoosier businesses and colleges — as well as the Daniels administration — have collaborated, as they should, to retain more college grads. Brain drain is a significant problem. That said, future teachers in the Class of 2011 may need to heed the age-old advice of college counselors that past graduates had the luxury of avoiding: Be willing to relocate …

To another state, if necessary.

“For those that are very mobile, yes, there are pockets around the country where there are shortages of teachers,” said McDaniel, who instructs upcoming principals and superintendents. He carries personal experience, having spent 28 years as a public-school administrator.

School districts in the cities of Phoenix, Las Vegas and Chicago and in the state of Florida all have shown interest in current ISU teaching majors, in addition to Indiana public and charter schools, said Brad Balch, dean of the university’s College of Education.

“If there’s an interest in moving, there are opportunities,” Balch said.

Flexibility adds marketability

ISU aims to equip its education majors to be attractive hires in Indiana’s tight market and beyond, Balch explained. Those aiming to work at an elementary level, for example, must attain dual certifications, making them capable of also teaching in areas where shortages may exist, such as special education, physics and some sciences. The qualifications to teach English as a second language give new job-seekers options, too.

Such flexibility is crucial today. An open teaching position around Indianapolis can draw several hundred applications, Balch said.

Balch expects job openings in the Hoosier state to eventually be less scarce, because “Indiana has an aging teacher population.” The high number of Baby Boomers — people born between 1946 and 1964 — still working means the wave of retirements inevitably will grow. While many struggling districts currently plan to leave the retiring teachers’ positions unfilled to cut costs, eventually new teachers will have to step in.

“With that, we can see quite a change in Indiana over the next 5 to 10 years,” Balch said.

This year, though, new college grads must get creative to find teaching jobs. They may consider public charter schools or private schools — both of which got controversial state-funding boosts from Daniels’ reform package. Some 2011 grads determined to stay in Indiana plan to take substitute teaching roles — with lower pay, few benefits and no security — “and then hope to get on full-time after a year or two,” McDaniel said.

Better possibilities could be found elsewhere, perhaps in the South or West, if the would-be teachers’ training fits the opening. Success “depends on if the vacancies are a good match of the candidate’s skills,” said Jill Hare, founder of TheApple.com, an online teaching community owned by Monster Worldwide. The idea of a hopeful, first-time teacher searching nationally for work is “an adventure,” she added.

She speaks from experience. On the brink of completing her master’s degree in music education at Columbia University, Hare accepted an open contract in the Atlanta public school system, meaning she could be assigned to any building in that district. A Missouri native who got her bachelor’s degree at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn., Hare wound up spending five years as general music teacher, chorus director and drama director at Jackson Elementary in Atlanta, earning a teacher-of-the-year award.

“It was definitely a risk for me,” she said, “but it worked out well.”

Looking coast to coast

Likewise, 2011 graduates should “get as much experience as you can with the age group and area you want to teach,” Hare said.

The harsh rhetoric aimed at public schools and teachers during this year’s legislative session could nudge newcomers to explore openings around the country. Even such a broad search won’t be simple. While employers in all industries plan to hire 19.3 percent more college graduates this spring than in 2010, only 2 percent of education-based employers will be hiring those grads, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Slim teaching prospects have been reported in Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, California, including Los Angeles, and West Virginia. Some states have experienced similar restructuring of teachers’ pay, hiring and firing, and collective bargaining.

Still, teaching job-hunters face stiffer odds in Indiana and the Midwest. The region’s family-age population isn’t growing at the same pace as others, Beacon explained in an e-mail to the Tribune-Star. Within the next two decades, 70 percent of the U.S. population will live in the Sun Belt, from Florida through Texas and into California, he added.

“If Midwest graduates are unwilling to relocate, finding teaching jobs in this region will continue to be a challenge for many,” Beacon stated.

For Indiana, the heated debate over Daniels’ education reforms follows a steady rise in state-issued, first-year teaching licenses. The number of “initial practitioner licenses” rose from 5,308 in the 2007-08 school year, to 5,451 in 2008-09, and 5,599 in 2009-10, according to the Indiana Department of Education. The recession was hitting in full force during those years, yet the interest in teaching didn’t wane. How the perceived backlash against public schools and teachers will affect the number of people pursuing teaching licenses is yet to be seen. Undoubtedly, the changes will narrow the field to the most passionate candidates, those who’ll say, “I want to go into education because I want to make a difference,” as McDaniel put it.

Balch remains optimistic about the craft and continues to encourage students who want to teach.

“For me, it gets beyond the politics,” Balch said. “I’m sorry that there’s such a negative viewpoint of teaching. I still try to rise above that and celebrate it as the most noble profession you can pick.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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