Tomorrow's Teachers are Here and Ready To Go
But is Higher Education Ready For Them?
By  Clara M. Lovett

From the November 2002

For the first time in this country's history, teachers and the teaching profession are getting almost as much attention as the stock market. The much discussed and publicized shortage of qualified teachers for our K-12 schools provides an unprecedented opportunity to change the demographics of the teaching profession, the preparation of teachers at our universities, and thus the way we think about teachers and their role in contemporary society.

As recently as a decade ago, the typical aspiring teacher was a young undergraduate who required a five or six-year course of study to earn a baccalaureate degree and a teaching certificate. More often than not this extended course of study was campus-bound, with only the last semester spent in actual school settings.

What happened to the young students enrolled in teacher preparation programs? Thirty to 40 percent never completed their programs, having decided somewhere along the way that this line of work was not for them. Another third or so did complete their programs but chose to work in other fields after graduation. Of those who accepted teaching jobs, about one-third left the profession within five years of graduation.

In the 1990s, educators, state policymakers, and even federal officials responsible for funding teacher preparation programs became increasingly aware of how wasteful the traditional approaches were. This awareness, coupled with concerns about impending shortages of certified teachers, was a catalyst for major changes. Traditional colleges and universities began to offer off-campus and online programs to accommodate the needs of older students, among them women returning to school after raising families and young retirees from the military or police departments.

The New Face of New Teachers

With funding from the U.S. Department of Education, one new institution, Western Governors University, now offers teacher preparation and certification programs that are not only available online, but are also competency-measured. Through rigorous individual assessments, mature students can demonstrate subject matter knowledge and ability to apply knowledge in the classroom, regardless of where or how they acquired that knowledge. This approach enables mature adults to earn their teaching credentials in less time than through the traditional accumulation of credit hours.

As more and more of these older students graduate and move into the nation's classrooms, the 19th century image of the teacher as female, young, and powerless is giving way to new images that fit our times.

Whether female or male, the new graduates of teacher preparation programs approach their work as a profession and a career - in some cases a second or third career in their working lives. For them, teaching is anything but a temporary, part-time occupation. These new teachers demand much of their students, in terms of academic achievement and classroom discipline, but they also demand much of their supervisors, PTAs, and school boards.

This change in the demographics of the teaching profession is occurring organically, as active baby boomers look for new challenges or alternative employment and as colleges and universities come under pressure to offset the low productivity of their traditional teacher preparation programs. In several states school superintendents and policymakers want to take advantage of this trend and, if they can, accelerate it. They believe that the influx of mature adults into the teaching profession will give K-12 schools a more stable workforce, better able to cope with the overwhelming academic and social challenges of our age.

Will this transformation of the teaching profession come at a price? Yes. The aspiring teachers who do not fit the 19th century archetype are questioning the elaborate regulatory system put in place over many years by university faculty and state bureaucrats, a system based on compliance with uniform academic and legal requirements rather than on evidence of ability to perform well in the classroom.

Once certified, the new breed of teachers will bargain harder than young college graduates in matters of compensation and working conditions. They will also, again, challenge bureaucratic regulations when these get in the way of educating kids. They will speak up and expect a role in school governance, whether through unions or teachers' councils. But they will also spare their schools the financial and emotional costs of bailing inexperienced teachers out of trouble and the costs of excessive turnover.

In time, our society will learn to think of the typical teacher as a not-so-young professional, savvy, skilled, self-confident - and definitely entitled to his or her due in the marketplace. The new archetype, long overdue, will serve the schools and the nation well.

Clara M. Lovett is president emerita of Northern Arizona University. As director of the "Teachers of Tomorrow" project for the Institute for State Studies and a Trustee of Western Governors University, she is tracking closely the emergence of non-traditional teacher preparation programs for new pools of prospective teachers.

Copyright © 2008 - American Association for Higher Education and Accreditation