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High school guidance counselors told Alex Staples to avoid the teaching profession.
“Education is not the place to go,” Staples said, recalling those conversations. “You're never going to get a job.”
She didn't listen. Staples, who grew up outside Philadelphia in Phoenixville, is a year away from finishing her training to be a teacher. She'll graduate from the University of Pittsburgh in the spring of 2018 with a bachelor's degree in applied developmental psychology and a master's in instruction and learning. And she'll receive her teaching certification from the Pennsylvania Department of Education in early childhood education and special education.
Staples believes all her training will pay off. She's encouraged by an increase in demand for special education teachers and motivated to assure she's equipped to meet students' needs.
But fewer and fewer students at colleges and universities across Pennsylvania are choosing to invest the time, money and energy to obtain the degrees and certifications it takes to become a teacher.
Education is still among the top five fields for bachelor's and master's degrees nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
But local colleges continue to report declining enrollment in such programs, and data show the number of teaching certifications awarded by the state education department has plummeted, from 14,764 during the 2005-06 school year to 8,615 certificates in 2014-15.
It's difficult to pinpoint what led to the drop in enrollment, said Sheila Conway, co-director of teacher education in the Department of Instruction and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.
In addition to the practical concerns, like finding a job or earning a good salary, she said, some students worry about the intense pressure put on teachers to perform.
“Do I want to go into a field that's getting so much negative press?” Conway said, echoing students' concerns.
She said Pitt is looking for ways to continue a previously grant-funded program that paired recent graduates with experienced teachers, who serve as mentors. The extra support could help novice teachers during their first few years of teaching, which often are the hardest, Conway said.
The education department is looking to improve teacher retention, according to Wil Del Pilar, deputy for postsecondary education. Officials hope to establish a statewide network of teacher mentors to not only get more people into the profession, but to keep them there, he said.
“A teacher really becomes the best teacher they can be at five years and beyond,” Del Pilar said, explaining that it takes time to master classroom management and teaching techniques.
But 40 to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession after five years, with the greatest number from high-poverty, high-minority, urban and rural public schools, according to a widely cited report from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, authored by University of Pennsylvania Professor Richard Ingersoll.
Students said they face criticism that education isn't a challenging field, or told “that's what women do,” said Emily Ritchey, a Seton Hill University student. She's pursuing degrees and certifications in both elementary and middle school education, as well as special education. She hopes the broad training will make her more competitive in her job search.
Melanie Trzeciak, another education major at Seton Hill, shared practical concerns. Her brother is studying engineering, a field that Trzeciak thinks offers more lucrative job prospects.
“You have to go into the career because you love it, not because of the paycheck,” she said of teaching.
Colleges are offering incentives and making sure future teachers are prepared for the demands of the job market. The state education department reports high demand for special education, foreign language, and math and science teachers, especially in high schools.
Duquesne University started offering a 50 percent tuition scholarship for freshmen education majors entering in fall 2012. In that first year, new full-time enrollment increased by 130 percent, with 60 new freshman in fall 2011 and 138 in fall 2012. The tuition scholarship has helped to maintain enrollment, said Paul-James Cukanna, vice president for enrollment management.
At St. Vincent College near Latrobe, students who want to teach in high schools major in a content area — math or physics, for example — and take a minor in education, said Veronica Ent, education department chairwoman. That makes them competitive job candidates at districts with challenging Advanced Placement or honors-level classes.
She said the college seeks to help students develop the art and science of teaching: The enthusiasm to commit to a challenging profession and the skills to use data like test scores to help teachers design better lessons to improve students' academic performance.
“The ones who are successful in getting jobs, especially in Pennsylvania, are those who show passion and have an understanding of what data can tell them,” Ent said.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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