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Tackling the Teacher Shortage

Like many of her colleagues, Delila Crain enjoys the challenge of enlightening young minds at Irmo High School in Columbia, S.C., where she teaches algebra and geometry. But there are some very surprising numbers behind this math instructor's career: Crain taught for 31 years before she retired in 2000, and she has been at the blackboard since then!

"I wasn't ready to leave teaching when I retired," said Crain. "I'm not ready to stay home every day. What I like to do is go into my room, close my door, and teach my students. As long as my district needs me, I plan to continue."

And chances are Crain's district will continue to need her. With two-thirds of the nation's K-12 teachers expected to leave classrooms over the next several years, America's schools are eagerly courting qualified professionals to fill their ranks, especially in inner cities and rural communities. Crain also has experience where it counts most. Teachers of math, science, and special education are prized in particular. These fields are losing nearly 20 percent of their instructors each year, and student enrollments are rapidly rising overall. Compounding the school leadership crisis is another estimate that says about half of all school principals are expected to retire in the next five years.

To boost the supply of K-12 educators, schools nationwide have resorted to strategies that involve hunting down the best and brightest college grads, offering signing bonuses to new recruits, convincing mid-career professionals to switch to teaching, and even enlisting people from other countries. Some experts, however, say that an effective, long-term solution may rely more on experienced teachers like Delila Crain than on fresh new recruits.

An Exodus of Educators

While much of the looming shortage can be explained by a large wave of veteran educators approaching retirement, a study by Dr. Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that teacher turnover is the real problem. It estimates that almost one-third of America's teachers flee their profession sometime during their first three years of teaching, and almost half leave after five years. Low salaries, student disciplinary problems, and a lack of support from their school administration are among teachers' most commonly voiced reasons for burning out and jumping ship.

While the challenge of keeping educators onboard is most acute in low-income areas, it crosses all communities and all sectors of education. "Our inability to support high-quality teaching in many of our schools is driven not by too few teachers coming into the profession but by too many teachers leaving the profession," said Jim Hunt, chairman of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. "If we focus on stemming the exodus of excellent teachers, we can go a long way towards reducing teacher shortages."

Retirees to the Rescue

Research shows that high-quality mentoring programs can sway a newly minted teacher to stick it out instead of bailing out. So veterans of teaching and retirees may find themselves in demand as counselors to less experienced instructors. They may also find they have the flexibility to return as full- or part-time teachers in many schools. "Bringing retired teachers back into schools gives you a double benefit," said National Commission on Teaching executive director, Dr. Tom Carroll. "Each person becomes another seasoned teacher in the classroom to offset a shortage, but if that experience is used to support and mentor young teachers, it can reduce attrition rates of novices who are no longer being thrown in, sink-or-swim." The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandated that, by 2006, all teachers in public schools had to be "highly qualified," and, as Carroll stated, "retired teachers are a huge reserve pool of qualified teachers."

What Can You Do?

Get in touch with the Retired Educators Association in your area. Find out how it supports schools and whether it can help retirees find re-employment in classrooms. Then ask how you can help. In Oklahoma, one former educator created a large fund that offers teachers grants and classroom supplies. Laws in states such as Maryland and South Carolina support retired teachers by letting them earn extra money as re-employed teachers without having to lose pension benefits. "This initiative is really helping out school districts with their teacher shortage," said Lawrence Leak, assistant state superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education. "We have the policies in place to attract teachers who have retired but would love to continue as teachers." To locate an REA in your area, visit the NRTA Web site.

With Our Youth! Program

Get involved with the NRTA's With Our Youth! program, which began in 1997 as a pledge to America's young people at the President's Summit for America's Future. With Our Youth! can offer you the support and resources you need to serve as a mentor and role model to kids and teens. It encourages older folks to volunteer in museums and libraries, participate in tutoring and mentoring programs, and assist with youth sports and arts activities in their local communities. In the first three years of the With Our Youth! program, participating state and local REAs served more than half a million young people in a thousand communities. The program also honors outstanding volunteers on a national level with special awards. To find a With Our Youth! program in your area, visit NRTA: With Our Youth!

Contact your local school district's HR office to look into mentoring and substitute-teaching opportunities, or to find out where you can have the most impact as a volunteer. Whether you're in the cafeteria monitoring kids—and giving teachers a much-needed break from students—or in the library reading stories to eager young listeners, you can make a difference. On the high-school level, you can sponsor a Future Teachers of America club to entice would-be educators. And if you're tech-savvy, you may also find opportunities to help students face-to-face in computer labs or in a behind-the-scenes capacity.

"AARP members are already part of the community, and principals are usually excited about having volunteers willing to help," said Jan McCarthy, president of the South Carolina Education Association.

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