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Why They Stay

photo of Maria Corona

America doesn't have a problem finding math and science teachers. It has a problem keeping them.

In the United States, it is widely understood—among researchers and the general public—that there are not enough quality math and science teachers. However, there is a common misunderstanding about why this shortage exists. It is not because we aren’t producing enough of them. The problem is, of the 25,000 math and science teachers leaving the profession every year, only 7,000 of them are actually retiring. Over two-thirds leave to pursue new careers. By some estimates, as many as half of new teachers in the United States quit within their first five years; this percentage has remained relatively steady for decades.

“In California, the numbers might be even worse,” said Lisa Loop, director of operations for Claremont Graduate University’s Teacher Education program. “By some accounts, 50 percent of new teachers here quit within their first three years.”

With this shortage of qualified math and science teachers, many schools have no choice but to bring unqualified teachers into the classroom. A 2011 survey by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that approximately 30 percent of chemistry and physics teachers did not major in those fields in college and had not earned a certificate to teach those subjects.

Of course, this shortage affects educational outcomes for students, especially those who attend poor, urban schools. That is why, in 2005, CGU’s Teacher Education received a $460,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Robert Noyce Scholarship Program to recruit and train STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) students from the Claremont Colleges and surrounding universities. The money was used to offer these students scholarships to become NSF Teaching Fellows: math and science teachers who would agree to work in Southern California’s urban school districts (where these teachers are needed most) for at least two years.

Teacher Education was picked because of the stellar history of retention in their graduates: approximately 90 percent are still teaching after five years. And five years after the initial NSF grant, 41 of the 43 fellows are still teaching today.

So, why do Teacher Education graduate stay in the classroom when so many of their peers quit? That’s tough to answer. Talking to the graduates themselves, it is much easier to find out why so many teachers leave. For starters, the job never seems to end.

“I worked at Target while I was doing my bachelor’s degree,” said Tristan Hann, who went to Pitzer College and is in his third year teaching math at a high school in San Bernardino. “At that job, you clock in and you clock out. You don’t bring your work home with you. You don’t go home thinking, Did I stock that item in the wrong place? With teaching, once I get home from work I have to start planning. It takes up so much of my time, thinking of ways to teach the material that captivates the interest of my students. Especially since I teach math, which is usually the most hated subject there is.”

Maria Corona, an NSF Teaching Fellow who now teaches math at a high school in Covina, confirms the unpopularity of the subject. On the first day of school each year she doesn’t worry about the syllabus. She asks all her new students to write a paragraph telling her if they like math, and why or why not. “That first day is hard. Kids say, ‘Ugh! I hate math. Math class sucks.’ I get to hear that hundreds of times a day.”

Imagine going to work and hearing, from the start of the day to the end, how much people hate what you’re doing. But what inoculates teacher education graduates against despair is that they love what they are teaching.

NSF fellow Wilber Martinez graduated with Hann and Corona and, like them, he loves math—although that wasn’t always the case. Like all fellows, he teaches in a high-need urban school. But he doesn’t think any of his middle-school students had it as rough as he did, growing up in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood.

“My students don’t believe me when I tell them this, but I had to fight my way to school every day. I only lived a mile-and-a-half from my high school, but to avoid certain neighborhoods I had to walk five miles to get there each day,” he said.

At the time, like most of his classmates, Martinez didn’t care much for math: “I didn’t like it. It was just numbers. Sometimes I understood them, sometimes I didn’t. But I didn’t care that much.”

Fortunately, Martinez forged a pathway to higher learning that didn’t involve figuring out those numbers on the blackboard. He was a star placekicker for the high-school football team, and his strong leg put him into contact with supportive coaches and teachers who consistently encouraged him to go to college. His grades weren’t strong enough to go to a four-year school, but at community college he took a math class that changed his life. For the first time, Martinez had a math teacher who actually liked the subject he was teaching—or at least, imparted his love for the subject into his students.

“We were studying the quadratic formula and he was in the front of the room. He grabbed a tennis ball and tossed it to someone in back. He asked, ‘So, what was was the trajectory of the ball? How can we figure out the speed and uniqueness of the parabola we just created?’” Martinez recalled. “And I was interested! I wanted to know how to do that!”

And just like that, a great teacher (and a tennis ball) changed how Martinez viewed math. Numbers and figures that were meaningless suddenly came to life. Once his own math grades improved, he began tutoring teammates on the school’s football team. Word spread and soon parents were approaching Martinez to ask if he would tutor their kids as well. While he has initially planned to become a civil engineer after graduating, Martinez realized that he wanted to make a career out of what he was already doing: sharing his love for math with others.

For Hann, math isn’t just a subject he loves; it’s something that helps him understand and navigate through a complicated world: “I feel like math is problem solving. As human beings, we’re faced with problems every day. What’s the fastest way to work? What do I do if my tire blows out? My girlfriend’s angry at me. How do I get out of this situation with as little damage as possible? The process of thinking—if I do this, what happens?—is problem solving. And math is just like problem solving: add four to both sides of the equation. Will that help me or just get me into a bigger mess?”

Likewise, when he works with students who struggle with math—which are nearly all of those who end up in the remedial classes he teaches —he sees struggles to understand algebra manifesting in poor decision-making and a general inability to think things through. “I have students who are so impulsive—and not impulsive like buying a pair of expensive shoes. When they are frustrated or angry, they don’t think, what would happen if I flip my desk over, or light this poster on fire? And that’s how math can help you. Will this help me? Will this hurt me? Are there other ways I can approach this problem?”

In Hann’s classroom, turning over desks and lighting posters on fire are not hypotheticals. Both happened. In fact, after the student lit a poster on fire, Hann realized that the resulting scorch marks resembled a volcano. He taped up mathematical facts relating to volcanoes all around the damaged wall. And as for the offending student, by the end of the year he was one of Hann’s favorites. This is because Hann makes an effort to view his students’ behavior in the larger context of their lives outside the classroom.

“Look, a lot of them have parents who are dead or in jail. They’ve been in and out of juvenile hall themselves. There’s a lot of drugs and violence and poverty in their lives. It’s not unusual for them to move every other month. It’s hard to ask someone who’s dealing with all that to come in and care about fractions,” he said.

That is why, to reach their students, teachers have to get creative. As Martinez can attest, a bunch of numbers on the blackboard is unlikely to engage students who already have years of failure to discourage any optimism or curiosity about the subject. In her class, Corona uses examples involving anime, nature, or skateboarding to get her students interested in the subject.

“My classes are full of repeaters—kids who have failed two or three times. They come in and say, ‘I hate math! I don’t want to do it!’ But you show them a problem that involves a skateboard and suddenly they want to solve it,” she said.

Hann will spend his nights and weekends toiling on elaborate projects to engage his students. Recently he turned his classroom into a restaurant. He covered the desks with tablecloths and photocopied place settings. He walked around in an apron (from an old Starbucks job) and spoke in a French accent. The students would get menus full of thinly veiled math problems. For example: if a burger and fries costs six dollars, and a burger is two dollars more than fries, how much is each item?

“I’m sure I could have printed out some worksheets I found online and just handed them out to the students. I would be teaching the same thing. And it would be so much easier for me,” Hann said. “But how does that capture their interest in any way, and how are they going to remember that?”

What Hann describes illustrates one of the key lessons of the Teacher Education program curriculum: “The program pushed us to do whatever it takes to get through to students,” he recalled. “I keep going back to one thing they told us: every time you make a decision, ask yourself a question. Is this the decision that’s best for the kids or does this make it easier for you? Because the second you stop making decisions that are better for the kids and are easier for you, you need to get a new job.”

However, the most important lessons Teacher Education students get from the program might be from each other. Students begin in the summer, spending six weeks as assistant teachers. After that, they start the fall semester in the deep end of the pool, with full-time teaching jobs (most teacher-credential programs reverse this; students do the majority of their coursework first and only serve as student teachers during one or two brief student teaching placements). During the fall and spring semesters, those in the program come back to the CGU campus every other Saturday to discuss what is working and not working at their schools with Teacher Ed faculty and their fellow students. “It kind of felt like we were all going through hell together,” Hann (sort of) joked.

“You see a movie like Freedom Writers, where a teacher goes into an inner-city classroom and bonds with her students and they all become like a family. And you’re like, I wanna be that teacher! That’s gonna be me! But of course that doesn’t happen, and that’s when you need that support group,” Hann said.

Wherever Teacher Education graduates end up, they are all essentially dealing with the same issues: how to manage their school’s politics and motivate the students. Not surprisingly, in addition to swapping good (and failed) ideas, the students grow close. Corona, Hann, and Martinez met in Claremont and remain good friends. Martinez even met his wife, Jessica, in the program.

But ultimately—more than their love for the subject they teach or their relationships with peers—what keeps these teachers teaching is the students. For Corona, it’s pushing students to pass her class and seeing them go on to college; for Martinez, it’s the two or three kids a day who say “I get it!” for the first time in a math class; for Hann, it’s seeing a student’s face when they get their first math test back that they’ve actually passed.

“Students don’t come up to me and say, ‘Mr. Hann, I recognize and really appreciate the time you put into this lesson. Thanks so much for your effort as a teacher.’ But I do see their attitudes slowly change,” he said. “I see them start believing they can do this. And that’s when they start taking notes or asking each other for help. That’s what makes me happy.”

“People become teachers because they want to help the kids. Our students are better prepared, so they do their job better. Which makes them happier,” said Loop, echoing her former students’ comments. “The reason people leave is because the work is hard, and if you don’t feel like you are helping the kids, you get out.”

Creating teachers who know they are helping kids is how CGU was able to use the NSF grant to create 40 STEM teachers who have no plans on leaving their profession anytime soon. And building on that success, last year Noyce approved a follow-up grant of $800,000 to Teacher Education to provide additional scholarships and professional support to more STEM students looking to become teachers. This time, CGU is expanding the pipeline: they will be accepting applicants looking to teach anywhere from K–12, not just secondary schools. They will also launch a recruitment campaign at Texas Southern University to increase the enrollment of African American candidates.

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for the recruitment of 100,000 new STEM teachers over the next decade. This number has since become a rallying call for many educational leaders, and it is certainly a worthy goal. However, recruitment is only a means to the far-more-important end of creating teachers who are passionate about what they do and committed to their profession. Recruitment is half the equation; if you want to know the other half, ask a Teacher Education graduate.

CGU Education Professor David Drew is the principal investigator on the two Noyce grants, and his book STEM the Tide: Reforming Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in America, speaks directly to a variety of issues brought up in this story and is great follow-up reading.

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