New Teachers Eager but Unprepared for Classroom Realities

In Comparison, Other College Grads Not as Enthusiastic about Their Jobs


New York -- New teachers are eager and enthusiastic about their career choice, but they admit they are unprepared for the realities of the classroom, according to a study issued today by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Public Agenda.

Almost all of the new public school teachers surveyed (96%) say they are doing work that they love to do, and about 7 out of 10 (68%) say they are getting a lot of satisfaction from it. But 60% believe most new teachers take over classrooms without enough experience and more than half (56%) also say that their preparatory programs emphasized education theory at the expense of practical classroom challenges.

The study, entitled A Sense of Calling: Who Teaches and Why, comes at a time of great concern over how qualified teachers are, how many will be needed in coming years, and whether higher salaries will attract better candidates. While the report does not evaluate the academic credentials of new entrants, it counters the notion that teaching is an undesirable field that people enter by default.

People concerned about the caliber of individuals entering teaching should be reassured that most of them approach their work with a rare idealistic fervor, said Public Agenda President Deborah Wadsworth. At the same time, many of them note that all the enthusiasm in the world cannot make up for their own poor practical training or the difficulty of working with kids who may be unmotivated and poorly prepared.

The report explores teacher morale, preparation, certification and attrition from the points of view of four important groups: public school teachers with five years of experience or less, their counterparts in private schools, public school administrators, and other college graduates in their twenties who have entered other fields. It was funded by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Open Society Institute.

A Sense of Calling can be downloaded at no cost until June 15 from Public Agenda Online ( Selected highlights of the study will remain on the Web site indefinitely. Public Agenda Online also has a wealth of survey results and factual information on education and other public policy topics.

New teachers enthusiasm shows up clearly when contrasted to attitudes held by other college graduates. Only about one-fifth of new teachers (19%) say they will probably change careers at some point, but more than twice as many non-teaching college grads (50%) say the same about their jobs. There was never anything else I was going to do, a New Jersey teacher said. One in Maryland put it this way: I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember.

Room for Improvement

What would lure more college grads into teaching? Money is not the only answer. Given a list of potential drawbacks to the profession, about four-fifths of college graduates (78%) say that teachers are seriously underpaid. But the image of a classroom as dangerous or chaotic also deters college grads: 89% say that teachers often have to worry about personal safety. And of graduates who express a keen interest in teaching, a large number (54%) say that they would be a lot more likely to consider the field if their students were well-behaved and eager to learn.

As for individuals who have already entered the field, low salaries are disheartening but do not govern their decision to teach in a particular school. Three-quarters of new public school teachers (75%) say that they are seriously underpaid. Half (52%) say that increasing salaries would be very effective in improving teacher quality. But even more 86% say that reducing class size would achieve the same end. Indeed, working conditions count for a lot: 86% would choose a school with well-behaved students and supportive parents over one where they would earn a significantly higher salary.

View from Above

School administrators also see new teachers as dedicated to their work but often fall short when it comes to managing a classroom. Almost all of the superintendents and principals (98%) say most recent recruits are highly motivated and energetic. Most school administrators say the quality of beginning teachers has improved (52%) or stayed the same (39%) compared to past years.

But only 44% say new teachers have well in hand the skill to maintain orderly classrooms, and 68% fault preparation programs for not teaching disciplining techniques enough.

While the government and the media have drawn attention to a looming teacher shortage, most school administrators say they are primarily feeling the pinch for minority teachers or for teachers of certain subject areas. Cities are particularly hard hit: 26% of urban administrators say they are facing a widespread shortage, compared to 11% of suburban officials. But of those administrators who are facing shortages, about three-quarters (76%) say the problem is serious but manageable and only 24% call it severe and hard to overcome.

Sample Sizes

The surveys were conducted by telephone from February through April of the following groups: 664 public school and 250 private school teachers who have taught five years or less; 511 superintendents and principals of public schools; and 802 college graduates under the age of 30. In addition, Public Agenda conducted six focus groups and interviewed 25 experts and practitioners.

The margin of error for the public school teachers is plus or minus four percentage points; for private school teachers, plus or minus six points; and for school administrators, plus or minus four percentage points. The college graduates were selected two ways: 312 of them through a random dialing technique, with a margin of error of plus or minus six points. The other 490 were pulled from a self-selected list. However, there are no substantive differences between these two groups of college grads.

Public Agenda, located in New York City, is well respected for its influential public opinion polls and its balanced citizen education materials. Founded in 1975 by Cyrus R. Vance, the former U.S. secretary of state, and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, its mission is to inform leaders about the public's views and to inform citizens about government policy.

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