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Archive for Sunday, May 23, 2004

Big shoes to fill

Maintaining the quality and commitment of our public school teaching force is an ongoing challenge.

May 23, 2004

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It's a bit sobering to realize that this year's retirements will cost the Lawrence school district 725 years of experience, mostly teaching experience.

Will we be able to replace that expertise? How?

The National Education Assn. reports that 20 percent of new teachers leave the classroom after three years or less. Some of those former teachers probably didn't get the mentoring or support they needed to be successful in their jobs, but salary also is a key. The national average starting teacher's salary is $30,719 according to the American Federation of Teachers. In Kansas, the average is $26,596; Lawrence is just above that at $26,825.

After many years in the classroom, of course, the teachers who were honored at the district's retirement reception on Wednesday were making substantially more than the base salary. But it's a safe bet they could have made more money doing something else.

Some of the retirees interviewed by the Journal-World indicated that teaching had been a calling for them, a career they loved even though they knew it would never make them rich. We probably wouldn't want teachers who were in the job primarily for the money, but, as a society, do we want to depend only on those with a self-sacrificing attitude to fill the all-important job of educating our children?

Teaching was a lot different when the retirees got into the field. Students now come to school with a whole host of emotional and educational challenges that teachers didn't see in public schools 25 to 30 years ago. Government standards require teachers to deal with those additional issues while still maintaining ever higher standards for all of their students.

Of the 33 staff members on the district's retirement list, about two-thirds are women. When the local retirees started their careers, there were fewer career opportunities for women and certainly few jobs that were seen as being as family friendly as teaching. Now, there are many much higher-paying jobs available to college-educated women.

Education observers have warned for some time of the shortages that may occur in the next several years as many teachers reach the combination of age and teaching years that qualifies them to retire. As we thank these teachers for their years in the classroom, we also should consider what it will take to replenish their ranks with people who are equally qualified and dedicated.

More money probably is part of the equation, and more respect for the vital role teachers play. In a nation that places such a high value on giving every child the chance to learn and excel, it seems there are few jobs more important.

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