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Schools Pinched In Hiring

Debbie Valcour, at Sterling Middle School, is retiring. She said of when she came into the workforce: "We didn't have a lot of options back then." (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

Math teachers now face more pressure to engage students, to get them to really understand and enjoy scientific notation and exponents -- something Valcour worked hard to do on a recent warm afternoon in a room full of 24 chatty sixth-graders.

No Child Left Behind, enacted in 2002, during Valcour's 28th year in teaching, elevated the importance of standardized tests. She said that most of her class time soon was dedicated to preparing for them. As Loudoun recruiters seek to replace her, the law adds pressure to find a teacher with a college major or minor in math, a qualification that more than a third of secondary math teachers lack, according to the federal government.

To offset a shortfall of 280,000 qualified math and science teachers projected by 2015, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics advocates more competitive pay -- a controversial move away from a fixed salary structure that some teacher advocates say reflects a mentality that teaching is a second income.

Many schools are also trying to fill hard-to-staff positions by appealing to working professionals rather than relying on traditional teacher-preparation programs.

Vanessa Chang, 28, who wrapped up her first year of teaching last week at nearby Park View High, is a typical example of that new approach to recruiting. After graduating from the University of Virginia with degrees in German and economics, she tried a job in information technology that lasted less than a year, followed by a stint in public relations.

"I couldn't decide what I wanted to do," she said. Finally she got a job at a nonprofit organization, where she worked for five years. Toward the end, she took evening classes part time to become certified to teach English as a second language.

Chang said that landing her first teaching job was easy. Recruiters everywhere have been hard-pressed to fill jobs to serve the growing immigrant student population. Chang was hired in Loudoun with a provisional license before completing her coursework. Her starting salary was about $42,000 a year.

Getting up to speed has been much harder. In the first months, she would work until late at night, then lie awake "thinking, thinking, thinking" about school, she said. For most of the year, she woke up at 5 a.m. to plan lessons and prepare handouts and then stayed at school until at least 5 p.m., grading papers or helping the pep rally dance team or the ESL homework club.

In such a demanding job, the turnover rate is high.

Although the impending loss of a wave of retirees troubles school systems, the annual attrition of younger teachers is an even bigger challenge.

About a third of new teachers leave the profession after three years. After five years, the number is closer to 50 percent, the District-based Center on Education Policy reported in 2006. Recruiting and training new teachers costs the country $7 billion a year, according to an estimate by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, also based in Washington.

Richelle Patterson of the American Federation of Teachers, a union, said high mobility is a defining characteristic of the modern workforce. Schools must find innovative ways to support new teachers "for however long they are trying to be in the system," she said.

Chang is committed for five years. "It will take that long to get the hang of this," she said.

Beyond that, she's not sure. She toys with the idea of working for another nonprofit group, the State Department or a community college.

"I like the idea of moving around," she said. "I could see myself doing a lot of other things."

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