Why teaching is sexy in the States

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Catherine Edwards thought she wanted to be a paediatrician and then, at the age of 19, she took a class at UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) called Education 180. "I realised that the reason I wanted to be a paediatrician was to help other people, especially children, and that I could accomplish this by being a teacher."

She is not alone. After decades in the wilderness, teaching is once again a profession of choice in America and the likes of Ms Edwards, now 21, are on the cutting edge of a trend that few dared to predict. "Teaching is hot!" exclaims Arthur Levine, president of Teachers' College, Columbia University, in New York City. Admission applications at the top college are up 54 per cent on last year and 115 per cent over three years ago.

That story is repeated, though less dramatically, at teaching programmes around the US. The boom is being fuelled by a new spirit of idealism among the young, and also among forty-somethings who are starting second careers. What some people are calling the most progressive mood since the Sixties is well-timed: there is a national shortage of teachers. So, could it happen in Britain too?

Certainly some factors are similar. Interviews with undergraduates in America show that the Me Generation is ancient history and the notorious Generation X is fading fast. In its place is the We Generation and these young people are driven not by money or status but by idealism and the desire to give something back.

"This is a generation in which more than six out of 10 students are now involved in community service," says Mr Levine. "This generation is very interested in politics, but not national or international politics. They are interested in local politics. They do not believe in national leaders. They don't believe in government. They don't believe in most of our social institutions. But they do believe they can make a difference in their community, in their schools, as a teacher."

He quotes one student from the University of Colorado, who captured the mood: "For my generation teaching is the equivalent of the Peace Corps."

Rather than teach the poor of Africa or dig a well in Guatemala, Catherine Edwards aims to teach special education in her own country. She talks with huge enthusiasm about the revolution taking place in classrooms now dominated by group and computer work.

"No one is that fired up about standing in front of a group talking a bunch of mumbo-jumbo that they are not going to remember in a week. But there is a lot of excitement about interaction and technology."

But what about the money? A paediatrician manages to help people and get rich. The average salary of a teacher in America is about $38,000 (pounds 25,000). "I have run into some criticism with people saying I'm wasting my education and asking why I'm entering such a non-lucrative field," says Ms Edwards. "In my opinion these people are missing the boat. That is not what it is all about. The phrase you hear over and over again from people who want to be teachers is: 'I want to make a difference'. There is no one better person to turn on a light bulb in a kid's head than a teacher and to be able to have that kind of profound impact is really incredible."

Like many of her generation, Ms Edwards has already done her fair share of volunteering, and America's largest survey of 18-year-old college students shows that the volunteer spirit has never been so infectious. "We've asked about it for 12 years and have seen an increase since 1989. Currently 71.8 per cent of students say they do frequent volunteer work," says the UCLA survey director Linda Sax. The study also showed the highest interest for 23 years in becoming a teacher.

"The interest in teaching seems to be prompted by the same kind of concerns that we see as to why they are volunteering - concern for the community and about education in general," says Ms Sax. "They do not think they can change larger society but they are trying to do what they can to change what they know, which is their community."

A similar trend is being charted here in Britain where the notion of "society" has been on distinctly rocky ground since it was banished in one sound-bite from Mrs Thatcher.

For 15 years the Henley Centre for Forecasting has been tracking opinion to see whether we believe that the individual or the community comes first. "Throughout the Eighties and the early Nineties more people thought that 'individual' was the way ahead but we've seen a change-over in the last few years and a move towards community interest," says Henley's Meg Abdy.

There is a trust vacuum when it comes to traditional institutions such as national government or the legal system. "People are tending to put more credence now in the people they know and the people around them."

Britain has also seen an increase in volunteering and here, too, there is a shortage of teachers. But unlike America, there has been a drop in applications and youthful idealism seems confined to areas such as the green movement. But is it possible that the Swampys of this world might find themselves in front of a classroom?

Britain's teachers are not ready for this question. Their answers are battle weary and have a Sisyphean theme. "What we have here is an almost perpetual denigration of teaching by politicians and commentators with more and more blame for the ills of society being landed at teachers' doors," says a National Union of Teachers spokeswoman. "There is a tremendous tendency to undermine the profession."

Teacher bashing was and still is a popular sport in America too but the positive news has provided a much needed counterpoint. After all, applications are up, and not only from those who could not make the grade elsewhere. "Another huge change is that the young people now entering teaching are coming from some of the best colleges and universities in the country," says Mr Levine.

The profession is also attracting other kinds of winners. Mr Levine talks of one student who was older than most of the professors.

"This was someone who had worked his whole life on Wall Street, and what he had finally decided was that he had made his money and now he wanted to have a job that was socially satisfying."

Catherine Edwards knows the feeling: she wants to make a difference too. It is the Nineties, after all, and she is in the best of company.

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