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Nearly half of new public school teachers leave the profession within five years, most often because of poor working conditions or low pay, according to a recent study by the National Education Association.

Release of the study coincided with May 9, this year’s celebration of National Teacher Day, sponsored by NEA, a teachers union.

Today’s teachers are primarily white, female, married and religious. The average teacher’s age is 43. Nearly half have been in the classroom 15 years or longer, and most hold advanced degrees.

“Today, teachers are more educated and experienced than ever before,” NEA President Reg Weaver said in a press release. “It’s extremely reassuring to know that public school students are being taught by the some of the most talented educators this nation has seen in more than 40 years.”

One reason teachers as a whole are older and more experienced is the number of younger teachers leaving the profession is on the rise.

More than seven teachers in 10 (73 percent) say they entered the field out of a desire to work with young people. Other reasons for choosing the occupation included the value or significance of education in society (44 percent), interest in a field or subject-matter (36 percent) and the influence of a teacher or adviser in elementary or secondary school (32 percent).

But 37 percent said low pay would cause them to leave teaching before retirement. Twenty percent cited poor working conditions. Just 4 percent cited student-related problems, and 5 percent planned to leave over problems with parents.

Thirty percent of teachers said the reason they are in education now is they have too much invested to leave.

Low pay was even a larger factor for minorities–50 percent said they would quit teaching over money. That is a concern because more teachers of color are already needed. While 40 percent of students are a minority, teachers are 90 percent white. Six percent are African-American, the lowest since 1971, and 5 percent are Hispanic, Asian or some from some other ethnic group. Studies indicate that students perform better academically, personally and socially when taught by a person of their own ethnic group.

The study also described male teachers as a “dying breed.” About 25 percent of the nation’s 3 million teachers are men. The percentage of male elementary teachers (9 percent) and male secondary teachers (35 percent) has fallen gradually since 1961 and is the lowest in four decades.

More than 3.9 million teachers will be needed by 2014 because of attrition, retirement and increased student enrollment.

“Teachers touch all of our lives,” Weaver said. “But we must face the fact that although our current teachers are the most educated and most experienced ever, there are still too many teachers leaving the profession too early, not enough people becoming teachers and not enough diversity in the profession.  It is more important than ever to focus our efforts on retaining teachers by recruiting more people–especially males and minorities–offering more professional development opportunities and improving working conditions and salaries.”

According to the survey, teachers spend an average of 50 hours per week on teaching duties, including non-compensated work like grading papers, bus duty and advising clubs. The average class size is 21 pupils in elementary and 28 in secondary schools.

Teachers spend an average of $443 per year of their own money to meet students’ needs. The figure is higher for teachers of color ($470 per year) than for whites ($434). The average starting salary for teachers is $31,704 per year, not including supplemental pay for other duties.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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