Becky Godwin discovered her love of teaching while volunteering with preschoolers at a Head Start program during her middle- and high-school years. She would read one-on-one to the students to help boost their vocabulary, verbal expression and exposure to books. “Once I started working with three- and four-year-olds, I realized there is so much potential in children at that age. I really enjoyed it,” she said. “By the time I was a senior, I knew I wanted to teach.”
A top student in high school, Godwin was president of the National Honors Society and Key Club. “I wanted to continue helping the kids. Everything I organized as president of the two groups my senior year—book drives, school supply drives and fundraising—was for the kids.”
When she discussed her intentions to teach with her teachers and counselors, she was surprised by their reaction. As an honors student, Godwin was told to look into more prestigious careers where she could earn more money. “They told me explicitly not to go into teaching. They said teaching wasn’t respected enough and that other professions had more to offer.”
Their response was disappointing; her decision to teach felt right, and she thought school personnel would agree. For a while she questioned whether she was making the right choice but because of the joy she felt working with children, she knew teaching was what she wanted to do.
Godwin went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in early childhood and special education and a master’s in school leadership and administration. She also taught preschool and first grade for Delaware public schools for two and a half years.
Now a PhD candidate in the School of Education, she wants to look deeper into what was influencing her high school counselors and teachers and to see how frequently they steer high-performing students away from teaching careers.
The low status of teaching expressed by the staff of her high school is part of a larger concern of Godwin’s over what she calls the need for more professionalization of teaching. “I want the field to be looked at as a full profession, having the respect and internal controls that come with that professional standing. Unfortunately, many people don’t consider teaching the best career path for high-performing students, and that adds to the larger problem.”
Recent studies have shown that half of the nation’s new teachers come from the bottom third of their college class and that most leave the profession after five years. Godwin thinks the public still has antiquated notions about the profession. She said many people believe anyone can teach and teaching is a female career.
Another problem is some teachers who feel underappreciated and underpaid can discourage interested students from following in their footsteps. “Other countries do a better job of attracting high-performing students,” she said.
Teachers in Finland and Korea come from the top 10 percent of their class and their first year of teaching is regarded the same way medical residencies are treated in the United States. Finland picks up the cost of a master’s degree in education. High school students in both countries outperform the United States on comparative international tests.
For her research project, Godwin wants to investigate the barriers that high-performing high school students face in choosing an education major. “For example, what does a career counselor say to a top student in math? Does he or she steer them into engineering or science? Is teaching mentioned at all? If a top student wants to teach, what response is given and why?”
She is working with the School of Education’s Counseling and Human Development program on developing a pilot project that documents the interaction between counselors, teachers and high-performing students. “If people are kind of aware, but not fully understanding, of the extent to which their biases can affect a student’s decision, then how can you expect to change it?
“I would like to find ways to insure that high-performing students interested in teaching are encouraged to follow this career path. Building a strong teacher workforce is a vital step in defending our position as a profession.”