By Michelle Fitzsimmons
City on a Hill Press Editor

Teaching may not be the world’s oldest profession, but it is arguably one of the most vital.

However, a debilitated economy leaves teachers’ futures uncertain and forces them to make do with deflating budgets as the state’s population balloons.

This year, a probable $5 billion cut to funding awaits California K-12 public education, adding strain to an already failing system and sealing the fate of thousands of educators.

“We had a budget meeting the other day, and they said all new teachers are receiving pink slips on March 15,” said Frances Karg, a first-year biology and marine science teacher at North Monterey County High School. “That doesn’t mean I won’t have a job next semester, but you never know.”

Karg, who received both her B.S. in marine biology and M.A. in education at UC Santa Cruz, said she was blindsided by the news that she’d be handed a pink slip next month.

What Karg didn’t know is that school administrators throughout California fire and rehire teachers every year in anticipation of budget shortfalls.

New teachers usually find their jobs on the chopping block first, as per an agreement with teachers’ associations that bases who gets fired on seniority.

“The reality is [in] school districts up and down California on March 15, many, many teachers are going to be noticed,” said Mike James, deputy superintendent of the Santa Cruz School District.

Schools have let go of librarians, nurses and electives teachers. Teacher hirings are at an all-time low.

“In my over 30 years in education I’ve never seen anything as gloomy as the potential funding cutbacks, not only in the current year, [but] next year, and perhaps in the year after that,” James said.

About 50 percent of UCSC’s credential program graduates go on to teach in Santa Cruz County and neighboring counties, like Santa Clara and Monterey, said Lorie Chamberland, director of teacher education at UCSC. Eighty-three UCSC grads currently work for the Santa Cruz county school district.

“Historically, we’ve been very fortunate in that our students want to get a job teaching, they get a job teaching,” Chamberland said.

While her department has seen an increase in credential applicants in the past year, from 83 to over 100, prospective teachers are definitely conscious that public education is currently a competitive field, especially as class sizes increase.

“They read the newspapers, they hear the news and they hear about state budget cuts and how it could affect class size reduction, so they’re really curious in terms of what the job opportunities are in the area,” Chamberland said.

James explained that as the economy worsens, fewer veteran teachers retire as planned.

“In the economy, you have people who may have considered retirement, but by virtue of the economy, they’re not sure that this is the optimum time to retire and [they] retain their jobs, again affecting the possibilities for new and incoming teachers,” he said.

Even if teachers get a job in Santa Cruz County, it can be near to impossible to afford to live here.

James explained that salary adjustments were not made for the 2008-2009 school year. Teachers are getting paid the same amount as before, yet housing prices have gone up.

Lindsey Wilson received her degree in math from UCSC and participated in Cal Teach, a systemwide UC program designed to encourage math and science majors to become teachers in their field.

Wilson is currently earning her teaching credentials at UCSC. She has worked at half a dozen schools in the area, from Aptos High to San Lorenzo Valley High School in Felton, and wants to teach middle-school math.

Wilson said she is not sure if she’ll be staying in Santa Cruz once she gets her credentials.

“I did my undergrad and master’s being a single parent,” she said. “When I leave, I’ll be $60,000 in loan debt. I don’t know if staying in Santa Cruz would be financially responsible.”

Wilson said she studied math solely to become a math teacher. She has no question that teaching is her calling, but like many new teachers, budgetary concerns affect her psyche.

“It’s scary and it’s hard to keep motivated,” she said. “Already I’m a new teacher and having to keep myself motivated.”

For Karg, the compounded stress of teaching for the first time and not knowing whether she’ll be back to school next year affects her drive as well.

“It does affect my motivation a little bit,” she said. “I’m planning for next year, but I’m thinking, ‘Am I even going to be doing this?’”

Despite uncertain futures, inadequate budgets and stymied job opportunities, Wilson said she is amazed at the talent and ambition of the teachers in the credential program.

She offers the following advice to new teachers: “You have to be realistic and you have to stay positive,” she said.

James said that he is sure things will get better.

“Many of us have optimism because it’s a rewarding profession,” he said. “We’re in this bump right now, but I think we’re going to see a turnaround. And for the tenacious, there are always opportunities.”

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