Drop Out

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Teaching kids is harder than it looks -- and not everybody has what it takes to do it well. But it was obvious this student teacher had it, that mysterious quality great teachers have; blend of stage presence,  knowledge, patience and take-charge toughness.

Teaching math, she was part Einstein, part Mary Poppins, with the flair of a magic act. As the third graders worked together to maneuver marshmallows into number groups, she sang out equations -- "four times six!" -- and they didn't even realize they were learning math. Though she wasn't assigned to my class, I ran into her in the teachers' workroom. I told her I'd caught some of her lesson and how impressed I was.

As the year wore on, I was more and more admiring of her creativity and positive attitude. The future of education is in good shape, I thought, with student teachers like this. I found myself, a veteran teacher, energized by her enthusiasm.

One day, she lacked her usual eagerness. I asked how the student teaching was going and she told me she was dropping out. She couldn't afford to continue. Constant tuition increases made the cost of a university degree impossible and she needed to earn a living. She found a waitress job and was quitting the program.

"The kids are going to miss you," I stammered.


And our society is going to miss her, too. With the cost of state universities ever higher -- over the past 10 years, tuition at UC has increased by 145 percent and the California State Universities by 191 percent -- where will we get the teachers of tomorrow? Though there's help for the very low-income, and the wealthy don't need it, college costs are increasing so drastically the middle class is shut out. This can't be the way to solve our state's financial crisis. When college is only an option for the wealthiest, our country will be left far behind those nations that do recognize the value of affordable higher education.

It's been a couple of years now since that student teacher left. But with a new school year and a new crop of student teachers, I've been thinking about her.

And with more tuition hikes this fall, I don't think she'll be back anytime soon.
With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches at Robert Louis Stevenson School in San Francisco.