Pre-K teacher Epernay Kyles at Garrison Elementary School in Washington, D.C. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Rookie and would-be teachers explain what made them choose a profession known for low pay and high stress.

Teaching used to be known as the noblest profession. Today, not so much. It’s often depicted in terms of overwork, low pay, and overall disrespect. Small wonder, then, that young people are turning away from a future in education.

According to a survey published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2015, only 4 percent of college freshmen said they were likely to major in education, down from 11 percent in 2000. A research brief published in September by the Learning Policy Institute states that, based on data from the U.S. Department of Education, “teacher preparation program enrollments have fallen 35% nationwide in the last five years, a decrease of close to 240,000 teachers in total.” The Institute projects a potential shortfall of 112,000 teachers by 2018.

If so many are saying no to teaching, why do people say yes? Three graduates of suburban West Springfield High School in Springfield, Va., are at different stages in their professional lives, but each made the decision to become a teacher. Here’s how they explain their choice.

Maggie Snow

Snow graduated from high school in 2014. Now a sophomore at the University of Virginia, she briefly thought of studying medicine, since many people in her family have gone into nursing. But her love for reading and writing have made her lean toward a future as an English teacher.

There are practical reasons that appeal. The child of a veteran, Snow is on the GI Bill, and will take out loans to complete her Master of Teaching-English degree. The program will allow her to complete her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 5 years.

That, in-state tuition, and the prospect of a job after graduation all influenced her decision. However, the teaching program requires an early commitment—she will need to apply this year and she worries there won't be enough academic rigor. “I want to be sure that ... I’ve made the most of my education,” she says.

Maggie Snow

Snow anticipates finding a job near her mother, who is in an assisted living facility for multiple sclerosis. The support and care she has received from her mother inspired Snow to provide the same for others.

Although she expects she’ll be “really not awesome for the first year or two” in the classroom, she looks forward to having a mentor, someone to tell her she’ll get better. She’d like to become the kind of teacher who understands that, as she puts it, “It’s not just about the school day. There are so many things you can do beyond that” [to help kids].

Alberto Vergara III

Vergara graduated from high school in 2010 and George Mason University in 2015. He just finished his student teaching at an alternative high school in Virginia for students with special needs, and hopes to teach government.

Vergara jokes that his younger brother, who is getting ready to graduate from high school and wants to be a doctor or lawyer, will support him. “I’m not a super-stickler about money,” he says. “I thought about being a social worker or a youth minister—not really high-paying work.”

Alberto Vergara III

Transferring from private Seton Hall University to public George Mason saved Vergara a lot of money, and he will get his M.Ed. next year. Even so, he took out a federal FAFSA loan and his parents are helping him pay as he goes. They’ve been supportive, he says, although they’re not overjoyed that he’s going to teach. He’s the only male teacher in his family.

Graduate school showed Vergara how hard learning can be, and he relishes the fact that he can teach others how to learn in different ways: “Every kid is like a puzzle.” Teaching, he believes, offers small goals that are plentiful and regular, such as getting a student with attendance problems to show up every day. Meeting those goals has been surprisingly rewarding for him.

“I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin,” he says. “I didn’t expect that. Once I understand how someone else’s brain works, the better I understand my own. The more I learn about me, the better a teacher I become.”

Triahna Harris

Harris is in her first year of teaching at West Springfield, the same high school she graduated from in 2007. A kinesiology major at the University of South Carolina, she originally thought that she would work as an athletic trainer. However, her master’s program in community and youth work at the University of Durham in England led her to education, first as an instructional assistant for students with severe learning disabilities, and now as a special education teacher for students with moderate challenges.

Between work, coaching basketball at school, acting as freshman-class sponsor, and the classes she is taking to complete her licensure in special education, her time is stretched. She wishes she’d taken some education courses as an undergrad. She also wishes that teaching didn’t come with so many add-on expenses: Besides her coursework, there are exam and licensure fees. She recently paid $200 to confirm her master’s degree and obtain her transcripts.

Triahna Harris

Harris says staying the profession will likely depend on whether she feels that she is improving as a teacher and that she’s getting as much out of the work as she is putting into it.

She went into this year “trying not to expect anything, but hoping that everything would work out.” Even so, she has been surprised by how much she is needed—and how much she wants to do. “I knew I’d connect with some,” she says. “But I didn’t expect to have already had so much impact.”

Despite declining pay and heavy workloads, teaching still appeals for the  reason it always has: Snow, Vergara, and Harris are excited about making a difference in kids’ lives. But they are concerned about what they can expect over their careers. Will they have adequate mentoring? Will their jobs be secure? Will they feel supported in what they want to do for their students, and not hopelessly overworked?

Almost 8 percent of teachers leave the profession annually, according to the Learning Policy Institute. Only one-third of that is due to retirement. New teachers leave at higher rates, an estimated 19 to 30 percent within the first five years, and cite lack of mentoring as their greatest dissatisfaction.

If attrition at this rate continues, it means fewer new teachers will become veterans, leaving even fewer mentors for the next generation.

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