Career shifts bring new kind of teacher Degree-seekers come from varied fields

September 03, 1991|By Patricia Meisol Gr: COLOR PHOTO

Leslie Bailey remembers having half-formed, "wouldn't-it-be-neat" thoughts about being a teacher when she was in college.

As she worked her way up to a high-powered job in a Washington, D.C., television station, she couldn't shake those thoughts: When children came to the television station to look around, she would end up giving the tour.

Seven weeks ago, she entered an intensive one-year master's degree program at Towson State University, joining a small but growing number of working people who are being lured into teaching careers by innovative degree programs.

"You had to make a decision that maybe the glamour of television wasn't great compared with the feelings you got from teaching," she said.

Until about five years ago, mid-career professionals thinking about teaching would have had to return to campus as undergraduates or attend classes at night to earn the credits required of teachers in Maryland. Now, master's programs such as the one at Towson allow the professionals to learn the same teaching basics in one year as students with undergraduate degrees in education.

The result is that a new kind of teacher is coming into the Baltimore school system this fall, one with firsthand experience of what it takes to make a day's newscast, run a nuclear power plant, drive a race car and chart the stars.

The new teachers have worked as stockbrokers, astronomers and chemists. They have manned the ticket booths at American Airlines, waited tables and applied their mathematics skills to engineering.

"They were using their college degrees just to sit behind a desk all day, to be bored," said Margaret F. Hill, at 22 the youngest in a class that began in July with candidates mostly in their 30s and 40s. "They realized that money wasn't really as important [now] as it was at the time."

Another Towson program is allowing former Peace Corps workers who have experience teaching abroad to earn money teaching in city schools while they earn master's degrees at the university.

The professionals and former Peace Corps workers want to teach at the same time a growing number of schools need them, and their training and work experience brings a depth and breadth not found in undergraduates fresh out of college.

"They bring a sense of maturity and an understanding of their subject," said Ellen Elms Notar, who started the master's program in teaching three years ago at Towson and who has observed student teachers for 15 years as a school principal and professor.

For Ms. Bailey, 26, and many others in her class, the decision to go into teaching was arrived at after much soul-searching. In her case, it was four years after earning a degree in rhetoric from the University of Virginia and well into a promising career as a production assistant in a television newsroom, where she researched stories, set up camera shoots and ran up to Capitol Hill to get senators in front of the camera.

"A lot of people think I was crazy for leaving television, because it is so hard to get into. People couldn't understand why I would want to leave once I finally made it. . . . But I decided for some reason that teaching was more rewarding," she said.

Lisa Wulff, 28, earned a degree in political science and French and worked as a special events coordinator for a public relations firm before signing up for the Towson master's degree program a year ago.

"There was like a constant battle inside myself," she said. "It was not fulfilling for me at all. I spent a lot of time worrying about whether people were having a good time, and then there was always the money issue. 'Make sure you charge them for that. . . .' "

For Ms. Wulff, a college soccer player who was attracted to teaching by watching her own coaches, student teaching at Highlandtown Elementary School last spring was one of the highlights of her life.

"If you ever want to feel great about yourself, go to a second-grade classroom and be yourself, and see what you get back from students," she said.

Towson is also one of 15 U.S. universities that are accepting former Peace Corps workers into their master's degree teaching programs. As part of the agreement, the city hires the Peace Corps students as full-time teachers and pays them regular salaries while they are going to school. The students, most of whom have experience teaching abroad, take their courses in the summer before the teaching assignments begin and at night during the year.

The salary feature was a must for Curtis McKnight, 31, whose family obligations require that both he and his wife work.

A Peace Corps worker in Liberia from 1983 to 1985 and a community organizer in Baltimore neighborhoods since then, he was completing a degree in administrative science at the Johns Hopkins University when he decided that running his own non-profit organization was not for him.

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