Return to classroom proves a test for some

Change: Workers in many professions who want want a switch try teaching but struggle with its demands.

October 13, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

When the dot-com bubble burst and her high-tech company failed last year, Susan Steele, 60, wondered what to do with the rest of her working years. She decided on teaching and looked forward to the start of this school year.

But after four days at Lansdowne High School in southwest Baltimore County, Steele couldn't sleep. Her classes were crowded, her students restless, and the work just never stopped.

So she quit.

Although her experience is an extreme example, it illustrates the problems with hiring former fighter pilots, business people, computer programmers and others who are changing careers - an increasingly popular way that school systems across Maryland and the nation are addressing critical shortages of teachers.

"Career changers", according to some educational experts and the nation's top two teachers unions, don't know how to teach and don't last as educators.

Furthermore, on the Eastern Shore, a program to hire career changers failed after many candidates recoiled when they realized the demands on a teacher - night and weekend activities, lesson planning, grading papers and disciplining students.

"The world these people are going into is very different from the one they left," said Leslie Getzinger, spokeswoman for the million-member American Federation of Teachers. "You could be a brilliant economist, but if you don't know how to teach that knowledge to 17-year-olds with discipline problems in 50 minutes, you're not going to be able to teach them anything. You have to have the skills, and you need to be supported when you're there."

For years, virtually all teachers came directly from college programs. No longer. Many school systems, especially urban districts losing large numbers of experienced teachers to their suburban counterparts, are struggling to find enough educators.

With help and money from federal, state and local agencies, more than 50,000 career changers became new teachers from 1983 to 1996, according to the National Center for Education Information, a research group in Washington that recently issued a 432-page report on the trend. The organization estimates that an additional 30,000 began teaching this fall nationwide.

"The biggest change in the teaching profession is this huge population of people who came from other careers," said Emily Feistritzer, president of the center.

Citing studies of career-changer programs in California, Texas and New Jersey, Feistritzer said most of the new teachers stay in the profession and remain in the urban districts needing them most.

But Richard M. Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies human resources issues in education, said federal studies show many career changers don't stick with it.

The career changers come to realize that their new jobs are very difficult and involve far more than teaching, Ingersoll said, "so they can't do what they love to do - teaching - and they get fed up."

Focus on retention

For Ingersoll, the recruitment programs are the wrong response to the teacher shortage. He said shortages in urban districts are caused by teacher departures, rather than a lack of candidates from teacher-preparation programs.

"The solution isn't recruiting new bodies," Ingersoll said. "It's in retaining the bodies we have."

To better retain teachers, he said, school systems should raise salaries, give teachers more support, help them with discipline and involve them more in decisions that affect their work.

"The recruitment is not as much of an issue as the retention," said Linda James of the teacher quality department of the 2.7 million-member National Education Association. "Career changers are not staying."

There are scant statistics on numbers of career changers, time of service or whether they stayed at a particular school.

In interviews, these new teachers gave a variety of reasons for making the switch. Several lost jobs during downsizing. Others liked the hours after having young children. Some said they finally could afford to teach.

"My life was changed by the teaching profession," said Bernard C. Mack, 41, who credits his teachers with helping him escape the rural poverty of his youth in Alabama. He would have taught after college, but he was obligated to the Air Force, which paid for his education.

After 12 years in the military, he spent six years in private industry in Maryland, most recently as a production manager at McCormick & Co.

Now he is teaching mathematics at Old Court Middle School in Pikesville, which has historically had difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers.

"I'm bringing 18 years of professional experience outside of the classroom that can allow kids to see how math relates to everyday life that most teachers can't bring, especially teachers right out of college," he said.

It is a perspective rarely heard two decades ago.

School systems are struggling to find enough teachers, especially in mathematics, science and technology. Urban districts are especially hard hit.

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