Dream of Teaching? More Career Switchers Become Educators

By Libby Quaid, Associated Press

teachingSILVER SPRING, Md. -- Plenty of people dream of leaving their jobs to become teachers. Today, more people are actually doing it.

Peter Vos ran an Internet start-up. Now he teaches computer science to middle school kids in Maryland.

Jaime McLaughlin used to do people's taxes. Now he teaches math to sixth graders in Chicago.

Alisa Salvans was a makeup artist at Saks department store. Now she teaches high school chemistry in suburban Dallas.

These teachers, with real-life experience and often with deep knowledge of their subjects, are answering a call to service that is part of a strategy to dramatically boost the size and quality of the teaching workforce.

Career switchers make up about one-third of the ranks of new teachers, and that number has jumped in the past decade. Now, as the recession deepens, even more people are deciding to become teachers.

For Vos, the Maryland teacher, it started with Dr. Seuss and "Winnie the Pooh." He would read to kids at his children's school -- dramatic readings, with different character voices -- and he loved the feeling he was making a difference. The children cried when he finished "Stuart Little."

"I actually enjoyed it a lot more than I expected, and the kids really took to it," Vos said. "The kids who really looked forward to this the most, the ones who were giving me big hugs when I showed up, were struggling readers."

Vos, 50, was hooked. His background was not in reading but in science and computers; he was a neuroscientist before starting his Internet company. He wound up at Argyle Middle School, an information technology magnet school in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.

Like Vos, McLaughlin is motivated by that "touchy-feely camaraderie" he has with his students. He teaches math at Albert R. Sabin Magnet School, a Spanish-language school in Chicago.

He dealt with people in his old job, as an accountant with two big firms. But it was always about money.

Teaching is different. "Those kids really are pretty much your family six, seven, eight hours a day," he said. "You're helping raise them."

McLaughlin, 38, had practical motivations, too. He had always wanted to be a teacher -- his father and uncles are in education -- but he didn't think it paid enough. Once he got married and had a son, there was a second income that would let him take a pay cut. And there was a little boy he could spend more time with, if his workday ended with the school bell.

"We have that much more time to spend together," McLaughlin said.

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Interest has surged in becoming a teacher, and more pathways are emerging to get people there quickly.

The New Teacher Project, which helps people switch from other careers to the classroom, said 29,576 people have applied to its teaching fellows programs this year, a 44% increase over last year. The group was founded in 1997 by Michelle Rhee, now the schools superintendent in the District of Columbia.

There has been similar interest in Teach For America, which recruits new college graduates, although not career-switchers. The organization has received more than 35,000 applications, 42% more than last year.

Not everyone who applies will make it into the classroom. But the avalanche of applications is encouraging to the Obama administration, which plans to dramatically increase the number of teachers. Career-changers are an important part of the plan.

"One of the only benefits of living in such tough economic times now is that you have folks getting laid off and looking for work," Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama's education secretary, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"There are great folks out there who are passionate, who care a lot about children, who often have great content knowledge -- math, science, humanities, whatever it might be -- who just didn't happen to major in education. We want to help get them into the classroom," Duncan said.

In his old job as chief executive of Chicago Public Schools, Duncan brought hundreds of career-changers, including McLaughlin, into the classroom. They went through a highly selective program that puts them through intensive summer training, then starts them full time in the fall while they keep doing evening coursework.

Duncan, together with the New Teacher Project, began the Chicago Teaching Fellows program with the help of federal grants. The economic stimulus bill signed by Obama provides even more money for getting career-changers into the classroom.

Programs such as Chicago's can be the answer for people who don't have the time or money to earn another college degree.

That is what Salvans, now a chemistry teacher at Richardson High School in suburban Dallas, was looking for when she decided to become a teacher. She had put herself through college as a makeup artist, which wound up paying more than entry-level jobs when she graduated with an environmental chemistry degree.

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Salvans, 39, stuck with makeup until her second daughter was born. Then she decided her schedule managing a counter at Saks, combined with her husband's as a restaurant manager, was just too hectic for two kids.

Friends had always said she would make a good teacher, and Salvans thought they were right. She applied to Texas Teaching Fellows, a program like Chicago's that trains teachers in the summertime and lets them teach full time in the fall.

She had to go through a rigorous, six-hour interview.

"Part of the interview was that you had to do a teaching session for five to 10 minutes," Salvans said. "I thought, 'Well, I haven't taught science.' But what I would do all the time is teach women about makeup and their faces.

"So I got pencils and toothbrushes at the dollar store and taught everybody how to measure out and find the best eyebrow shape," she said.

Not all programs are as selective as those in Texas and Chicago. Of the 600 or so alternate teacher certification programs in the 50 states, many have low standards, admitting most of the people who apply.

Sandi Jacobs, vice president for policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, said only the most qualified -- those with very strong subject knowledge and high academic standing -- should have a streamlined path to the classroom.

"We've seen those road markers sort of disappear; most states do not require the admission standards to be higher," Jacobs said.

At the other end of the spectrum, some require so much coursework - 30 hours, in some cases - they may as well be college degree programs. That discourages some very attractive candidates from applying, Jacobs said.

There is less dispute about the teachers themselves. A study released last month by the Education Department found students did just as well whether their teachers came through alternate routes or traditional ones.

All three teachers found jobs in schools with high numbers of poor and minority students. That is no accident. Teaching shortages are most acute in these schools, especially in math, science and special education. Shortages are the main reason why programs such as those in Chicago and Texas began.

Programs like them have been around for more than two decades; the first began in 1983 in New Jersey.

Being a new teacher is hard enough, but working in high-needs schools can add to the challenge.

Vos has Spanish-speaking kids who speak little if any English. While he once lived in Puerto Rico and his Spanish is good, he sometimes turns to a worn Spanish-English dictionary at the front of his classroom.

"How do you say 'slides' in Spanish?" Vos asks a couple of bilingual boys as he tries to help a Spanish-speaking girl use Microsoft PowerPoint. They shrug and shake their heads as Vos thumbs through the dictionary.

McLaughlin says his students, even in elementary school, are constantly lured by gangs and drugs. Some transfer from tough neighborhood schools where they're used to fighting: "We have to acclimate them to a situation where they don't have to fight and defend themselves every day," McLaughlin said.

Despite the challenges of teaching, career-changers tend to stay on the job longer than other new teachers, said Emily Feistritzer, who heads the National Center for Alternative Certification.

Their maturity makes them more prepared for teaching -- they are older and wiser and often have children of their own. Their life experience is also relevant to the classroom, she said.

"It's not just theoretical knowledge," Feistritzer said. "They can bring in how it's used and use examples from the real world."

All three teachers say they are here to stay.

McLaughlin, after only two years in the classroom, can't imagine another career change. "I'm a lifer now. I'm going to be in this till the end," he said.

Neither can Vos.

"I get to play with technology all day. I'm surrounded by potential. I have a tremendous amount of latitude, because we're on the cutting edge," Vos said. "And they pay me."

Next: Jobs That Pay $30/Hour



Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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Jon Adams

A warning about these so-called "career Switcher programs." Teaching is a difficult profession which requires serious preparation. Many of these so-called Career Switcher programs are big on fluff. Poor preparation leads to failure; or never even getting that teaching job. Career Switchers may leave you in the dark, after slimming your wallet.

April 13 2009 at 10:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Susan Lee

This article is no favor to people looking for job security. One in five teachers quit in five years, and the reason is that they discover that the administration not only does not support teaching, but are unaccountable to anyone for their behavior. Many principals begin to believe they are not only above the laws of common decency and respect, but that they are the LAW! Those teachers that don't quit, are hounded out as tenure year approaches.

If anyone knew the truth, NO ONE would become a teacher! I was a stellar educator, celebrated by successful students, happy parents and admiring educators, when I was harassed out of the system as my longevity raise appeared on the horizon. What they did to me in NYC is a horror story of abuse. No one ever knows what goes on, and it is country-wide

April 10 2009 at 6:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Fired

If you decide to change your career in favor or your “Dream of Teaching”, be prepared for a dream that could turn out to be your worse nightmare. Be prepared to be “evaluated” by arrogant people who call themselves your “supervisors”, with half your education who will insult and degrade you in attempt to get rid of you before you start to get too expensive. Be prepared to spend your life savings for an attorney in who will be on a mission to kick you out of a very ‘closed’ system so that their failure will not be exposed. Be prepared to encounter those who will make mincemeat out of your life reputation that was formerly regarded as superior, that is, before you decided to go into “education”. Discover the sick distortion of our multi- billion dollar “education industry” has become inhabited by mercenary/political officials who are allowed to operate with no accountability to anyone and who make the final unfettered “educational” decisions “for the children”. Save some extra money from your retirement funds for therapy and treatment that will be required overcome severe psychic trauma and post traumatic distress syndrome PTDS. Good luck with your Dream of Teaching!!

April 10 2009 at 11:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Fired

If you decide to change your career in favor or your “Dream of Teaching”, be prepared for a dream that could turn out to be your worse nightmare. Be prepared to be “evaluated” by arrogant people who call themselves your “supervisors”, with half your education, who will insult and degrade you in attempt to get rid of you before you start to get too expensive.

Be prepared to spend your life savings for an attorney to defend yourslef against people who will be on a mission to kick you out of a very ‘closed’ system so that their failure will not be exposed. Be prepared to encounter those who will make mincemeat out of your life reputation that was formerly regarded as superior, that is, before you decided to go into “education”. Discover the sick distortion of our multi- billion dollar “education industry” has become inhabited by mercenary/political officials who are allowed to operate with no accountability to anyone and who make the final unfettered “educational” decisions “for the children”. Save some extra money from your retirement funds for therapy and treatment that will be required overcome severe psychic trauma and post traumatic distress syndrome PTDS. Good luck with your Dream of Teaching!!

April 10 2009 at 11:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bill

I'm tired of this education/certification crap. Some of the worst teachers I have ever known have "teacher certification"... Some family members...one just showed video tapes and gave multiple choice tests) are "certified. I have been teaching all life, and am an excellent teacher.. but am not a "teacher" because I am not certified. I think its a load.

April 10 2009 at 12:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Johnny

This article is another poorly written AOL one. Whoever writes this garbage should be FIRED.

----Like Vos, McLaughlin is motivated by that "touchy-feely camaraderie" he has with his students. ----

^ Excuse me? "Touchy feely" and students? Red flag anyone?

I also hate the tone of this piece. It's WELL KNOWN that teaching jobs are hard to come by, I don't understand why this article makes it look "so easy to go and teach." Trust me, I've personally experienced friends and family members go through the arduous process.

And if some of this article is true, I'm pretty appalled by the lack of vetting it takes to become a teacher in some parts of the country. A Saks employee teaching chemistry to students?? Expertise and knowledge of a field should be a requirement for ALL teachers at ALL level, not some Joe Schmoe who got a couple of "As" in History.

April 09 2009 at 3:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
JoanieT

I'll further say that the teaching unions serve to keep the mediocre in place. the poor to mediocre teacher is the one who most often "runs to the union."
The public needs to know that certificated staff earns quite a bit of money. A teacher with a MS degree (and many of these "degrees" are not really earned-- they are pretty much "granted" after completing a minimum amount of work and showing up for a minimum # of classes-- pretty much Mickey Mouse) in mid career is earning about 100K per year if employed on either coast. It's ridiculous. Many of these burnt out people are not worth that amount of money. I feel sorry for the posters who have indicated that they are having trouble seeking and/or securing jobs. I believe the nasty suspicions that many of you folks have. The crafty school administrator will find ways to keep you out of teaching, believe me. they never want a teacher that can outshine them! We have a whole generation of school administrators who have no business running schools. Most of the lawsuits against districts serve as a testament to the poor thought processes that these overpaid administrators are providing while on the job. They are just a group of bull-headed idiots that get themselves, and ultimately the taxpayer, into trouble!

April 09 2009 at 2:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to JoanieT's comment
joeldor

You are mistaken as far as salary, classes, etc. go. In RI, (a top paying teacher state) beginning teachers make only in the mid 30s and top paid teachers make in the 70s- nowhere near $100,000. A Master's Degree is a great deal of work and costs 10s of thousands of dollars. The district where my husband works does not even pay enough extra for a Masters Degree to earn most of the expense back.

Honestly, I think a problem is that many people think that because they have gone to school, they are experts on schools and education.

April 09 2009 at 3:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
lou

teaching is a great job for the money..depending on district.. you get all holidays paid..three months off in the summer..great insurance..and the gratificatio of helping our youth., now everyone complains about thier money, however take compairable income of a mason.. hard backbreaking work,long hours and limited time off, and limited insurance .. i think teaching would be the way to go

April 09 2009 at 2:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Chloe

We need to get rid of teacher tenure. While it's good news that more people want to teach, there are loads of horrible teachers who can never be fired. Teaching is the only career that rewards mediocrity and our children are paying the price. Teachers need to face yearly evaluations just like every other business and if you're not keeping up with your job....you're out. Bush dumbed down the education system with No Child Left Behind - now teachers don't even have to be proficient in a subject, just in a test score. Why aren't parents outraged????

April 09 2009 at 2:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kayla

I think it's a bit dumb to make it easier for people to teach. I just graduated in '08 and I have had some of the dumbest teachers because they are making it easier to get a teaching certificate. I only think they are making it easier so that they don't have to pay them as much since they are having such a problem with funding Education.
No one wants to work for a career anymore they just want it handed to them.

April 09 2009 at 1:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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