Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Fast-Track Alternative to a Teaching Job

Published: October 14, 2009

ANXIETY about what comes next in midlife is gripping a lot of people these days, especially if their jobs are ending or they are nearing retirement age.

Wylie Schwieder mulled over his prospects as his consulting job was winding down. And when his wife of 20 years, Katie, a former corporate trainer and business writing coach, came home on Sept. 3, 2007, their wedding anniversary, he was waiting on the front porch of their Richmond, Va., house with a bottle of wine and two glasses.

“I’ve decided to become a teacher,” he told his wife.

“Really,” she replied. “I was just thinking the same thing.”

Mr. Schwieder, 52, a former executive at CarMax and Capital One bank, became interested after a local science teacher told him about a fast-track way to become a teacher.

The idea of studying intensely, then getting into the classroom quickly, appealed to the couple, who have four children. Within three weeks they had signed up with the Career Switchers program, the Virginia-based program that requires applicants to pass an Educational Testing Service exam in the subject matter they want to teach, take an online course and attend a series of meetings to learn classroom teaching skills.

The program, which has helped more than 500 people earn licenses, costs $3,150 and takes about 18 months to complete.

Armed with a provisional one-year license, the new teacher spends a year of monitored classroom instruction before earning a renewable five-year state teaching license. The Schwieders are both teaching full time now. Virginia certifies the program, which was started in 2004 to address the shortage of math, science, reading and English teachers. The placement rate, said Rebecca Waters, the director, was 80 percent last year. This year, in the state budget crunch, placement has fallen to 42 percent.

Even so, teachers in math and science still find jobs. And over the long term, teaching may be a job haven because of its relative security and good benefits. A report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a nonprofit research group, has estimated that about one million teachers could retire in the next four years. Career changers, according to a survey released in September 2008 by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, may help fill the anticipated vacancies. Among college-educated Americans 24 to 60 years old, the survey found, 42 percent would consider becoming a teacher.

But these alternative certification programs have their critics. A National Council on Teacher Quality report in 2007, for example, found that two-thirds of the programs were not selective in their admissions, accepting half or more of those who apply, and that instead of streamlining certification, they simply mimicked traditional teacher prep courses.

Virginia has one of the most streamlined programs for career changers and is among the 47 states that accept alternative teacher training. Over all, about 600 such programs contribute about 20 percent of the country’s new teachers each year, according to the Education Department.

One of the best-known programs nationally is the New Teacher Project, which this year had 40,000 applicants for its teaching fellow programs in 21 cities, which include New York and Chicago. That was up 44 percent from 2008. But only 10 percent of the applicants were accepted this year, compared with 15 percent last year, according to the project, which is based in Brooklyn.

Like the Career Switchers program in Virginia, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence offers an online program that costs $975 and has so far issued 1,900 certifications. They are accepted by nine states, including Florida, Missouri and Pennsylvania. The board says people 50 and older account for one-fifth of its participants.

Among them is Ron Halverson, 52, who worked for two decades at Hewlett-Packard in engineering and finance. After taking early retirement two years ago, he became certified and is in his second year of teaching special education at Borah High School in Boise, Idaho.

Pursuing a traditional teaching degree would have been too long and costly, he said.

“I would not have been able to afford or pursue a second career without this program,” he said of the American Board. But it is “sometimes looked at negatively by those who have gone the traditional academic route.”

In Missouri, Bill DeLoach, 59, had a career in business sales and management. He left an executive position in a regional mutual fund company and completed the American Board program in science. He is now teaching physics at a high school in suburban St. Louis.

“I haven’t worked this hard in a long time,” Mr. DeLoach said. One difficulty of the program, which must be finished in a year, is the required 30 days of classroom teaching — at a time when people are lining up for substitute teaching jobs.

Mr. Schwieder, in Virginia, landed a job before getting his license. He passed his subject test in math in November 2007, and in January, as he was beginning his class work, a math position opened at Henrico High School in suburban Richmond.

He grabbed the chance to teach, but still had to juggle the 20 to 30 hours a week needed to complete the Career Switchers course work.

The program, which requires a bachelor’s degree and five years’ work experience for entry, is intended for people working full time, Mr. Schwieder said, but he said a Monday-to-Friday teaching job meant “I wasn’t placing a lot of value on sleep at the time.”

He then moved into a full-time math teaching position and received his five-year license. His wife, 51, now teaches English in a middle school.

While they both love teaching, there are some downsides, especially the pay, which averages about $50,000 nationally. (Prospective teachers should know, too, that in a dozen states, teachers do not participate in Social Security but in public employee retirement plans. Under current law, if second-career teachers earn Social Security benefits from a previous job or receive spousal benefits, those benefits can be reduced because of the teachers’ pension benefits.)

Two-thirds of those in the Woodrow Wilson survey said they expected to take a pay cut to become a teacher.

“The pay is dismal compared to a corporate career,” Mr. Schwieder said, “but we didn’t do it for the money. The challenge is huge. I’m trying to teach students to problem-solve. That’s something that can carry them through the rest of their lives.”

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