Rookie Teacher, Age 50

  • Share
  • Read Later

Job seekers take part in a teaching exercise in Massachusetts

James Fogel, at age 50, has earned plenty of money as a lawyer, plus a splash of prestige as a criminal-court judge in New York City. Now he feels free to step down from the bench and dive back into the subjects he loved most in college: math and physics. At the same time, he is following what he describes as "an even higher calling" than the law — to work as an inner-city high school math teacher.

This is the season when school systems across the U.S. are recruiting teachers for next fall, a task that has grown more difficult in the face of a teacher shortage in many areas. But thousands of talented career switchers like Fogel are providing a much needed boost to the applicant pool. Some 55,000 teachers, many of them baby boomers, are expected to retire this year. And more teachers will be needed to meet swelling enrollments — a total of 2.2 million new teachers by 2010.

Yet the teacher shortage is as much a matter of quality as quantity. While the teacher-training programs at U.S. colleges will graduate some 200,000 potential new educators this year — most of them bright and eager — school principals and reformers say a sizable minority of the neophytes are just not good enough, especially in math and science, at a time when expectations are rising for students and teachers alike.

Only about 38% of K-12 teachers in the U.S. have a degree in a field other than education. And in states from Massachusetts to Maryland, most teachers have flunked new certification tests in math and science. Yet for years, school systems have heavily favored applicants with education degrees. School systems made it difficult for even the best-qualified career switchers to become teachers, often requiring them to spend a year or more obtaining master's degrees in education. The recruiters often seemed to care more whether prospective teachers could talk the jargon of "metacognition" and "kinesthetic modalities" than whether they could actually solve an algebra problem or explain cell division.

Now, though, the requirements, and the thinking behind them, are changing. Like the best sports coaches, more school recruiters and principals are drafting prospects who show strong ability and attitude — and who can learn any skills that they lack. States and school districts are aggressively recruiting new teachers from among the ranks of accountants, doctors, lawyers, retired military officers and other career switchers, who now represent about 5% of the nation's 2.8 million public-school teachers. The schools promise to turn these professionals into educators in less than two months after intensive coaching in methods of teaching and maintaining discipline in the classroom. "I can't have any teacher in this building who doesn't know the subject matter. If you are only one page ahead of the students, they know it," says Gregory Hodge, principal of the Harlem school where Fogel teaches. "But we can teach you how to be a good teacher."

A recent ad in the New York Times, in lettering that resembled a childish scrawl, challenged readers to "sign up for the most important job in New York City." Fogel was among the job switchers who answered similar ads last year. In August he and 349 other recruits attended a pep-rally orientation for New York Fellows, an accelerated-certification program started by schools chancellor Harold Levy. "Urban education," Levy told the group, "has the same moral force as the civil rights movement." After four weeks of all-day classes on teaching methods and lesson plans, the 323 who stuck with the training, and who passed two required state exams, were face to face with their first students.

Massachusetts rolled out its program for accelerated teacher certification amid great fanfare two years ago, when it offered successful recruits a $20,000 signing bonus. The state currently has 149 former engineers and other professionals working as teachers, and another 100 are being sought to start work in September. Says David Driscoll, the state's commissioner of education: "These are the best and brightest."

But are some of the career switchers getting into a tougher environment than they bargained for? While the alternative-certification programs are attracting smart and knowledgeable individuals accustomed to hard work, Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond says many of these new teachers are just not prepared for the chaos of the classroom. "Some of these programs are putting lawyers off Wall Street in elementary-school classrooms where they lecture to children who are climbing on the desks," she says. "You are taking a big crapshoot with the lives of the kids."

Indeed, many second-career teachers in New York City say they never realized how difficult teaching could be until the first time they stared down a classroom of unruly kids who would rather badger a rookie instructor about her sex life than learn about George Washington. "At first it was like a riot every day. I had to call the dean and security just to get the class to calm down," says Gary Huddleston, a former lawyer from Houston who teaches science at a high school in Brooklyn. "I had no idea how demanding it would be." Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says new teachers should have about a year of classroom training with a mentor.

Second-career teachers in Massachusetts got classroom training during summer school, but there they taught just nine or 10 children in leisurely two-hour blocks. As rookie teachers, they had to teach 100 or more students each week in 50-min. periods. What's more, in exchange for their rapid certification and bonuses, the so-called boot-camp teachers agreed to work in schools with more low-performing students and discipline problems, where experience in classroom management is as important as knowing your subject. Similarly, in New York City a court ruling requires the city to assign a newly certified teacher to the lowest-performing school in which there is a vacancy, even if that school is far from the teacher's home.

What bothers potential teachers more is the long bureaucratic delays in getting certified and assigned in many big-city school districts. In New York City it can sometimes take a year for a teacher to be assigned to a school — unless he is part of the accelerated-certification program. "Going through what the board of education usually requires is not what I had the patience for," says Fogel. "I'm doing this practically as a volunteer" — for a fraction of his former salary.

New York City had hoped to recruit 250 teachers through the alternative program, but after receiving more than 2,500 applications, it hired 350 last year. And the city expects to hire another 1,500 from the 5,500 applicants so far this year. In Massachusetts there were more than 900 applicants from around the country for the 105 alternative-certification teaching slots available last year. A Harvard University study of the Massachusetts bonus program concluded that many of the recipients "had been attracted by the accelerated route to certification rather than the $20,000 (bonus) the program offered."

Where money does matter is in training costs. New York City will pay about $25,000 to attract and train each of its fellows, including paying for each recruit to earn a master's in education. In this year's budget, Levy requested $50 million to expand the program. Cities including San Jose, Calif.; Denver; Baton Rouge, La.; and Kansas City, Mo. will have fast-track programs by the end of the year. Critics say that money would be better spent on bonuses to retain teachers already on staff, a fifth of whom leave the profession after three years. But many school officials say they would rather gamble on finding talented and idealistic career switchers, before they lose them to other fields.