June 27, 2009
People look to teaching careers later in life
Making the adjustment can be challenging but the payoff is worth it, educators say
Tricia Goodenough of Dryden had a business administration degree and had worked in a series of businesses, but she knew she liked working with children.
While she was working for a book publisher, a computer company, the Pampered Chef and then Webclothes in Cortland, her sisters were teaching and then becoming principals. Her father was a superintendent of schools.
Goodenough, then in her late 30s, decided to become a teacher.
“It’s in my blood to be a teacher,” she said. “I decided I had to do this.”
As hundreds of people have been laid off by industries in the Cortland region, many have turned to education in other careers. Some of them have decided to become teachers.
But how likely are they to be hired, as New York state struggles with school finances?
Do people over 30, even as old as 50, make the transition well into teaching?
The answers to both questions are complicated.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says teachers will be in demand through 2012 in the Southwest and in Georgia, while the Midwest will remain stable and the Northeast will need fewer teachers. It said 479,000 teaching jobs will be created, a 12 percent increase.
Teachers are in demand in math, the sciences, foreign languages and technology. Some cities need English as a Second Language teachers, although there is not much demand in this region.
English, social studies, physical education and elementary education teachers are not in as high demand.
In New York, the state’s fiscal crisis that emerged during the fall and winter has caused many school districts to cut teaching jobs.
Older people entering education from other careers range from those who bring valuable life experience to the classroom, to those who discover they made a mistake.
“Second-career folks generally make outstanding employees,” said Cortland Superintendent of Schools Laurence Spring. “They have work ethic, understanding of kids’ developmental stages, if they are parents. But the deciding factor with any teacher is how good they are.”
Spring said some brand-new teachers aged 22 are wonderful and some older teachers have little feel for how to manage a classroom.
SUNY Cortland professors who guide students into teaching careers say older people can struggle to adjust to lower pay and less authority, as they find themselves pressured by state education policies, administrators and critical parents.
“Teaching is political and bureaucratic, as everybody seems to know what you should be doing,” said Rena Janke, who coordinates SUNY Cortland’s adolescence education program in the sciences. “Teachers are at the bottom of the system.”
This is one reason why the college allows few shortcuts in its teaching master’s degrees, Janke said. Two years of full-time study, including student teaching —required of people whose undergraduate degrees were not in education — allows a career changer to adjust.
“You need the evolution from workplace to teaching,” said Janke, a former high school biology teacher. “For one thing, you need to adjust to students’ lack of motivation in class. That can be quite a surprise.”
The state Education Department allows “fast tracking” in some ways, such as counting teaching experience
Insisting that older students follow the full-time route has increased SUNY Cortland’s credibility and made its graduates more likely to be hired, said Noralyn Masselink, adolescence education coordinator for the English department.
“The past four years, everyone has gotten a job within a year, since we raised our standards,” Masselink said. “Our placement level is high, especially if a student is willing to leave this state.”
Janke cites examples of successful career changers, such as the Chenango Valley science teacher who lost his job as a photo chemist for Anotec in Binghamton. He had a Ph.D. in chemistry.
“He sat in my office and said he needed to do something,” Janke said. “He didn’t think teaching was beneath him.”
Janke also advised Janet and Carl Scheffler, Groton dairy farmers who became science teachers. Carl teaches chemistry and astronomy at Southern Cayuga Central. Janet teaches biology at Auburn High School. Carl Scheffler already had a bachelor’s degree in education that he received years ago.
Many career changers are rooted in their community, which administrators like. But lack of mobility can hurt the career changers if teaching jobs are not open in their region.
Goodenough has taught second grade at Dryden Elementary for two years. She began with education courses at Tompkins Cortland Community College, which convinced her that she loved teaching. She then shifted to a master’s degree program at SUNY Cortland, becoming a full-time student while raising three children with her husband, Jerry.
She finished her master’s in the spring of 2007 and was hired at Dryden that fall.
“Going back to school, it’s a little scary, you have to get back in the swing,” Goodenough said while taking a break Wednesday from packing up her classroom for the summer.
She said she approaches teaching from a parent’s perspective, “how I’d like to be treated as a parent.”
She said she understands Janke’s perspective that career changers can struggle with a teacher’s place in the education system, but feels she has lots of influence as a person in the forefront of young people’s learning.
“It’s a big commitment — $25,000 and two years,” Janke said. “I don’t care about your motivations, make sure you do everything you can to be a good teacher. And when you can’t, get out.”
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