The view from here - US - The career-changers who are flooding classrooms

2nd December 2011 at 00:00

Elisabeth Calderon was working in marketing in Denver, Colorado, when the economic downturn hit three years ago, taking many of her clients with it. So, at the age of 37 and with two grown children, she made a decision to change careers.

At a time when its unions were under fire, salaries were stagnant and the profession's members were being blamed for everything short of global warming, Ms Calderon became a teacher.

"I went into it with a little bit of naivety," she says. "I just got to a point in my life when I thought, I want to take what I know and my experience and see what I can do with it."

It is not that Ms Calderon became a teacher that is unusual, despite the sour state of education in America. It is the path she took to do so - leaving a career she had followed for 15 years in favour of the classroom, instead of getting undergraduate and graduate degrees from university-affiliated schools of education.

In fact, in a development with many parallels in the UK, more and more teachers in the US are doing what Ms Calderon did. Four in 10 teachers hired since 2005 have taken such alternative routes, especially on-the-job training - up from less than one in 10 in the 1990s, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Information (NCEI). It is something close to a flood.

"Four out of 10 is huge," said Emily Feistritzer, president of NCEI and the director of the survey. "One of the things that's driving this is the availability of jobs. But the overriding reason is that people really do want to give something back and they think their practical experience will enhance their effectiveness as teachers."

The loosening of teacher-certification requirements has also fuelled the shift. So have Government programmes to forgive tuition loans for university graduates who teach.

Still, the development is not being universally applauded. Separate surveys show that, while they do not do any worse than pupils whose teachers followed the traditional route, pupils of career-changers do not do any better, either. And schools of education have been understandably antagonistic.

Saying that career-switchers bring enthusiasm, experience and passion to the classroom "presumes that a typical student who is not a career-changer doesn't bring enthusiasm or experience or passion," said Lin Goodwin, associate dean of teacher education at Teachers College, Columbia University. "Certainly career-changers bring something different from someone who's just graduated. But it's not simply about enthusiasm and passion."

But back in Denver, during a rare break from her third-grade pupils, Ms Calderon said the advantage she and others like her bring "is that I know the realities of what the workplace requires. I know what my students will end up seeing. I can bring, 'Hey, this is why we're learning these things'."

Like other education schools, Teachers College has added a new fellowship programme that is a hybrid of the traditional and alternative routes to education. This year, 14 of the 20 students in the programme are career-switchers, Ms Goodwin said.

"They're invested in young people and in making change," she added. "What is attracting folks, despite all the terrible press, is that there is a lot of conversation about education. They see themselves as part of the solution."

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