Go To The Head Of The Class

Here's how to answer a midlife call to the chalkboard

For 12 years, Glenn Gainley worked his way up at Milpitas, Calif., chipmaker Symbios Inc., now called LSI Logic, to become vice-president in charge of business units. "I made a lot of money," he says. "But I felt strongly that I wasn't being the kind of husband or father I wanted to be." Wanting to help kids and invest more in his community, the 40-year-old father of three set aside enough for retirement and his kids' college education, went back to school himself, and emerged with a new career--as a teacher.

Now in his second year as a $25,600-a-year teacher of high-school chemistry and physics in his hometown of Fort Collins, Colo., Gainley occasionally misses the large paychecks--but not the job. "I have never been happier," he says. "Before I was making money, now I'm making a difference."

If you harbor a wish to shape young minds, you could be one of a growing cadre of people switching to teaching. "A lot of career-changers are baby boomers, most commonly coming from law and finance, who decide they have enough money and want to do something that's more satisfying," says Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College Columbia University in New York. Further fueling the trend is the national political debate over education and fears of an impending teacher shortage--enrollments in lower grades are rising, as nearly half of current teachers near retirement. And while teaching involves hard work, long hours, and low pay, so-called alternative routes to education make it easier for career-switchers to get certified. A growing array of resources such as financial aid also is now available.

LIFE EXPERIENCE. Until recently, there were just two ways to get certified as a primary- or secondary-school teacher. Either you had to be an undergraduate education major or you got an emergency license from a school district desperate for teachers. A rise in emergency certifications led universities and colleges to offer more accelerated graduate programs that put potential teachers into the classroom in just 12 to 24 months. Some school districts may waive requirements for career-switchers depending on how well they do on tests and their work and life experience. Some smooth the way with mentoring programs and financial subsidies.

Money--or lack of it--is a top consideration for anyone switching to teaching. Although salaries have been edging up, you may take a substantial cut in pay. The average teacher salary is currently $38,000. You'll also have to consider how to manage your retraining. You may opt to keep working and study part-time, or cash in savings or get a student loan to finance your education ($23,000 for tuition at Teachers College, for example). Some alternative programs can help. "The toughest thing is the financial bridge for career changers to support themselves through 13 months with no income," says Jay Shotel, chairman of George Washington University's Teacher Preparation & Special Education Dept. (202 994-6170; www.gwu.edu). "Almost every one of our programs has reduced tuition."

In GW's Transition to Teaching Project, students are paid to be permanent substitute teachers in Fairfax County, Va., high schools during their 13-month training. In another program, intern teachers in Montgomery County, Md., schools get a reduced salary. A third GW program offers returning Peace Corps volunteers free tuition and a monthly stipend.

Most programs include coursework in teaching methodology, mastery of the subject matter, and some form of classroom internship. Training is oriented to teamwork and incorporating into lesson plans the different ways kids learn. Says Linda Myers, a 15-year veteran of the Bureau of Land Management who became a high-school teacher in Fort Collins: "We don't get up in front of the class and entertain the kids. We involve them in creative projects, like building a pyramid or making a video."

Alternative programs tend to get you into the classroom faster and with more responsibility right off the bat. Some, such as Project Promise at Colorado State University (970 491-6909; www.colostate.edu), have students teach in four kinds of schools, from rural to urban, elementary to high school. The Los Angeles Unified School District (213 625-6000, www.lausd.k12.ca.us) trains its own teachers--and pays them a salary, to boot--in a program geared to urban multicultural education. "Our own program...is competitive with any university program," says Mike McKibben, California state project officer for alternate certification.

Despite growing demand, teaching jobs are not universally available. The greatest need is in rapidly growing states, such as Texas, California, and Florida, and nationally in urban and rural districts, says Segun Eubanks, a spokesman for the National Education Assn. Subjects most in demand are math, science, special education, and English as a second language. As growing immigrant populations make schools more diverse, minority teachers are also in demand.

If you think you want to be a teacher, the first step is to get a sense of how much energy and work it takes by volunteering as a classroom aid, tutor, or team coach. Career-switchers inevitably say they work as hard, if not harder, in the classroom than in the office. "It's a fallacy that teachers work part-time," says Gainley. "I ran the best part of a billion-dollar company, and I work just as hard now." Next, find out what the certification requirements are in the district where you want to teach. These vary by state, so call your state department of education or go directly to the school district office. Teachers college admissions offices and teachers unions will also help you sort through the certification maze. "Take the [state Board of Education] tests to get an idea of where you stand and how much work you have to do," says California's McKibben.

If you need to go back to school, it's not hard to research training programs (table). Recruiting New Teachers, in Belmont, Mass., publishes a $24 manual, Take this Job and Love It! Making the Mid-Career Move to Teaching, that lists many programs and what they offer. Of course, "you'll also really want to work with children," says RNT's acting Chief Mildred Hudson. Those who have made the switch say they revel in their ability to affect students' lives and the future.

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