Graduates of Other Fields Emerge As Force in Teacher-Training Ranks

By Debra Viadero — May 09, 1990 12 min read

And Ms. Young’s study of bright, nontraditional education students raises questions about how long this group plans to stay in the classroom. Fully 26 percent of those in her study said they expected to leave teaching within 10 years for another career.

“My mother is a teacher,” says the 26-year-old former government worker, “and she made it clear to me that the reason she was a teacher was that, at that time, there were very few things a woman could do.”

Ms. Nobis opted for a degree in economics and went on to become an investigator in the U.S. General Accounting Office, where she explored such weighty matters as whether the federal Clean Air Act was achieving its purpose and how the Navy could save money in its aircraft-carrier program.

But despite the challenging issues, something was missing. “The more I was away from working with people in day-to-day situations,” Ms. Nobis says, “the more I wanted to be in some sort of leadership position working with others.”

Now, she has come back to the family tradition.

She enrolled in a teacher-training program at the University of Maryland, and by this time next year, she expects to be a fully certified elementary-school teacher—just like her mother.

Once an oddity in education schools, students like Sarah Nobis are becoming increasingly common. Overall enrollments have been growing steadily since the mid-1980’s, according to studies, but the most dramatic increases have occurred among a new pool of “nontraditional” students—those who have already earned a baccalaureate degree in another field.

These students cite a variety of reasons for wanting to teach. Some, like Ms. Nobis, have become disenchanted with their first careers. Many have an altruistic desire to “make a contribution” to society.

The simple laws of supply and demand have motivated others: Qualified teachers are a “hot” commodity again. And the much-publicized national movement to reform education, which has brought about higher pay and other professional improvements for some teachers, has enhanced teaching’s appeal for many.

Whatever their reasons, these nontraditional students present both a challenge and an important new resource for the field, according to experts. They are students for whom the traditional teacher-training curriculum does not always fit. Yet their growing numbers, life experiences, and expertise in critical subject areas, such as science or math, make them a valuable asset.

Moreover, say some, their presence in the nation’s classrooms may help improve the image of teaching.

“If we were to see a pattern where reasonably successful people from the private sector would, year in and year out, switch to education,’' says P. Michael Timpane, president of Teachers College, Columbia University, “it would go a long way toward enhancing the status of the profession.”

Switching Careers

Experts say recent increases in education-school enrollments began around 1985. While overall enrollment in teacher-training programs grew by 64 percent from 1985 to 1988, according to surveys by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the increase among the small number of nontraditional students in those programs was even sharper.

Over the same period, the surveys show, the number of prospective teachers with a degree in another field rose by nearly 200 percent. (See Education Week, March 7, 1990.)

And a new study indicates that many of these converts are actually going on to become teachers, rather than pursuing, for example, educational administration or counseling.

That report, by the National Center for Education Statistics, looked at the other end of the teacher-supply pipeline—newly qualified teachers one year out of school. It found that the number of those teachers holding master’s degrees rose by 125 percent between 1984 and 1986—from 105,000 in 1984 to 126,000 in 1986. (See related story on this page.)

“There really seems to be a turnaround in the last five years,” says Helen Freidus, who has studied this group at both Teachers College and Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. “When people talked about career-switching in the past, it was always about people leaving the profession.”

These teachers differ from those coming to the field through the more controversial “alternative certification” programs being instituted in states across the country, she and others point out.While alternative-certification candidates need not earn a degree in education, nontraditional education students in colleges and universities are either working toward a master’s degree in the field or are taking the undergraduate education courses they need for more traditional certification.

Many are enrolled in the growing number of “fast track” master’s-level programs designed specifically for them. The purpose of these programs is to provide short, intensive training for “career switchers” who may already have families to support and cannot afford to be out of the job market long.

Ms. Nobis’s program at the University of Maryland is typical of many. She will earn her master’s degree in about 15 months of full-time study and student-teaching.

Judging from his own experience at Teachers College, Mr. Timpane says, these students are making decisions about becoming a teacher at one of three stages in their lives.

“First, we’re getting a lot of people right out of college,” he said. “Instead of the avalanche of people that were getting into the more glamorous business professions five years ago, we’re getting double and triple the number of students from elite liberal-arts colleges interested in coming into teaching.”

The second group, he says, includes students, such as Sarah Nobis, who have become disillusioned with their first careers. Some have long been interested in teaching but did not pursue it because there were few jobs at the time.

The third group, the college president notes, are older people retiring early and looking for a second career.

“A lot of them are part of an entire movement to thin out middle management in business and they’re being encouraged to retire early,” he reports.

New Idealism

Findings from a handful of new, unpublished studies looking at nontraditional education students indicate that, overwhelmingly, altruistic motives play a role in their desire to enter the profession.

“They say things like they had a desire to work with children and help shape the future of America, they want to make a contribution to society, or they want to help reform the profession,” says Betty Young, an assistant professor of education at the University of Rhode Island. She surveyed 272 “high ability” education students in California with bachelor’s degrees. Eight percent of that group were “career switchers.”

Ms. Freidus notes that the idealism expressed by these prospective teachers may reflect a mood in society toward greater social responsibilty.

“I think there’s really a counter-revolution to the narcissism of the previous decades,” she says.

Such was the motivation for Andrea Warren, who became a teacher at the age of 40, after working in medical research, raising a family, and launching her own computer-billing service.

“I didn’t want to look back at my life and say I could file insurance forms better than anybody in this world,” says the Kentucky high-school teacher. “With teaching, you have the ability to look back and say, ‘I made a difference here.”’

“It certainly was not for the money,” she adds. In rural parts of her state, beginning teachers earn as little as $17,000.

Elsewhere, however, efforts to increase teacher salaries are making teaching more attractive, experts contend. In Missouri, for example, a new state-mandated minimum salary of $18,000 a year has helped lure large numbers of nontraditional students to teaching, according to some college officials.

Economic Factors

“A lot of our people are living in small towns in southwest Missouri where teaching is a financially attractive career for the area in which they live,” says Clyde Paul, head of the elementary- and secondary-education department at Southwest Missouri State College. “And the perception is that teachers are making a lot better salaries than they used to.”

In other parts of the country, converts have come as a result of economic downturns in other industries. W. Robert Houston, professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Houston’s college of education, said the ups and downs of the oil industry are linked to interest in teaching on the part of “career switchers” and other nontraditional students.

“When the Houston economy went down, the number of people exploring teaching went up,” he says. Likewise, when the local economy strengthened in 1990, enrollment of nontraditional students in the school’s teacher-training program declined slightly.

The corporate-restructuring efforts noted by Mr. Timpane also have fueled the new influx nationwide. The International Business Machines Corporation, for example, began working with education-school officials at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., several years ago as part of an effort to thin its ranks and induce senior executives to retire early.

Ibm developed an intensive one-year, master’s-level teacher-training program specifically geared to the employees at its nearby Manassas facility. The company pays the tuition of the employees or spouses who participate.

Officials at George Mason and a number of other education schools also say they see a source for more nontraditional students in the “peace dividend” expected to result from the lessening tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. As the need for a strong military presence in Europe lessens, they reason, the armed services will begin to pare the ranks by encouraging some military personnel to retire early.

However, the bottom line of the economic forces driving renewed interest in teaching is simple demand, most experts say. While there was a surplus of teachers in the 1970’s, when many of today’s nontraditional students were in high school or college, teacher shortages are of great concern now to educators in many parts of the country. And widespread news coverage of those shortages has not gone unnoticed.

“I just think,” says Richard Arends, a professor of education at the University of Maryland, “that people perceive the job market as easier to crack now.”

A number of experts also credit the national education-reform movement with making teaching more attractive. They say higher pay scales, increased autonomy, a greater public focus on the field, and other improvements brought about since the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983 are helping to draw increasing numbers of teaching candidates at all levels.

“When I was in high school, I was basically told I was too smart to be a teacher,” said Mildred Modugno, a former engineer now enrolled in the ibm program at George Mason. “But teaching is becoming more of a profession now, something to take pride in.”

A major strength of this new pool of teachers is that many, like Ms. Modugno, possess expertise in two of the most critical shortage areas: mathematics and science.

“Even if only 10 percent of these people are interested in math and science,” notes Mr. Timpane, “that’s certainly significant.”

One such teacher is John Randell, who teaches mathematics to high-school students in Annapolis, Md. Mr. Randell became a teacher after retiring from a long career as an engineer with the U.S. Coast Guard.

With his engineering background, Mr. Randell says, he is able to show his algebra and geometry students how the theorems and formulas they learn apply in the real world.

“Also,” he notes,"because I’m older than most graduates out of college and have two daughters in college, I can relate to the kinds of peer pressures my students are facing.”

Another advantage to this new pool of teachers experts cite is the fact that they are generally committed.

“They come through with a seriousness they did not have at 18 or 19,” says Ms. Freidus.

‘Hunky-Dory’ Programs

But, just as nontraditional teachers may prove to become a valuable asset to the field, they present a special challenge for those setting out to train them. Traditional undergraduate education programs are often ill-suited to this group, according to higher-education officials.

“A lot of undergraduate programs have a reputation for being kind of hunky-dory,” notes Joyce Nelson, an elementary-school teacher who came through the University of Maryland’s program. She had worked in the construction industry, started her own business, and raised a family before turning to teaching at age 34.

“At this stage in my life,” she says, “I wanted something with a little more substance to it.”

Such concerns are typical of older nontraditional students, reports Mr. Houston of the University of Houston. He surveyed 374 of these students at his school and at schools in New Orleans and San Francisco.

“The mature person making a ca4reer change has different needs, motivations, values, and experiences,” he says in a draft of his research report. “Their teacher-preparation program needs to reflect those differences.”

He notes, for example, that nontraditional students over the age of 35 tend to rebel against paperwork, “activities for the sake of activities,” and pursuing some of the less pragmatic aspects of teaching theory. They also need extra emotional support, as well as scholarships and loans that will make full-time education studies affordable, he says.

Once in the field, Ms. Freidus found, some of these students may suffer because mentor teachers assume they know more about how to teach than most teachers fresh out of undergraduate programs.

“They’ll see somebody—usually a man—who’s had another career and then not think it’s important to tell them the basics,” she says. “In business, you’re taught not to ask questions, so there’s a risk there.”

And Ms. Young’s study of bright, nontraditional education students raises questions about how long this group plans to stay in the classroom. Fully 26 percent of those in her study said they expected to leave teaching within 10 years for another career.

For the most part, however, the university officials who work with this group say nontraditional education students seem to be in it to stay.

The comments of Ms. Nelson, who has been teaching for three years now, tend to confirm these expectations. “There certainly are days when I think, ‘Why am I putting myself through this?”’ she says. “But it makes me feel like I’m doing something real.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 1990 edition of Education Week as Graduates of Other Fields Emerge As Force in Teacher-Training Ranks