Out Of The Ballpark

By Edgar Allen Beem — May 01, 2002 9 min read
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After intensive teacher training, a sportswriter swaps batting statistics for grading papers.

The ceiling-high windows in John Heffernan’s classroom at Mahoney Middle School in South Portland, Maine, overlook a baseball diamond. It’s a gray February morning with rain and snow in the forecast, but fresh footprints in the dirt suggest that someone has been doing a little pre-spring training. Until not too long ago, Heffernan’s attention at this time of year would have been turning to similar ball fields. As a sportswriter for the Portland Press Herald, he covered the minor-league Sea Dogs as well as local college and high school teams. Today, though, he’s facing a whole other ballgame: 8th grade language arts.

Heffernan’s first class is a group of 18 kids with the look of teenagers smitten by celebrity, sports, and commerce. They’re decked out in jeans or cargo pants, sneakers, and hooded sweatshirts that bear logos for Gap, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, and Mahoney’s championship girls’ basketball team. With their adolescent lives chock-full of gossip, games, and growing pains, they’re easily distracted at times. But for Heffernan, 38, the transition five years ago from newsroom to classroom has been a fulfilling one.

After more than a decade as a sports reporter, the former star high school center fielder began to suspect that there might be more to life than box scores. “I was spending a lot of my life and energy and stress on things that didn’t mean that much in the big picture,” Heffernan says. “I started asking myself, If it’s not worth the stress and frustration to write up my 15- hundredth ballgame, then what kind of work is worth those things?”

The answer he hit on was teaching. To make the switch, Heffernan spent the 1997- 98 school year in the University of Southern Maine’s Extended Teacher Education Program, an intensive, one-year institute for people who already have bachelor’s degrees. Like a growing number of education schools nationwide, ETEP is modeled on medical internships: Novices learn from veterans through hands-on experience. Heffernan gained a lot from the fast-track training—in addition to the internship, he had to take six courses—but he and others found it exhausting and, at times, overwhelming. What’s more, he notes, it was tough to give up his salary.

Although ETEP isn’t designed specifically for career changers, it has mostly drawn students from fields outside education who want to get into classrooms quickly. Some program participants have made more startling shifts than Heffernan—a Navy pilot and a submarine commander, for example—but like him, the majority bring substantial life experience to bear on teaching.

In fact, today Heffernan is supervising an assignment clearly drawn from his journalistic past: Students have formed groups to create their own magazines. Heffernan, who is casual in his approach, is clearly in control. “I’ll treat this like I’m an editor,” he explains. “You’ve got to sell me that, yes, this is a good idea. Then you have to get the information, talk to people, answer the questions, and meet the deadlines.”

Dressed in blue chinos and a sports shirt (to which he’s pinned a button publicizing that South Portland teachers are working without a contract), Heffernan circulates while the kids brainstorm. One group quickly chooses the name “Movies, Movies, Movies” for its magazine while a few serious young ladies decide that their “Teen Talk” will cover suicide, rape, and school shootings—an indication that American kids have some weighty subjects on their minds these days.

Heffernan has passed out sheets that clearly detail what is expected and how the projects will be graded. But being a good writer, he’s discovered over the past few years, doesn’t necessarily make you a good writing teacher. Because the craft comes naturally to him, he says, he’s tended to take too many things for granted. Still, he’s working hard to master his chosen field. And it’s important to him that his students stick to their goals, too. In fact, the décor in the classroom runs heavily to motivational posters, many of which, not surprisingly, come from the world of sports. One, featuring Michael Jordan’s famous face, proclaims: “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Another, from volleyball, seems to speak directly to Heffernan’s career-changing experience: “All things are difficult before they are easy.”

Unlike many fast-track certification programs across the country, the University of Southern Maine’s ETEP wasn’t created to cope with a teacher shortage. The effort got started in the late 1980s, after USM professors began collaborating with classroom teachers on education reforms. It eventually became apparent that the professors would need to partner with school districts if they were going to adequately train future educators. “The university was strongly committed to school restructuring,” explains ETEP director Walter Kimball, “and we realized that teacher education had to be part of restructuring.”

In 1989, Kimball and other USM officials set up a pilot program based on the “professional- development school” model, which features internships with local districts. They decided to highlight practice, moving away from the traditional emphasis on theory. They also accepted only graduate-level students to ensure that the future teachers were already well-versed in their subject areas. A few years later, the pilot became ETEP, which today serves nearly 100 students each year. So far, the program has produced more than 800 teachers.

Unlike many fast-track certification programs across the country, the University of Southern Maine’s ETEP wasn’t created to cope with a teacher shortage.

Participants sign on for two 15-week internships, in contrast to the semesterlong student-teaching regimens that are standard elsewhere. As they work with mentors each day, the students gradually expand their classroom duties. They also have to take courses in the afternoons and evenings.

Heffernan first heard about ETEP in 1996 from a fellow sportswriter whose wife had just completed the program. Although he’d given the field little thought back in college, Heffernan began to wonder if teaching might make his life more meaningful. He graduated from USM in 1986 with a degree in communications and the dream of becoming a play-by-play announcer. Because Maine offers few such opportunities, he wound up pursuing his passion in print instead. And after seven years as a reporter, he found himself looking for a more creative outlet.

In 1993, Heffernan took a comedy class and, while remaining on the Press Herald staff, gave stand-up a shot. As he polished his shtick-mostly at amateur open-mike nights at clubs from Bangor to Boston—he continued searching for a more fulfilling life. One of his routines drew on that quest. He would tell audiences that he’d volunteered at a crisis hotline. “But I’m not sure I had the necessary training or experience to help,” he’d deadpan, “because it turned out to be a midlife crisis hotline. People would call and say, ‘My life seems so empty and meaningless.’ I’d tell them to look on the bright side: ‘Hey, at least it’s half over.’”

Heffernan never seriously considered comedy as a career, but his experience served him well after he made the switch to teaching: It convinced him that he could succeed at the front of a classroom where, as he puts it, “It’s my show.”

Throughout the day, the student audience for the John Heffernan show is generally well- behaved. The Mahoney middle schoolers come from South Portland, a bedroom community outside Portland, and most are middle-class and motivated. Still, Heffernan encourages cooperation with a technique he picked up from an ETEP mentor. Anyone who hands an assignment in on time gets a “lottery ticket"— actually just a Post-It note—which the kid signs and deposits in a plastic jar for a weekly drawing. Winners get to choose from a number of perks, including forgoing a minor assignment.

As much as Heffernan appreciates the tip, he does have some reservations about ETEP. For one, he didn’t get paid for his internships. The money issue is a bone of contention with Chester Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a conservative-leaning education think tank. He believes that giving up a year’s income is too much to ask. “It creates an enormous upfront cost for anyone who wants to enter teaching,” Finn argues. To deal with this issue, ETEP officials are developing a part-time option so students can continue to work while pursuing their studies.

But Heffernan’s biggest complaint is the demanding schedule, which some lawyers in the program have said makes ETEP tougher than law school. “One of the frustrations . . . is that so much is thrown at you in such a short period of time,” notes Heffernan. “It’s overwhelming. The metaphor we used was that it was like trying to drink water from a fire hydrant.”

One of the reasons Heffernan was able to endure the program is that he’s calm by nature. It’s early afternoon, and his 8th graders, just returning from gym, are pretty wound up. But he stays cool and gets them to settle down with a silent- reading assignment.

Heffernan’s biggest complaint is the demanding schedule, which some lawyers in the program have said makes ETEP tougher than law school.

With his experience as a stand-up comic, Heffernan had assumed that humor would help him manage his classes, but he quickly discovered that was a mistake. “Out of any 20 kids,” he explains, “you’ll have 15 who can handle the humor and refocus, but you’ll have five who can’t. They see you being silly, and they equate that with recess.”

Still, Heffernan likes to have fun. His class this afternoon is working in groups on a relay exercise, in which one student starts writing a story, then passes it around for the others to contribute sections. As the students read their final products aloud, the results are predictably sophomoric, and several kids find themselves laughing too hard to continue. Two pieces inexplicably feature disgraced TV comic Pee Wee Herman, and another is about a gay ant.

“When it comes to humor, I give you more leeway than usual,” Heffernan tells his students. “But even when you’re doing humor, give some thought to hurting people’s feelings. You may think it’s OK to make fun of homosexuality, but you’re using stereotypes and prejudices.” Without scolding or raising his voice, Heffernan makes his point, and the kids stop giggling immediately.

Despite his knack for controlling classes, Heffernan is pretty tired as he packs up and calls it a day. Just a mile from the school is the modest, vinyl- sided house that he shares with his wife, Heather, and their infant son, James, whom he now cradles in his arms. After four years of teaching, Heffernan isn’t sure whether he’ll become a statistic, one of the 50 percent of new teachers nationwide who quit within five years. ETEP, he says, “cost me $6,000 in tuition, a year of income in the prime of my earning life, and all of my free time so I could earn $6,000 to $7,000 less a year.”

But money isn’t the only consideration. As someone who craves some workplace solitude, Heffernan finds the incessant interaction with students, faculty, administrators, and parents emotionally draining. He was so exhausted at the end of last school year that he almost didn’t return. This year he’s feeling more upbeat about teaching, thanks largely to a bright, enthusiastic batch of 8th graders.

So was the career change worth it?

“Yes,” says Heffernan, looking at James, who’s asleep on his chest. “I feel more challenged, more pushed, and more tired than I ever felt as a sportswriter, but that’s what I was asking for. I guess you have to be careful what you ask for. I went into teaching because I had a lot of respect for teachers. I have a lot more respect for teachers now that I’ve experienced the life itself.”


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