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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Professional Development Opinion

Response: Advice on Making a Mid-Career Change to Teaching

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 13, 2017 24 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What are the steps a person should take if they are thinking about making a mid-career change into the teaching profession?

Making any career change can be scary and exhilarating, and moving into the teaching profession is no different. I can attest to that since I became a teacher after a nineteen-year career in community organizing.

This two-part series will discuss the do’s and don’ts of becoming a teacher after having already had at least one career.

Today’s guest responses come from Gladis Kersaint, Denisse R. Thompson, Jeri Asaro, Val Brown, Pia Wong, Megan Allen and Anne Jenks. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Gladis, Denisse, and Jeri on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Response From Gladis Kersaint & Denisse R. Thompson

Denisse R. Thompson, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics Education at the University of South Florida. She is interested in curriculum development and research, mathematical literacy, assessment, and the use of literature in teaching mathematics.

Gladis Kersaint, Ph.D. is the Dean and Professor of Mathematics Education at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. Her areas of professional interest include factors that influence mathematics teaching and teacher education, mathematics learning and achievement of at-risk and underrepresented populations, and use of technology for learning and teaching mathematics:

Deciding to teach is an indication you are interested in joining an engaging, worthwhile, and yet challenging profession. It is important to recognize that schools are a microcosm of society.Just as society has changed (i.e., technological advancements) and become more diverse, so too have schools, and they may be quite different from what you recall as a student. Schools need highly effective teachers who are passionate about supporting the learning of a diverse student population. We offer tips and issues to consider as you embark on this exciting journey.

Uncover What Draws You to Teaching

What aspects of schooling draw you to teaching? Are you inspired by your experiences in school or by a particular teacher? Are you interested in working with students of a specific age or do you love a special subject? Answering these questions will help you make important decisions.

Excellent teachers are needed at all levels—elementary, middle, and high school. So, give some thought to areas that best fit your interest and the ways in which you would like to contribute. Elementary school teachers are typically generalists responsible for teaching multiple topics to a group of students while supporting the development of children and providing foundations for lifelong learning. Middle school teachers must attend to the developmental needs of the young adolescent and often teach one or two subjects to several groups of different students.High school teachers are subject matter specialists (e.g., mathematics) who prepare students for college, career, and life. We encourage you to explore opportunities at all levels to debunk preconceived notions, which leads to our second recommendation.

Serve as a Mentor, Teacher, or Facilitator

We suggest spending time with students at each age level prior to making any final decisions toward teaching. For example, more males might become elementary teachers if they explored the potential for contributions at that level. We have found many prospective teachers assume they prefer teaching high school, but develop an affinity towards the middle grades after working with such students.

The key is to keep an open mind while considering preferences and exploring possibilities. You might engage in one or more of the following activities:

  • Tutor students to explore your abilities to share your knowledge and support the learning of others. Remember the goal is not to show what you know, but to provide opportunities for others to make sense of the subject matter they are learning.

  • Volunteer for group activities in formal or informal educational settings to provide insights about your engagement and comfort with students of various age groups.

  • Visit schools/Shadow teachers as an adult and consider what it means to be responsible for students’ learning. Visit a range of schools and talk to teachers at different career stages in teaching.

  • Serve as a substitute teacher to explore what it means to teach, even if just on a temporary basis. Many school districts need substitute teachers, and some have development programs to support individuals who serve in this capacity.

Engaging in such activities provides opportunities to interact with children in low-risk environments as you experience what it means to have someone under your tutelage. Such experiences provide early indications about the joy that comes with teaching (i.e., seeing the light bulb turn on when a student “gets it” or connects ideas).

Obtaining Your Teaching Credentials

Once committed to becoming a teacher, you need to consider available pathways in your state to obtain your teaching credentials. Depending on state requirements, an individual can earn credentials prior to becoming a teacher or while teaching with a temporary license. Although we are biased towards formal preparation provided by teacher education programs, we share information about different options.

  • University/College-Based Teacher Preparation Program. Many universities offer initial teacher certification programs at the undergraduate or graduate levels which include coursework in educational theory, methods for teaching specific subject matter content, and opportunities to practice teaching in a school setting under the supervision of experienced teachers and with the support of university faculty. An individual who completes a program at the graduate level may receive a bump in remuneration depending on school district pay scales.

  • Alternative Certification Programs. As the name implies, these programs are an alternative to degree-based initial teacher certification programs. The types of alternative programs available and the requirements vary from state to state, so we encourage you to explore available options by seeking information from your state’s department of education. These programs may involve coursework or professional development offerings that explore various aspects of teaching. Additional support is often provided by a mentor who guides participants as they explore what it means to become a teacher.

Making a decision about which path to take will be influenced by a number of factors, including your personal circumstances, available options, and what you expect to glean from the program. Do your research and select the options that best meet your needs with the goal to become an effective teacher. Teaching is some of the most challenging work you will ever do, but it can also be some of the most rewarding. We wish you the best as you enter the profession.

Response From Jeri Asaro

Jeryl-Ann Asaro loves her job as an fourth grade English teacher. As an educational writer for www.inspiringteachers.com, she specialized in offering guidelines to novice teachers. Jeri is also a contributor to the book “Classrooms that Spark and the NJASCED Report on Professional Communities (PLC) and Character Education.” She has taught at four levels—elementary, middle, high school, and post-graduate, but she has found that teaching adolescent-aged students is her true calling. Spending her days in her classroom with her 14-year-olds is her favorite place to be—crazy, but true:

Sixteen years ago, at the age of 44, I left my lucrative career in publishing to become a teacher. My old life was stimulating; however, my education career is invigorating. It is both rewarding and challenging. I love spending my days with the creative and fickle minds of young teens. I know that I’m shaping the life of an adolescent child, and I’m proud to be in that role. All master teachers put the students first, and we take that role seriously. I have no regrets!

Here are some points to ponder while making your decision.

1. Why are you making the switch? The grass is the same color on both sides. If it is because of the summers off, and the shorter work day, those thoughts are deceiving.

In my former life, I worked a long and stressful day. In my new life, I work a stressful day, and I come home to parent and student emails, lesson planning, professional reading, and ideas to ponder. Technology has changed a teacher’s life, and being “on call” once you arrive home, is part of it. Grading assignments is constant. A typical middle school essay takes 10 minutes to grade, and I have 100 students. Do the math. And now, with standardized testing, all subject areas assign writing papers, even math!

I have the summers off, but many teachers have other paid jobs. At some point, I had four part-time gigs, plus my full-time teaching job. So, my summer is off, but not without other work to be done!

2. Are you qualified? Typically, you need a bachelor’s degree in education from an accredited college. In public schools, few administrators take life experience into consideration. Every state is different, but usually, you cannot teach in a public school without proper certifications. Some states offer masters programs or alternative route training for this career transition.

On the other hand, charter, private, parochial, and even foreign-based international schools do not have the same certification processes. Some tutoring companies don’t require certifications. Teaching your current career specialty as an adjunct could offer you the best of both worlds. Consider your present career, and how your skill-set can transfer into education.

3. How do you test the waters? In the last eight years, education has changed. What you remember from your own schooling isn’t likely the same life an educator has today. Try substituting, shadowing a teacher, working as a teacher’s aide, or becoming a school volunteer. These steps will also help you learn what grade level is best for you, which is necessary for a successful teaching career.

4. What should you teach? For some, the choice is obvious. I was an English major, and I worked in publishing. I chose English. If your choice isn’t as obvious, consider these questions. In what subject is your bachelor’s degree? Where do your passions lie? What subject is the focus of your current position?

5. What to expect if you decide to make the switch? It’s a culture shock to engage a classroom of students. Being a teacher is being a learner. Many teachers earn master’s degrees and beyond, and/or become certified in more than one subject. Professional development is required. Even with training, it takes patience and consistency. The learning curve for teachers is five years, but it’s often too long. Many novices leave before they hit their strides. Be humble; be aware of what you don’t know, and ask for help. You have the vital real-world experience to share with your students; nevertheless, positive or negative, your new job will be different than you imagine.

Go for it! If teaching is truly for you, it will all be worth the effort! There is no guidebook to follow. It depends on your own apprehensions. Do your research. Plan a strategy. Do not give up.

Switching careers is not easy, but becoming a teacher is gratifying and worthwhile. The rewards are both internal for you, as well as external for those lucky students you teach. There is a need for excellent teachers. If it is your calling, go for it!

Response From Val Brown

Val Brown is the Coordinator of Leadership Pathways for Seminole County Public Schools and made a career change into the teaching profession in 2004. She has taught English, language arts, and journalism for students in grades 6-12. Mrs. Brown credits establishing a strong professional learning network on Twitter in 2012 as a catalyst in her career development. She would love to connect with you on Twitter, @ValeriaBrownEdu:

I wasn’t sure that I wanted to enter the teaching profession even after I realized that my first career as a newspaper journalist was not a good fit for me. It took the veteran teachers in my family—my mother, aunt, and grandmother—to convince me to give education a try. After I was hired for my first teaching position, and made it through my first week managing ninth grade students and a yearbook staff, I had fallen in love with the profession and knew that I had made the right decision.

With that said, I think the first step a person should take if they are thinking about making a career change into the teaching profession is to recognize encouraging messages from associates, friends, or loved ones. If someone says to you, “Hey, have you ever thought about teaching” that is a sign. If you get that question on multiple occasions, that’s a ‘stop whatever else you are doing and enter the nearest school’ sign. Often, other people recognize the gift of teaching in you before you see it in yourself.

To be completely transparent I did not know nearly enough about the profession when I had my first (and only) job interview for my first teaching position. I just so happened to dress professionally to drop off my resume with the executive secretary for a school that had several open teaching positions. Miraculously my visit was at exactly the same time the administration team was interviewing candidates for positions other than the one for which I was applying. The secretary said, “Wait right here,” and within 30 minutes I was interviewing for my first teaching job. Outside of a handful of resumes and ideas on how I could apply my professional experience to the classroom, I felt completely unprepared. I must have done well though because I was offered the job later that week.

As a result of that experience I think it illuminated the next two steps to consider if making a mid-career change.

Identify how your current work experience can translate to or add to any classroom or school environment. At the very least you will have connections that other teachers won’t have and will be able to bring a new perspective to your students and colleagues. That makes you extremely valuable. What I didn’t realize during my first interview was my experience as a reporter set me a part from the other candidates. The administration felt as if they could support me on my way to becoming an effective teacher, but they couldn’t manufacture the experience I got as a newspaper reporter.

Do not go into your interview completely unaware of what is going on in education. It is no longer enough to know your content. You must also know the basics of pedagogy and how to relate to your student population. There are many free resources, such as Education Week, Educational Leadership Magazine, and Edutopia, not to mention numerous blogs, such as those written for the Center for Teaching Quality that will provide insight about what is happening and should be happening in classrooms.

If you have done all of those things I have mentioned, and you are still not 100% sure about it, sign up as a volunteer or a substitute and get some firsthand experience.

Final takeaway - We need passionate educators with diverse experiences to add to every learning environment. Your previous career experience, coupled with a desire to learn more about the teaching profession, is exactly what will prepare our students for the challenges that await.

Response From Pia Wong

Pia Lindquist Wong is a professor in the Teaching Credentials Department at Sacramento State University. She has been a teacher educator since 1995 and focuses on urban teacher preparation. She is active in local education politics (co-chaired a successful bond campaign for a local school district) and state educational policy-making (she is on the Board of Directors for the California Council for Teacher Education and is also co-chair of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing’s Committee on Accreditation.) She has co-authored two books, one on Paulo Freire’s tenure as Secretary of Education for Sao Paulo public schools (“Education and democracy: Paulo Freire, education reform and social movements”) and another on urban professional development schools (“Prioritizing urban children, their teachers and schools through professional development schools”):

Teaching is a profession that is enhanced by life experience and the kind of confidence that is built through experiences that bring wisdom and maturity. This may appear ageist, but that is not my intention. However, I must admit that I especially enjoy working with teacher candidates who are making a career change or returning to the workforce after taking time off (most typically to raise a family). Why?They often display a steely determination about learning as much as they can about the teaching profession. They are not fearful of tension or conflict. They are especially resilient in the face of setbacks (a mediocre observation debriefing, feedback on a lesson that requires them to revise, yet again). So, if you are reading this and are thinking about making a career change, welcome!

At the same time, please be sure to take these steps so that you do not experience confusion or disappointment! Seek out opportunities to conduct observations and, if possible, teacher and principal interviews in a range of schools and classrooms, especially those that serve “typical” public school students (culturally diverse, linguistically diverse, and low income). Without assuming too much, it is likely that second career teachers will have had recent school experience, but as parents or perhaps through community service programs sponsored by an employer. Such experiences are valuable but they often don’t focus on the specifics related to the daily experiences of teachers. So, engaging with schools and classrooms through the lens of being a teacher/worker in these contexts will be informative. While the rewards of teaching are countless, a typical day in classrooms is characterized by many constraints and challenges not normally part of other kinds of professional work (very little autonomous time, work day regulated by the school schedule, relatively solitary existence for most of the work day, etc.). Be sure to think a bit about these realities of life as a teacher.

Second, be a critical consumer when it comes to selecting your pathway to a teaching credential or license. There are many ways to earn a teaching credential; as with all programs, some will be of higher quality than others. Talk with employers in your region—do they prefer to hire graduates from one program over others? If it is possible to connect with alumni from different programs, ask them important questions such as—did they have a high quality student teaching placement? Were they well supported by their program when they were completing student teaching (e.g., regular supervision, constructive feedback, etc.)? Did the program curriculum adequately balance theory with practice? While most credential programs are structured such that at least one full time semester is required, don’t let time and cost (tuition, opportunity costs) be your only guidelines for selecting a program if at all possible. Your choice of program is a significant one—think of it as an investment in your initial development as a teaching professional. The more you invest, the bigger the pay off in the long run! Third, be very clear about why you have decided to make a transition in your life towards becoming a teacher. Children, making a difference in their growth and development, and contributing to building healthy productive communities should be the drivers shaping your decision. Heading into teaching to get away from an unproductive work situation may not provide you with the conviction and commitment needed to make this transition successfully.

Finally, as you begin your journey towards becoming a teacher, hold yourself to high expectations but do not expect the impossible. You are transitioning from a situation in which you have experience and expertise and therefore, you know what you are doing. You will occasionally feel incompetent during your first days of teaching or in a credential program. That is natural, especially when learning something new...and especially when trying to master the skills and expertise required to be an effective teacher. Try not to compare yourself as a teacher to yourself from your former profession...just keep looking ahead and measuring your work as a teacher one day against your work as a teacher the day before!

Response From Megan Allen

Megan Allen is a National Board Certified Teacher, the 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year, and the Director of the Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership at Mount Holyoke College. A self-proclaimed education nerd, you can chat with her on Twitter at @redhdteacher or visit her Ed Week blog, An Edugeek’s Guide to K-12 Practice and Policy:

Teaching is the most amazing career and profession, and one that I feel is much more about identity and a way of viewing the world than just a job. Having said that, there are a few things I would recommend for career changers to consider before taking steps to enter the teaching profession.

  1. Think about the why. There’s a big difference between teaching as portrayed in the media and teaching in real life. I’ve never seen a television show or movie that really captures teaching, with the exception of The Mitchell 20 (and I highly recommend it!). I’m not 100% that society understands the complexity of the job, the intensity of the work, or the emotional labor that goes into being an educator. So if you are considering teaching, make sure you have considered the “why” and have a good idea of the enormity of what you are signing up for, and that you are signing up for the right reasons. If it is summers off and spending time with your kids after they get home from school, I’m not sure this is the right move for you. If you are wanting to make a positive impact on the world through helping our children reach their full potential, then come on in!

  2. Get to know the “teacher lifestyle.” Pulling over on the side of the road to grab an old bookshelf you know your students will love. Saving up money so you can equip your classroom library with amazing literature. Teaching summer school or finding a second job (newsflash: summers are unpaid). The political nature of the education profession. The potential (and highly probable) changes to the way you spend your weekends and weeknights. Budgetary impacts on your lifestyle (including the aforementioned classroom purchases). Effects on family and friends. I know I may be sounding like Debbie Downer as you read this list, but there are a lot of lifestyle changes to consider before taking the plunge.

  3. Spend some time volunteering in the classroom. Try it on for size! The best way to really start to understand the complexities of working with people, especially little people, is to volunteer. Get in classrooms. Listen to the teachers and students. Learn from them. And then you will grow a deeper understanding of whether or not it is a right fit for you. Even better: If you have the flexibility, substitute teaching can give you a great sense of school cultures, teaching, and the ins and outs of different types of schools.

  4. Do your research before you take the plunge. Realize that supply and demand impact teaching greatly—what you want to teach may not be what is available. Know which districts and areas have a happier teaching population—which ones have better working conditions. Start networking and making connections in those districts in which you would like to teach. Volunteer in those schools. Make your face known.

  5. Find a reputable (and highly effective) pathway to the classroom. Unfortunately, there are a bazillion ways to the classroom and many of them can leave new teachers unprepared, overwhelmed and actually hurt students. Make sure to find a program that is not a super-quick turnaround and POOF! You are a teacher. You may feel like you can confidently conduct learning with 24 second graders because—of course!—you know the content. But I promise you this—teaching the content to 24 individual learners with 24 individual needs and ways of learning is highly complex work and takes lots of training and preparation. Your pathway to the classroom will greatly influence your ability to be successful at your job.

Response From Anne Jenks

Anne Jenks is the principal of the McKinna Elementary School in Oxnard, Calif. She is a Leading Edge Certified Teacher and the 2015 CUE Site Leader of the Year:

When I was in my early forties, I decided to change professions and go into teaching. I was volunteering for Project Literacy US and teaching a fifteen-year-old boy who had dropped out of school to read. It was so rewarding that I decided to go back to school and get my teaching credential. This turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. I am going into my 25th year as an educator, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

If you are thinking of becoming a teacher and making a career change, I would advise the following:

  1. Ask yourself why you want to teach.

    If it’s because you want a nine-month work year peppered with holiday vacation time, don’t do it. You will work far more than the nine months many people seem to think that teachers work. This frequently includes nights, weekends and holidays. The only real valid reason to go into teaching is that you want to make a difference in the lives of your students. The need is great and students deserve teachers who are fully committed to helping them achieve and reach their potential.

  2. Consult with your family members, especially if you are married and have young children.

    When I went into teaching, my children were seven and nine. Since I continued to work, I went to school at night. This meant that my husband had to assume a lot more responsibility with cooking, cleaning, laundry and childcare. Even when I was at home, I was doing coursework. Having his support made my pursuit of my second career possible. Without it, I couldn’t have done it. Even if you don’t have children, you will be spending many hours taking classes and doing the work that goes along with them as well as student teaching. It’s really important to discuss this ahead of time.

  3. Do some financial planning.

    Figure out if you are able to quit your job or if you will need to work while attending school. Are the tuition and other related costs (textbooks, travel expenses, materials and supplies) manageable or will you need to take out a loan? Ask yourself how much debt you are willing to incur. Will you take a cut in salary when you begin to teach?

  4. Find out what the job prospects are in your area.

    How many teaching positions are being advertised by school districts in your area? Are you willing to relocate to find a job? Even though there are teacher shortages in many districts now, this isn’t true across the board. Also, look specifically at jobs advertised in the area you are interested in pursuing. See if there are more jobs in elementary or secondary. If you go into secondary and get a single subject credential, where is the need?

  5. Explore the various colleges and universities in your area to see what their programs offer. The college I attended had an Adult Degree Program that allowed me to take courses at night. The entire program, including student teaching took less than two years. Some programs may offer distance learning opportunities that allow for more flexible scheduling.

Once you have considered all of the above, make your decision. If you decide to go forward, good luck and welcome to the best job in the world.

Thanks to Gladis, Denisse, Jeri, Val, Pia, Megan and Anne for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder--you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first five years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don’t include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Implementing The Common Core

Race & Gender Challenges

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Brain-Based Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Professional Development

Teacher Leadership

Administrator Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Instructional Strategies

Author Interviews

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days...





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