Teaching Profession Ask the Mentor

Do What You Have to Do

April 20, 2007 7 min read
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Martha Karlovetz, who’s been active in education for more than 35 years, is president of Missouri National Education Association-Retired and a member of the NEA-Retired Advisory Council. She’s also the author of The Classroom Is Bare ... The Teacher’s Not There, the story of how her daughter—also a teacher—positively influenced her students before her death from cancer. NEA-Retired serves 250,000 retired union members and provides mentoring, literacy, and intergenerational programs in public schools. Throughout her career, Karlovetz taught at many grade levels, and she now speaks to NEA and public groups about education-related topics. For more information on NEA-Retired, visit: www.nea.org/retired. Those interested in Karlovetz’s book can contact her at: linmarpub@aol.com

I’m an elementary ed student expecting to graduate next year. I’d like to continue with a master’s in special ed, but some say, “Work a few years, then get the second degree, because schools won’t pay more for a new teacher with a master’s.” Others say, “Get it out of the way now—if a school needs you, it’ll pay.” Any suggestions?

You are in a field that requires special training and is also in high demand, so either option would probably work. If you work first, the actual classroom experience could help make you a better special ed teacher. However, some colleges and universities now offer five-year programs, culminating in a master’s degree. These people are your competition in finding the right teaching position.

You didn’t mention a third option: Start teaching and work on your master’s. You will be established in a school or district, gaining valuable experience, while you continue your education through a local college, university, or extension. The credit hours that you receive could help you meet district or state professional development requirements. Once you’ve accumulated 12 to 15 hours of graduate credit, you could even earn an increase in your salary.

I transitioned into teaching in 2003 after 18 years in the health insurance industry, and I have a master’s in education and am recognized by colleagues as a successful teacher and enjoy it. But the salary is half of what I was making. So I’m considering moving into some kind of leadership or administrative position. Suggestions?

Even though salaries have improved greatly in recent years, if you entered the teaching profession to make money, you entered the wrong profession. However, if you really are a successful teacher, you might be very effective in a leadership or administrative position. Check with your state department and area colleges or universities for course requirements for certification in administration or professional development.

I work at a small school and just completed my master’s in ed in integrating technology into the curriculum. Our principal wants to turn our library into a “media center” by removing a quarter of the books and installing 20 computers. I prefer to integrate a plan for laptop carts and/or in-class tech support. Should I step into this one?

Absolutely! You are a professional, which entitles you to share your knowledge to best meet the needs of the students and teachers. Schedule a meeting with your principal to discuss your ideas. Prepare for this meeting by writing a brief proposal of your plan, emphasizing its strengths and perhaps even doing a comparative analysis (including costs). You might suggest that this topic be an agenda item for a staff meeting, allowing all teachers to share their ideas for the best use of computers and the media center.

Since recruiting new teachers is such a problem—as is training career-changers—why isn’t there a way to put retired educators back in the classroom for more than 49 percent time with the same salary and benefits?

If everyone chose the option you suggest and decided to continue teaching even though “retired,” pensions systems (and Social Security) would be severely impacted. This might not affect your benefits, but it certainly could affect those who follow in your footsteps.

Like it or not, benefits being paid to current retirees are financially supported by the active work force. Retirees can be a valuable asset to schools for substituting, tutoring, mentoring, and professional development. A retiree who works full time is “double dipping”—earning full salary while collecting retirement benefits. Perhaps you should rethink your decision to retire.

The real solution is to provide the necessary financial support to our schools to ensure that entry-level and other teachers’ salaries are increased to a competitive level, so as to encourage young people to enter the profession and retain experienced professionals.

I’ve been teaching for several years, at all grade levels, and I’m interested in working as a teacher-trainer. But I don’t want to stop teaching kids altogether. What are my options?

The need for teacher-trainers—I prefer to call them professional development educators—depends largely on the size of your school or district. Some districts do have positions such as you describe that allow teachers to divide their time between the classroom and offering staff-development programs.

If your district isn’t large enough to support such a program, there are still ways to meet your objective. You might consider offering workshops on curriculum days or through professional-association conferences. Mentoring new teachers or teaching a course in your area(s) of expertise at the graduate level are other possibilities. I commend you for wanting to do both. I think you will find, as I did, that teaching teachers will make you a more effective instructor yourself.

I’m a new male teacher, in my early 50s, who arrived from the business world through alternative-certification means. Because alt-cert organizations’ specialty is placing people into areas of great need, my field is special ed. But little of it makes sense to me: the way kids are labeled, what their needs are, how to help them. I’ve become attached to the kids, but am considering other teaching options that can better utilize my skills.

Your situation illustrates one of the significant flaws with alternative-certification programs. Experience in the business world plus a few courses does not prepare anyone to teach. This is particularly true in the field of special ed, where the diagnostic skills and teaching techniques for being successful with kids require extensive training.

I encourage you to investigate other areas that might better utilize your skills. You need to be aware, however, that teaching a content area requires quite different skills from knowledge in that area. I like to use my own field—elementary reading—as an example. Just because someone can read, doesn’t mean that they can teach reading successfully.

After quitting my job as a new teacher, I’m now having second thoughts. I’m a substitute and enjoy it very much, but would love to have my own room again. How might I approach my job search?

Perhaps you need to analyze why you quit in the first place. Were you overwhelmed with the day-to-day lesson planning and student evaluation? Did you quit because you didn’t like the school or your teaching position? Or did you resign simply because you didn’t have the education and training necessary to be successful in the classroom?

Knowing the answers to these questions will determine how to go about your job search. Enrolling in graduate courses that help broaden your expertise and help you feel more comfortable in the classroom might be one option. Or, if the specific teaching assignment was the issue, you might try applying for a position in a different grade level or school. Only you can answer these questions. Good luck!

I’m employed in a beleaguered urban district that, for many reasons, will close six schools, including mine. We get to go to bidding. My seniority is low, and I was already once threatened with having to leave my field (special ed) to go into another (general ed/English). I want to stay in special ed, but am tired of layoffs.

Unfortunately, beleaguered urban districts really need qualified, dedicated professionals that are willing to accept the challenges that these districts face. It’s a shame, therefore, that, at the very least, your district can’t work to honor someone’s preference in teaching assignments rather than impose arbitrary transfers.

Fortunately, your area of specialization, special ed, is in great demand. Have you thought about investigating teaching positions in other school districts in your area? Begin your search in communities that are growing, so that even though you will be low in seniority, others are more likely to be hired after you.

I am a seventh-year social studies teacher currently on maternity leave. How could extending my leave to raise my child impact my career options in the future? And, while on leave, how can I stay connected to the profession?

The impact of extending your leave may depend on your district’s need to fill your position and the local job market. Certainly extending your leave for a year or two—as long as it is an extended leave and not a resignation—shouldn’t make much difference, but check with your local union. To stay connected while on leave, continue to subscribe to professional journals, tutor, substitute if you can arrange some baby-sitting help, or enroll in graduate-level courses through a local university, extension, or even online.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Do What You Have to Do

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