By Paul Bradley  /  
2015 January 19 - 07:28 pm

Making The Grade

Virginia Colleges Help Career Switchers Transition Into Teaching Careers


To take a look at the current state of the teaching profession makes one wonder why anyone would want to set foot in a classroom.

The economic downturn led to teacher layoffs all over the country. Tenure is under attack. Pay is notoriously poor. Growing demands for accountability, coupled with new and emerging academic standards, are robbing many teachers of autonomy in their own classrooms. Workloads can be overwhelming.

But the lure of shaping young minds and doing something that furthers the public good remains strong. With the economy on the upswing, schools districts again are hiring, and the demand for teachers is on the rise: baby boomers are retiring in droves and shifting demographics are increasing the demand for bilingual teachers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the number of new teaching positions will grow by more than 400,000 over the next decade.

For career switchers, teaching can be especially inviting. You get summers off, pay is steady if not especially generous and you’re rewarded with making a difference in the life of a child. After a successful career in some other field, it allows a newly minted teacher to give something back.

According to the Center for Career Changers to the Classroom, surveys show that 42 percent of 24- to 60-year-olds with at least a bachelor’s degree would consider becoming a teacher in the future; 46 percent of leading edge baby boomers (ages 51-62) are interested in a second career.

For years, community colleges around the country have been helping career switchers make the transition into the classroom. Among the most successful can be found in Virginia. There, the EducateVA Career Switchers Program — a joint initiative of the Virginia Community College System, the Virginia Department of Education and the state’s Community College Workforce Alliance — has trained 1,400 career switchers to become teachers since it started in 1984.

About 170 first-year teachers trained in the program are currently working in Virginia classrooms. Among the 40 teacher training programs in the state, EducateVA provides the state with more classroom teachers than all but one.

The program is aimed at working adults who have already earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, have five or more years of full-time work experience, and are seeking a rigorous, practical, quick and relatively low-cost route into the teaching profession.

For $3,900, along with the cost of books and various application fees, a career switcher can earn a one-year teaching contract within a year and a full five-year teaching license within two. Students must have the ability to study and write at a graduatelevel and have access to a computer and the Internet, since much of the program is conducted online.

On videos posted on the program’s website, three students sing the praises of the program. Kim Booner said she gave up a 20-year career in the fashion industry to realize her dream of becoming a teacher, relocating from New York to Virginia.

“I feel like I am able to do something that has a lot more meaning,” she said. “I feel like I am touching lives. This has been a lifelong dream for me.”

Jason Wright said he relocated his family from Mexico, where he was working as an orchestral musician, to enroll in the program and return to his home state.

“What really drew me to EducateVA was the time frame and the cost,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to spend years and a lot of money getting another master’s degree.”

“It’s a great deal economically.” Gail Ruscetta said she sold the horse farm and riding school she owned in Montana, packed up everything she owned in a trailer and headed east to become a fulltime teacher.

“This program has completely changed my life,” she said. “It has given me the career I hoped for.”

The career switchers program was created to help the state fill critical shortages in teaching areas and tap the state’s human capital. Community colleges were selected to operate the program because of their accessibility and affordability.

Critical shortages are defined as those disciplines where a school division received three or fewer qualified applicants for a position. For the 2014-15 academic year,  the top critical shortage areas for Virginia are middle school math, middle school science, and middle school English and language arts. For the first time in years, social studies also appears on the list.

All of the news buffeting public education — like the Common Core and high-stakes testing linked to teacher evaluations — has done little to slow the number of people seeking new careers in public education, said Missy Ogden, director of the program. A typical program cohort enrolls about 120 students. This spring there are 163.

“We have people in their 20s and people in their 60s, and they bring a lot of varied experiences,” she said. “A lot of them have gotten to a point in their life where they want to give something back.” Their average age is 43.

While the program allows students to earn a one-year teaching contract within a year, the program is academically demanding, she said. Students typically must spend 20 hours or more a week on their studies in addition to holding down a job.

Applicants must have at least a bachelor’s degree with a GPA of 2.5 or better, content expertise in a specific endorsement area; at least five years of work experience; and passing scores on state and national tests. Students also must pass a criminal background check.

“We have people with master’s degrees and doctorates who say this is the hardest thing they have ever done,” said Jim Gaines, the program’s assistant director. “It’s meant to be hard. We are preparing people for the rigors of the classroom.”

Students spend 18 weeks in sort of a teachers’ boot camp, five modules via distance education, covering topics like classroom management. Six Saturday meetings on community college campuses are mandatory.

Students then spend 40 hours in a classroom at an area school. Upon successful completion of those requirements, students get a one-year teaching contract. Through that first year, the student works closely with a mentor and an instructional coach. They are regularly observed and given feedback.

“The student is the recipient of a lot of support,” Gaines said.

After a successful year of teaching, the student qualifies for a full 5-year, renewable teaching license.

The fact that the program has been around for more than 30 years is proof that it’s working, Gaines said.

“This is purely market-driven,” he said. “If our graduates were not doing well, the school divisions would not be welcoming these teachers. We are meeting all the licensure rules, and we have a nearly 100 percent success rate.”

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