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Swapping the Boardroom for the Classroom

Thousands of adults are chucking corporate careers in favor of teaching. What’s driving them to the classroom, and what do they find once they arrive?

By Cynthia Kopkowski

A few years ago, Jada Overton spent two hours each morning inching her car around the clogged Washington, D.C., beltway with other commuters, heading toward the telecommunications company where she would work a 12-hour day as a direct mail marketing manager.           

Jada Overton gave up the corporate world for teaching.

“Miserable,” Overton says of her corporate rat race days, consumed by meetings, mergers, and memos. On a more recent morning, she prepared for another meeting, but this was one she eagerly anticipated. Eight fourth-graders were about to arrive at their school in Lakewood, New Jersey, and they were counting on their new teacher—Overton—to help them practice their vocabulary and comprehension techniques in her reading skills class.

Thoughts of switching to teaching—her mother’s profession—had long nagged at Overton. After the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, she had had enough.

“I think a lot of people started thinking about what they were doing with their lives,” she says. “I know I did.”

One 60-percent pay cut and a year later, Overton arrived at Clifton Avenue Grade School as a basic skills teacher, “to try to give back to younger people. I wanted to feel like I was needed.” After taking eight hours of classes after school each week for a year, she earned certification to teach elementary school through New Jersey’s alternative licensing process. Now she is a full-time teacher.

In the past five years, nearly 17,000 career-changers like Overton have obtained teaching certification after leaving professions that had nothing to do with education, according to a recent survey by the National Center for Education Information. And, like their more experienced counterparts, members of this new breed of teachers say they are motivated by a strong desire to help children.

Getting Certified

The alternative routes today’s career-switchers take—which range from comprehensive programs with extensive clinical practice requirements in some states to Internet-based testing-only programs in others—offer individuals with college degrees a chance to become certified by meeting state requirements. Teachers are typically able to work as classroom assistants while they obtain certification. Almost half of those surveyed said they wouldn’t have become teachers if alternate routes didn’t exist. Forty-seven states offer 538 such programs.

The popularity of this path to education isn’t likely to fade, especially as school systems grapple with a projected need for 400,000 new teachers in the next eight years. But it has also given rise to a greater need to monitor and support those teachers as they enter classrooms, says Donald Washington, of NEA Teacher Quality.

While NEA is not opposed to alternative routes, one concern revolves around the rigor of some of the programs. The Association strongly opposes licensing based solely on testing.

Ensuring that alternative route teachers are qualified means establishing that they have extensive clinical practice; demonstrated knowledge of their subject, child development, and pedagogy; and meet every state standard, notes Washington. Interviews and observation, along with testing, offer a better gauge than testing alone. “Those who are more fully prepared with high-quality alternative certification are more likely to stay in teaching,” he says.

As with any newbie, the need for active oversight doesn’t end once career-changers are certified. NEA’s current resolution on teacher licensing calls for all new teachers to receive quality mentoring and induction programs to help overcome the primary obstacles to good teaching and learning: isolation and stagnation. “Every district should have a meaningful induction program to help new teachers succeed in working with students,” says Washington. “It should include sufficient time, resources, and access to veteran teachers.” 

Meeting Classroom Challenges

Watching Overton command the attention of her students and guide them through a creative writing exercise (assignment: write about an awful chore, like stinky diaper changing!), one quickly gleans the quality of her induction and mentoring. A veteran teacher showed her the ropes, offering, “a bit of hand-holding to decipher the curriculum, state guidelines, academic folders, and things like child study teams.” But for every Overton (and her dedicated mentor) there exists the possibility for a career-changer to flounder.

Mark Martin went from guiding engineering projects to guiding children.

“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had,” says Mark Martin, a former civil engineer turned drafting and engineering teacher at Boulan Park Middle School in Troy, Michigan. During his first year at Boulan Park Middle, and even with the help of a mentor, “I’d wake up in the middle of the night and wonder what else I could do. I just knew it had to get better after the first year.” 

For 17 years, Martin worked at a power company, but the desire to teach—as he had considered doing right after college—remained. He began teaching at the local community college in 1999 and taking night classes for Michigan’s alternative route. Upon certification, he began at Boulan Park Middle.           

Martin says that his preparation fell short when it came to classroom management: “We didn’t get enough about dealing with kids.” For Overton, there wasn’t enough in the curriculum about, well, teaching. “You learn about the mechanics of how a school runs, but [not enough] about how to actually teach the kids,” she says. It was through observing her mentor and each day’s experience in the classroom that she honed those skills.

Dynamics within the schools when they arrive can also be daunting. Ken Slavick, who left the business world and started at Clifton Avenue Grade School with Overton, remembers a couple people “frowned upon” their arrival. Mark Martin humbled himself. “I’m sure they looked at me and said, ‘What does he think he’s doing?’ I downplayed my age and learned from those who were younger but had been teaching for 5 or 10 years.”

Even tougher audiences await career-switchers in their classrooms. The early days, “were horrible,” Slavick says, chuckling now at the thought of his rookie season. “To go from substituting to suddenly having the full responsibility of a teacher was incredible.”

For Overton, the rewards keep her from questioning her move. Like roughly 95 percent of job-switchers surveyed by the National Center for Education Information, she plans to stick with teaching. “In the corporate world, all I cared about was money and the career ladder,” says Overton. “Now I feel so much more empathetic and sympathetic. Teaching has been nothing but positive.”

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