Teaching as a Second Act, or Maybe Even a Third

| New York Times | Motoko Rich

GAIL R. RUSCETTA changed careers for the first time when she had children. A theater major who bounced between acting gigs in her 20s, Ms. Ruscetta took the kind of leap that overachieving city dwellers often fantasize about: She and her then husband moved to Montana and opened a horse farm and riding school.

Fifteen years later, Ms. Ruscetta — who was an active volunteer in her children’s classrooms and then helped home-school them — was going through a divorce. Time for another career switch.

This time, she decided to try teaching. Ms. Ruscetta, 57, moved to Virginia and enrolled in a yearlong, $3,500 training course designed by the state Education Department for career changers. She financed her training and living expenses from the sale of a dressage horse, and in the fall of 2012 she started a job at a public middle school in Alexandria, teaching English as a second language.

She figures this career will stick. “I’ll probably be working until I’m 85,” she said.

Teaching, with the draw of doing good, the steady (if unspectacular) paychecks, summers off and solid pension benefits, has long been perceived as a durable second — or third — career.

But in the last five years, the profession has taken a number of hits. The economic downturn led to layoffs across the country’s school districts. The total number of jobs in public schools remains about 345,000 below its 2008 peak, according to Labor Department figures.

What’s more, a series of changes to academic standards, threats to tenure and an overhaul of the way teachers are evaluated have all contributed to turbulence in public education, with teachers, unions and some parents’ groups pushing back. Some cities and states are debating whether they can guarantee the kinds of generous public pensions they have in the past.

Still, the idea of shaping young minds remains attractive, and with the economy slowly improving, school districts are hiring again. And as many as a million teachers could retire in the next four to six years, the federal Department of Education says.

Although only three states offer universal preschool, more cities and states are moving to join them and increase the demand for teachers. Changing demographics are raising the demand for bilingual teachers. The Labor Department says the number of teaching jobs is projected to grow over the next decade by more than 429,000.

For a late starter taking the first step toward a teaching certification, the candidate’s college major may dictate options, since most states require that teachers demonstrate content knowledge in their subjects. Elementary teachers gain more general credentials, so there is more flexibility there. Poor districts are more likely to be hiring. “There tends to be higher turnover in those districts,” said Segun Eubanks, director of teacher quality at the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

Even in more affluent and suburban school districts, said Mr. Eubanks, the highest areas of need are for teachers of special education, English as a second language, and math and science.

In many states, some college-level work in the subject a candidate plans to teach is required for certification. Others require candidates to pass content knowledge exams.

There are hundreds of routes to teaching credentials and a job, and the paths vary from state to state. Prospective teachers can consult Teach.org, a website sponsored by the Department of Education along with some corporate sponsors, the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions and Teach for America, which places high-achieving college graduates into low-income schools for two-year stints. Other resources include the National Association for Alternative Certification and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

While more traditional teacher education programs offer more time to prepare, other routes pair brief training with a learn-on-the-job approach.

More traditional programs charge tuition and generally require taking some time off from paid work to attend classes, although online options are also available. Fees range from a little less than $6,500 in California’s state university system to as high as $54,000 for a master’s degree from Teachers College, which generally takes two years, including student teaching assignments.

According to the National Education Association, a first-year teacher can expect an average salary of around $36,000, although states including California, New Jersey and New York average closer to $45,000. In most cases, there are no bumps for age or experience in another profession.

Many states sponsor programs that attract career changers who need to earn income right away. Teaching Fellows programs, run by the New Teacher Project in 12 states, offer summer training sessions followed by placement in a public school classroom on a first-year teacher’s salary.

Admission to the program, including mentoring and observation throughout the school year, is selective. About 13 percent of applicants were selected last year. “We think about training these folks like they are pro athletes,” said Ana Menezes, a vice president who oversees the training programs.

Teach for America also occasionally takes on a seasoned career switcher.

As with the Teaching Fellows program, candidates spend five or six weeks training over the summer. The program covers room and board, but does not pay a salary during this period. In the fall, corps members are placed in paid positions in neighborhood schools or charter schools, most in poor areas.

Scott Graham, 49, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant, first laughed when his daughter, then a Teach for America corps member in San Antonio, suggested he try the program, too. He applied and was sent to Houston three years ago for summer training.

“When I was living in a dorm with all these young kids, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?’ ” Mr. Graham recalled. He now works in a middle school in San Antonio, where he helps students with discipline problems. Although two decades older than many of his peers, he shares their drive: He is training to be a school administrator.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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