Certifiable: Teacher Training for Midcareer Professionals

Becky Klein, a second-year postdoc in the physiology and biophysics department at the University of Washington, considered becoming a teacher but decided it wasn't worth the time or the expense. "The two states that I considered," Klein writes via e-mail, "both require that you earn a teaching certificate, which is at least a 2-year, full-time program, plus more monetary output. At this stage--2 years post-Ph.D.--I don't see the upside of spending more money on education for myself."

Many scientists who might otherwise be interested in teaching--scientists who possess or are pursuing advanced degrees--share Klein's reservations. In teaching circles, subject-matter expertise doesn't seem to count for very much; even for scientists with advanced training and research experience, the barriers to entry into public-school teaching remain high. Teachers in public schools must be licensed by the state, and the traditional route to certification can take as long as 2 years of full-time study. Every state has its own certification procedures, which means that teaching credentials aren't very portable. And even once you're certified, employment prospects vary, with the greatest need occurring where salaries and working conditions are worst. Then again, you get summers off, usually. Still, a transition to teaching should not be taken lightly.

Second or Third Career

But in recent years, the response to a perceived crisis in education has altered the science-teaching landscape. Today, fewer people are entering the profession via traditional routes. "Lateral entry" from another career is becoming the default path into teaching. As a result, the majority of today’s teaching trainees are older, often entering teaching as a second or even a third career. And the transition to teaching can be very quick and relatively cheap.

In North Carolina, for example--one of the states in which Klein was interested in teaching--anyone with a college degree in science or math can sign up for an NCTeach program on any of several North Carolina college campuses. They can begin taking night courses in June, while still working a day job, and enter the classroom full-time--with a full-time salary--in August.

Placement isn't guaranteed, but employment prospects for science and math teachers are outstanding, according to Grant Holley, director of several lateral-entry programs at North Carolina State University, including NCSU's version of NCTeach. "You can walk into any county" in North Carolina, says Holley, "and you can choose not only the district in which you want to work but also what school." And not all the opportunities are in remote locations, Holley says: "Even Chapel Hill is filling openings." Once they've started teaching, program participants take night and weekend courses over the next 1 to 3 years to fulfill their certification requirements.

Admission to a similar program--this one run by the New York City school system--is competitive; only about one of every eight applicants is accepted into the New York City Teaching Fellowships program, and 70% of New York fellows are graduates of good colleges. Still, science and math are high-priority areas, so scientists with advanced training--including the readers of Science's Next Wave--are likely to be competitive.

Just as with NCTeach, the transition to the classroom is quick: You can apply for the fellowship now, begin training in June, and start teaching in the fall while earning a full-time teacher's salary, which (according to the salary calculator on the TeachNYC Web site) is $48,573 for teachers with a Ph.D. And, yes, you get summers off.

Because it is operated by a school district--the largest in the country--New York City's program can guarantee a job for all participants, as it did for 1700 participants in last year's June program. (The program also admits prospective teachers to a late-fall training program, but participants in the midyear program are not guaranteed positions. Still, says Corrie Schoenberg, the program's director of communications, "the vast majority of midyear fellows find jobs well within the time frame we set for them.") Full certification requires 2 to 3 years of night and weekend classes, which are subsidized by the city but not free: Fellows are expected to pay about $4000 toward the cost of their certification.

Most Texas districts don't pay as much as New York districts, but expenses are lower and certification is faster in Texas than it is in New York. Today, Stephen Clarke is a postdoc on a molecular-cardiology training grant at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, but a year from now, he will probably be approaching the end of his first year as a Texas teacher. He will also be nearing completion of Texas's certification requirements.

Just like the North Carolina and New York programs, the Texas Teaching Fellows program provides intensive training over the summer, after which fellows can immediately begin their first teaching gig (earning a full salary). Salaries vary by district, but teachers with Ph.D.s can expect to start out in the low $40,000s, which is more than most postdoc positions (and pretty much all graduate fellowships) pay. Scientists with advanced training but without Ph.D.s will get salary credit for time served. And like teachers everywhere, Texas teachers also get summers off.

An Alternative Approach to an Alternative Career

The Janet H. and C. Harry Knowles Foundation offers fellowships to scientists to assist their transitions into teaching. These fellowships allow people with training in science, math, or engineering to train as teachers at the local program of their choice. Applicants must be no more than 5 years past the completion of their highest degree, whether it's a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, or a Ph.D. Knowles fellowships pay a stipend during the training period, which allows a more leisurely and thorough approach to teacher training. "We believe that teaching is hard," says program officer Rosanne Rostock, "so we encourage participation in a credentialing program that is university-based." Knowles fellows typically have at least a year of full-time training before they enter the classroom, and the foundation offers special training programs for the 5-year duration of the award.

The Knowles program's numbers are small compared to the city- and state-run programs; each year, the foundation helps retrain as many as 15 scientists and another 15 mathematicians. This year, 69 people applied for the science fellowships and another 45 for the math; 13 science fellowships and 11 math fellowships were awarded.

The Knowles foundation values advanced scientific training in its applicants, but it's only one of several factors considered by the committee that evaluates the applications. Other criteria include a commitment to teaching, demonstrable teaching skill, and leadership ability. "We have a variety of criteria," says Rostock. "Exceptional science knowledge is just one of them."

Programs like these are changing the face of teacher training. Just a few years ago, most teachers were trained as undergraduates. Today, in some programs, such as the one at NCSU, alternative-certification students outnumber traditional undergraduate teacher-trainees by 2:1. Most of the participants are older, says Holley, and they are better prepared for teaching's considerable challenges; for example, NCSU's version of the NCTeach program draws senior technical people from nearby Research Triangle Park, which includes campuses for IBM, Merck, SAS, and many other technology-driven corporations. These people, he says, become some of the state's most effective teachers. IBM even has a program to facilitate transitions to teaching, allowing early retirement and time off for training for some of its senior staff.

These more mature professionals, Holley believes, are more likely to succeed in teaching than younger people because, he says, it's a very difficult job. "An 18-year-old just can't make that kind of decision," says Holley, noting that a majority of undergraduate education majors often regret their choice of majors, according to NCSU's institutional research. But many of those who choose teaching later in life come to love the work, despite the considerable challenges. "The alternative licensure folks want to be there," he says.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor .

Jim Austin is the editor of Science's Next Wave and ScienceCareers.org.

Photo credit: Jacques-Jean Tiziou/jjtiziou.net (Courtesy: Wondergy Inc.)

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