Choosing to teach as a second career

Should I fear it?

08/23/2010  |  NATASSIA JONES
teacher’s perspective
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Fear is an emotion triggered by an impending or perceived threat or danger. It is something that we create in ourselves and is not an innate characteristic. Oftentimes we find ourselves in a state of fear as we go through a transition period in our lives like our first day at a new school, buying our first home, or even our first time flying. I experienced this same fear as I began my new career as a teacher.   

With a fluctuating economy, complaints from other first time teachers about the lack of support from parents, students, and administrative staff, and the extensive amount of coursework that needs to be completed to receive a certification to teach, my fear began to trump my once cheerful perception of being a difference maker. I know I am not alone. There are many career-switchers who desire to teach and make a difference in the lives of youth, but fear that their route to become an educator may be too overwhelming, and not worth the hassle.

According to the National Center for Education Information, by the year 2006 more than 250,000 people in the United States had become educators through alternative licensing programs; Other studies reveal that a third of teachers who ventured into the profession leave within the first three years, and half of them leave during the first five years. This movement demonstrates a high demand in professionals who seek careers as educators, but a high turnover in professionals who are willing to commit to the job.

In a one-on-one interview with a former high school teacher who entered into the profession through an alternative licensing program, the idea of teaching was not her idea of making a difference. The difference she set out to make included a way of making fast cash to pay off student loans accumulated during her four years of undergraduate studies. She spent the next four years after college working as an accountant for a major logistics company that paid her a substantial amount of money. That was a pretty excellent deal for someone with increased debt, but not for someone who despised everything about her unfulfilling job. She wanted to experience another outlet to express her knowledge for accounting, and wanted a fulfilling career that would allow her to showcase her talent. For her, that new job was teaching. Teaching was a new avenue for her to break loose, and to share her creative ideas to young minds that were thirsty for knowledge. In her interview, she responded: “much to my surprise, the check that I received not only came once a month, but it was half of what I used to make.”

She said that she wanted to share her knowledge, and educate children, but she also wanted a live a certain lifestyle. As she put it: “teaching was not cutting it.” Five years later, she left her teaching career, for another accounting position. Admittedly, working as a corporate professional has its perks: larger salaries, longer lunch breaks, company cars, and company travel among many other amenities. But, these amenities are far from what a career-switcher receives from teaching. These perks include fulfillment by making a positive impact on students through engaging lessons, and by forming healthy relationships that would help students become productive, educated citizens.

Embarking on a career as a teacher can be offset by the harsh reality that the actual job demands more than simply a person’s love for children. The same motivation and expectations that lead me to my decision to teach, also lead to my fear of not knowing what the new job would require of me.

Like many other careers, teaching is a process that requires experience, education, and an enthusiasm to learn about the details needed to be successful in your new position. The process to become a teacher is usually accomplished through an alternative teacher certification program. Found in over 40 states in the U.S., alternative certification programs include classes arranged to help non-traditional candidates complete coursework pertaining to the education field, internships, and examinations for full certification — giving each individual candidate the same opportunities as other students who have completed this process through traditional programs.

Obtaining a license to teach through an alternative licensing program can be discouraging because of the program’s extensive requirements. In North Carolina, people seeking to teach through their alternative licensing programs must take and pass a teacher certification exam, have 24 or more hours of subject-related coursework completed through a traditional college program, and take an additional 15-30 hours of education-related course work to obtain a license to teach. My collegiate experience included 124-credit hours (equivalent to an estimated 41 classes) relating to journalism and marketing. It was a hard bite to chew when I was told that I was required to take an additional 18 courses, a teacher certification exam, and complete an internship for evaluation for full licensure to become a teacher. Not that I did not understand the grueling process to become a teacher, it was the simple fact that my expectations were not even close to the reality that I was experiencing.

Additional coursework and testing can leave career-changers with a feeling of fear and doubt that they would have the time or patience to be dedicated to the task to become an educator. But, taking those additional courses can be quite rewarding, as some programs are designed to award master-level degrees to teacher-candidates upon their completion of the program. The programs are designed to weed out the committed from those who jump from one career to the next. But, those who are dedicated prove to make a lasting impression on students and staff with innovation lessons found through these teacher-preparation programs.

Although routes to teacher certification lead to hopeful careers, other teacher-preparation programs require those seeking teaching positions through non-traditional methods to become hired by school districts prior to beginning the teaching program - a sure hassle while many Americans are facing a downward sloping economy. In a March issue of the Charlotte Observer, school officials announced and estimated that there would be a 1,000 teachers and staff members laid off from their jobs due to district budget cuts because of our fluctuating economy.

With budgets decreasing in school districts across the country, many new teachers are hit with the harsh decision of selecting a career path that will not only provide the best outcome for their future, but one that will support their families as well. Instead of looking for ways out of the diminishing education job force, it is imperative that career-changers continue to prepare for a future in an occupation that does not seem to be losing its value in our economy. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics says that wage and salary for the teaching profession is projected to grow by 11 percent between 2008 and 2018.

While facing unrelenting circumstances and forecasting hardships during an economic downfall, positive outcomes are still on the horizon for prospective educators. One way is through a support system found right in the heart of the school in which the teaching job is found. When I approached my classroom at the beginning of the school year, I panicked at the thought of being unprepared. I did not know where I needed to go to make copies of my students’ work, who to call if my computer crashed, where to find extra dry erase pens, and not to mention if a fight transpired.

Thankfully I found support. From the librarian, to the principal, and my mentor teacher, I found help from a plethora of avenues - our school’s support staff. From his administrative perspective, Head of School, Thomas R. Hoerr spoke about the need for a strong foundation and support system from school workers who seek to help meet the personal needs of new teachers. He explained in the article, “Meeting New Teachers’ Personal Needs”, that a “teacher’s ability to address and resolve personal challenges goes a long way toward determining personal and professional success.” A support system offers encouragement for teachers who are in pursuit of a teaching position and who have a host of worries and fears. The support system offers them a sense of sincerity and eases their fears of teaching. 

With program-preparedness and school support, career-switchers are set up for success in their new teaching environment. Emily Feitstritzer, head of the National Center for Alternative Certification, offers a great point when she comments in the March 2009 issue of USA Today about the preparedness among career-switchers to the educational field. “Their maturity makes them more prepared for teaching - they are older and wiser and often have children of their own. Their life experience is also relevant to the classroom.” This is definitely a dose of reassurance for a person who is trying to escape the fears that keep them from pursuing a career in education after years of unfulfilling jobs.

Changing careers can pose quite a few challenges, and changing careers to become a classroom teacher poses its own host of challenges. Not be feared, choosing to teach as a second career takes more than a desire to make a difference; it takes a commitment. It has always been my philosophy that the qualified are not called, but the called are qualified. And, I answered my call to become an educator two years ago. I have taken many risks to get to this point, and have consulted many veteran teachers to help me confirm my decision. I have put my fears behind me, and have left a world in pursuit of money, for a world in pursuit of true fulfillment and happiness. It is only my hope that other professionals who choose to teach as a second career take the same leap of faith and relinquish those fears of teaching. With a desire to make a difference, and the dedication to commit to a task larger than oneself, a career-switcher is destined to be successful.

Natassia Jones is a Learning Facilitator (Distance Education) for Union County Public Schools and is a student in the Middle Grades (MA Middle Grades Education) program at Gardner-Webb.
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