Program Encourages Professionals To Become Teachers
Alternative Route Teachers: A Cause For Hope
August 10, 2010
We've been hearing lately about what we don't do right when it comes to education reform, but there's one school initiative that stands out as a model.
For the past 22 years, the state's Alternative Route to Certification program has taken mid-career professionals and turned them into teachers who work in areas of critical shortage, such as high school math and science. More than 4,000 teachers have come out of the innovative program.
I stopped by the graduation of the ARC's summer class Friday afternoon at Conard High School in West Hartford and found a lawyer, pharmacist, chemist, journalist and a submarine engineer among the 99 new teachers.
What stood out was the optimism and idealism: here were a bunch of middle-aged folks talking about how they still might change the world — or at least a small piece of it.
"I always wanted to teach,'' Jim Tanguay, a 49-year-old chemist by training who spent the past 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry. This fall, he will teach at an East Hartford middle school.
"We can make the subject real,'' said Tanguay, who lives in Glastonbury. "When I talk about chemistry, I can talk about how chemistry relates to the medicines that they take."
While nearly 90 percent of recent ARC graduates are teaching, the recession has made jobs tougher to come by. The upside of the tough economy and high unemployment is that schools are now able to scoop up some pretty talented folks who are now willing to think about a career switch. And unlike our state universities that arrogantly churn out far too many elementary school teachers — when there is an oversupply — this program finds teachers for places where they are needed, such as urban high schools.
Thomas Bienemann, a former news reporter and anchor from Granby, will teach history and social studies at Weaver High School. At an age when many teachers are looking at retirement, Bienemann is 61 and eagerly looking forward to coaching as well as teaching.
"This delivers into the classroom teachers who bring a different world view and perspective,'' he said.
The ARC program is the sort of cut-through-the-bureaucracy initiative we could use more of — we need teachers who are experts in their subject areas who can excite students, not functionaries who fulfilled all those dreary education theory requirements. Three-quarters of this summer's class hold a master's degree or better.
The reality is we must make it easier for qualified people to teach children, instead of barricading our schools with outmoded work-rules and out-dated certification requirements.
"It's a tighter job market, but we are producing teachers in shortage areas,'' said Michael Meotti, commissioner of higher education, who told me the ARC program is funded almost entirely by student fees. "They stay in the profession, they stay as teachers."
Meotti told me that in recent years, ARC graduates have filled as much as 70 to 80 percent of the openings in hard-to-fill jobs in areas such as math, science and world languages. Statistics show that ARC teachers are more likely to continue teaching than graduates from more traditional college-based programs.
It's a fair concern to worry how these teachers, who have had only 9 weeks of training, will perform in some of our most challenging high school classrooms. It takes a long time to learn to become a good teacher. These new recruits will only be conditionally certified until they prove themselves.
But these new teachers, who have courageously decided on a mid-career switch, also bring the sort of risk-taking optimism and working-world experience we could use more of.
Phil Ross, who spent 15 years at Pfizer and holds a doctorate, told me the summer training was "as tough as anything I've been through." He plans to teach physics. Another new teacher, George Weeks, told me he wants to use his background as a research chemist and lawyer to get students excited about real things.
"The point of chemistry is invention, to make things new," Weeks said. "I want to get kids to think about invention."
Omayra Ramos, accompanied by a large contingent of family and supporters from her church, told me teaching is all about invention – and re-invention.
Ramos spent 17 years as a paraprofessional in the Waterbury schools before taking a leap this summer. She will teach Spanish at Crosby High School in Waterbury.
"It's a way to move on in life,'' Ramos said. "It's an opportunity.''
There's plenty to worry about in our public schools. These fresh-thinking middle-aged teachers are cause for hope.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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