Higher Ed and Teachers and Education & Workforce Development

Grads, career-changers surge into teaching

June 8, 2009

Mary Hansen considered going into teaching when she was in college. Now, two decades later--with retirement savings shrunk and kids' college on the horizon--the Carmel resident is doing it.

Michelle Skinner wanted to go to graduate school after earning her degree at Butler University. But she put that off to do something "worthwhile"--teach high school English in the poverty-ridden Mississippi Delta.

Hansen, 43, and Skinner, 22, are emblematic of a surge of Hoosier residents and students moving into elementary and high school teaching this year.

It's partly an outgrowth of the recession and stock market crash, which have left one in 10 Hoosiers out of work, decimated retirement portfolios, and thrown college grads into the worst job market in a generation.

"Education seems to be recession-proof," Hansen said after a day of classes in an accelerated master's program she's taking to become credentialed to teach high school science. "It's not a job where you make a lot of money, but your job security is pretty steady."

But the popularity of teaching also stems from a rise in service-oriented altruism, particularly among young people. That trend showed up in the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, which rode an army of volunteers both young and old to secure the first Democratic presidential win in Indiana in 44 years. It also inspired some to pursue more service work.

"My experience on the campaign directly influenced my decision to hold off on graduate school and try to give back," said Skinner, a Texas native who has joined Teach for America--a national program that places recent college graduates in two-year jobs at urban and rural schools.

Education has been one of the few sectors with decent employment prospects during this recession. The education and health services sector added 16,000 jobs in Indiana during the 12 months that ended in April.

However, the biggest area for job growth has been at career and technical colleges such as Ivy Tech Community College, which are retraining a flood of workers rendered jobless by the recession.

Still, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts job prospects in primary- and secondary-school teaching will be "good to excellent" over the next seven years as the field adds more jobs than nearly all other sectors.

Budgets under pressure

That doesn't mean there haven't been any painful cuts. Indianapolis Public Schools let go of 400 teachers at the end of its school year. Even fast-growing suburban systems, such as Noblesville Schools, had to trim teacher positions.

Also, the economy forced some teachers to put off their planned retirements. That curveball forced IPS to lay off 22 corps members of Teach for America.

But those teachers were quickly placed at charter schools in Indianapolis to complete their second year with Teach for America. The program came to Indianapolis last year and now has attracted 100 teachers to the city.

Education leaders hope the new entrants help plug a looming shortage of schoolteachers and administrators that will come when baby boomers retire en masse. They also hope the new talent--if it stays in teaching--helps improve the quality of Indiana's schools.

"It is an issue of huge significance to us because, particularly in Marion County, the quality of K-12 education is not where we need it to be," said Anne Shane, vice president of BioCrossroads Inc., a life sciences business development group that has urged improvements in Indiana's science and math education to help its economy.

Applications surge

The rise in people going into teaching can be seen on several fronts. Applications for Indiana teaching licenses rose 48 percent last year, to more than 22,000, and are up another 15 percent so far this year, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.

People who have not gone through a multiyear teacher-training program at a college can apply for an alternative teaching certificate. Those applications were up 50 percent last year, to 128.

National applications to New York-based Teach for America rose 40 percent this year over 2008. In Indiana, applications climbed 20 percent.

At DePauw University in Greencastle, 70 graduating seniors applied to Teach for America. That's more than one in 10 graduates--one of the highest percentages of any school in the nation.

Teach for America applicants at Butler University in Indianapolis totaled 36, triple their 2008 level. Gary Beaulieu, Butler's director of internships and career services, said applications to similar teaching programs surged across the board.

"These kids want to give back; they really want to give back," he said.

Beaulieu said liberal arts majors at Butler used to find jobs or spots in graduate school in their fields--political science majors might work in state government, for example. But many of those positions dried up since the recession began in December 2007.

But special teaching programs--including a new one in Indiana called the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship--have been ramping up even as more traditional job openings have disappeared.

Hansen was one of 59 Hoosiers granted a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. She has committed to teach science for three years in either an urban or rural school system.

Hansen is a chemist by training and spent five years after college selling chemicals for the Tennessee-based Eastman Chemical Co. Once she started having kids, she stayed home full time to raise them.

Her eldest child is now 14, and the Hansens are looking ahead to college costs. Since Chuck Hansen makes his money doing consulting projects, his income can go up and down. Mary Hansen would like something steady to balance that risk.

Teaching fits the bill. It also provides steady health insurance, which would give a huge financial boost to the Hansens. They have shelled out increasingly large sums to buy individual health insurance coverage.

But the allure of teaching for Hansen is less about finances and more about feelings.

"Everybody has school memories," she said. "You remember the experiences and you remember the positive effect [teachers] had on you."

The same sentiment comes from recent DePauw grad Ian Yearwood, 22. He'll get his first chance to lead a classroom this fall at the Challenge Foundation Academy, a charter school in Indianapolis.

"I just get a lot of joy helping people out, and helping them open new doors that they never knew were there," said Yearwood, who is in the 1 percent of Teach for America participants who majored in education.

For Will Carter, who is in the Woodrow Wilson program with Hansen, going into teaching dovetails with his 10-year career as a Quaker pastor.

Carter, 38, who holds a math degree, gave up his job at the Amazon distribution center in Whitestown to accept the fellowship. The program, run by the New Jersey-based Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, pays a stipend and covers the cost of the fellows' graduate school.

Carter caught the teaching bug before joining Amazon. He started tutoring and doing fill-in teaching recently while working as a pastor in North Carolina.

"I saw that math education really is one of the great downfalls that needs to be addressed," said Carter, who also has experience working for a financial services firm.

Whether all these new teachers stay in education is another matter. Teach for America, in particular, has been criticized for the relatively low numbers of its alumni who actually stick with teaching.

But for now, with relatively few options around them, rookie teachers all say they want to teach for the long term.

Even Skinner, who still considers a career in academia an option, said of high school teaching, "I'm sort of open to the idea that I'm going to fall in love with this and do this forever at the secondary level."

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