With 1,000 teacher jobs to fill, Houston looks in nontraditional places

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Robert Devor, a trained microbiologist and until recently a business manager, is preparing for another career change, to a profession he believes was probably right for him all along. Mr. Devor plans to teach science courses in a Houston public high school come Sept. 3. Not only will he be achieving a goal he thought would require two years of teacher-certification courses, but he will also be filling one of Houston's vacant teaching posts.

Faced with the need to find about 1,000 new teachers each year -- in part because of increasing retirements among post-war teachers -- Houston school officials decided they must do more than scour state education schools and recruit up North.

This year's innovation is an alternative certification program that will put some 200 Houstonians -- with at least a bachelor's degree and preferably a major in math, English, or science -- behind a teacher's desk. Of the 4,000 people who applied for the program, 230 were selected for testing, interviews, and a seven-day ``how-to'' course.

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``For the first time in a number of years, I think we'll be starting school with all our teaching positions filled,'' says Geri Strader, a coordinator of the program. And that includes posts in math, science, and English -- areas that have been difficult to fill in recent years because of expanded opportunities in the private sector for people with these backgrounds.

Yet the candidates, or interns as they are called, say teaching became attractive when jobs in marketing, finance, medicine, and other fields lost their luster. Many of the interns had considered careers in education when in school, but had been discouraged by family, advisers, and even teachers.

Now the challenge of constant human interaction and the chance to see the results of their work every day are drawing them to the blackboards. Houston's starting teacher salaries of $19,100 to almost $30,000 make a career switch all the more attractive.

``I guess I was all set for a career at the bank, but I decided I wanted something more,'' says Roger Brewer, who worked full time at a bank for three years while earning a degree in languages and mathematics. ``I'd never really thought about teaching, mainly because of the negative image of teachers I got from my parents and friends,'' he says. But when he got out of school, with years at the bank facing him, he sought the alternative ``kind of satisfaction I think teaching will give me.''

If, after a careful year-long evaluation, school officials decide the pilot program delivers good teachers, it will become permanent. That prospect is already causing schools of education in Texas to reevaluate their methods.

``This program is just one example of the changes that have colleges of education looking at their programs to see how they can produce better teachers,'' says Martha Wong, administrator for the alternative certification program. ``We're finding that many of our people have better content mastery than the people coming out of the education schools,'' she says.

Robert Devor is one example: In college he wasn't interested in all the methodology courses a teaching degree required, so he stuck to the science courses that attracted him more.

Gerald Montgomery, a biology major who worked for 14 months as a dialysis technician after college, is another example. ``I'd given teaching some thought while I was in school, but I found that the teaching courses weren't very challenging,'' he says.

Dr. Wong says she's confident, after having monitored the selection process and observed the training sessions, that ``we're getting a very bright and enthusiastic group of people.'' Interns will be assigned a supervising teacher and will be required to take instructor courses during the year. Upon successfully completing the first year, they will be certified.

Mr. Brewer says some press accounts have implied that ``this program is just a way to give housewives and people out of work something to do.''

``I'd be the first to admit I have no classroom experience,'' he says. ``But if any parents are concerned that I don't have a teaching degree, I'll share with them the experience I do have and the work I'm doing towards that degree,'' he adds.

One housewife who is looking forward to teaching is Pat Hall. Looking for something ``mentally stimulating'' while she raised four children, she earned a bachelor's degree in math and a master's in literature. She feels that the tandem experience -- child-rearing and academic achievement -- will make her an asset to any school.

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