The intangible rewards of teaching attract adults in mid-career

Two years ago, Glenn Nerbak was earning $40,000 a year as a sales representative selling auto parts. This fall, he hopes to begin his first year of teaching high school science. His anticipated starting salary: $15,000. No, Mr. Nerbak was not fired. He quit because he was unsatisfied. After doing some traveling, he decided that he wanted to become a high school teacher. ``I was attracted to teaching because I felt that it could offer me more intangible rewards than sales.''

In 1985, Nerbak, a 1977 graduate of Rutgers University, enrolled in the Teachers for Secondary Schools Program associated with the University of Southern Maine (USM). This program, now starting its fourth year, is designed to train people who want to jump the tracks in mid-career to become high school teachers. Included among the dozen interns in the program this past year were a former lobsterman, a novelist, and a naturopathic physician.

The idea that aspiring teachers from other careers represent a valuable teacher resource is ``the whole idea of the USM program,'' says John Hoit, a veteran teacher at Deering (Maine) high school. Mr. Hoit went into teaching right out of college. ``A lot of 20-year-olds just don't have the enthusiasm that I've seen here. They are able to share experiences that they have had, something I was never able to do.'' Hoit cited one particular candidate for next year's program who has worked on an oceanographic research vessel for the Smithsonian Institute: ``Imagine the stories he'll be able to share.''

To start the year-long program, Director Irving Ouellette led the 12 interns on a four-day Outward Bound type experience. ``The notion is that we enter as a team. We did rope climbs, crossed gulches, and slept in tents to begin a group bonding and trust,'' said Mr. Ouellette.

During the fall semester, the interns took four intensive core courses in teaching theory. During the spring semester, each worked one-on-one with a veteran high school teacher, taking advantage of a 15-week student teacher internship. Typically, a conventional certification course will only involve five or six weeks of classroom experience.

Dorothy Moore, Assistant Dean of Education at USM, says the program was originated to meet a need. ``We kept coming up with talented mid-career types who were experiencing a nagging call to teach. Shouldn't these people be better teachers? They have a fund of experiences to describe to the students, and they have a greater maturity as a result.'' Mrs. Moore said that programs with a similiar approach have subsequently been started in other universities, namely at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts.

Nini McManamy of the Maine Teachers Association, the Maine chapter of the National Education Association, is familiar with the USM program and supports it as a way to handle the growing shortage of qualified teachers. ``This program is definitely a route for getting in the older, more sincere teacher. Also, the notion of keeping the group together and providing such an exellent support system is fantastic.''

What the MTA does oppose, she said, is the doling out of ``emergency'' certificates to teachers who have not been through training programs with any kind of support or applicant-screening system. She referred to the ``alternate route'' program in New Jersey that entered several hundred new teachers into classrooms last fall to meet teacher shortages. ``We don't have the teacher shortages in Maine . . . they do in New Jersey, but we can see it coming.''

Randolph Dominic, a graduate of the '86 USM program, will be teaching English this fall at Westbrook high school in Portland, Maine. Mr. Dominic, who graduated from Dartmouth College in 1969, worked for three years selling real estate before taking off several years to co-write a historical novel. He also received his Master of Arts degree in American history from the University of Maine in 1985.

``Teaching is the culmination of my desire to do something better with my life,'' said Dominic, whose wife is also a high school teacher. He recalls that when he wasn't working 90-hour weeks selling real estate, he was learning a lot about working with adolescents by watching his wife in action. ``I could see that she was communicating things that were exciting to her.

She was opening mental doors for the kids, promoting lifelong interests. I decided that teaching was a chance for me to do something that I would be proud of at the end of my life.''

Dominic feels that the fact that he is 38, not 23, has a strong influence on his teaching. ``At this stage in life I'm much more inclined to look at things objectively. . . . I think now I have a sense that it's important to learn things even if we don't see an immediate utility to them. We need to prepare ourselves for a lifetime of continued challenges.

``I think we tend to categorize ourselves. I'm certainly not doing what I thought I would do at 16!''

Sandra L. Dunn worked as a geologist involved in oil exploration before participating in the USM program. A 1979 graduate of Williams College, Mrs. Dunn went on to earn a degree in geology. ``I tried to get a full-time job as a geologist, but the oil companies were starting to panic at that time, and many geologists were getting laied off.'' Mrs. Dunn found herself attracted to high school teaching, despite the fact that, like Nerbak, she would suffer a huge cut in salary. ``I figured that I knew my subject area. I knew I could offer qualified teaching. Plus, young people are fun. They do unexpected things,'' Dunn said. ``I think that what makes for professionalism in teaching is not how many years you've had, but how well you know yourself.''

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