WASHINGTON — There was a time when preparing to be a teacher was a bit like getting into Olympic figure skating: It's better to make the decision early, and there is such a thing as too late.
No longer. About 100,000 teachers a year are still trained in four-year teacher-education programs that often start right after high school. But most states and many colleges are developing alternative programs to help people move into the profession later in life.
If you're considering a move into teaching, here are some pointers gleaned from school principals and teacher educators.
* Be sure you really want to work in a school. Between 30 to 40 percent of teacher-ed graduates never go into a classroom, and nearly half leave the profession within the first five years of teaching. Teaching is a lot tougher than it looks. Talk to teachers about what it's really like to teach. Tutor children.
* Learn about the new programs to break into teaching. Recruiting New Teachers Inc. offers a useful "Careers in Teaching Handbook" and a help line for prospective teachers (800-458-3224, write them at 385 Concord Avenue, Suite 103, Belmont, MA 02178, or on the Web, www.rnt.org). The US Department of Education can steer you to new ways to pay for your education (800-433-3243).
* Ask hard questions about any program you're considering: Are classes rigorous? Is supervised classroom experience just a blip at the end of the program or is it integrated throughout coursework? What percentage of the faculty has had experience teaching at the precollegiate level.
* Learn to be observant and practical. A principal in Georgia says the first question he asks a prospective teacher in an interview is, "What questions would you ask if a parent told you he'd just seen a child get off the bus with a gun?" (Hint: Get an accurate description of the child - and don't be flapped by the question.)
* Develop your own love of learning. Teachers are being held to ever-higher levels of competence in the fields they teach. Be sure you like to learn. "We're not looking for starry-eyed idealists. We're looking for someone who has worked hard, diligently, and successfully at a number of endeavors. You have to be very flexible, resourceful, and quite mature to be a teacher," says Edith Tatel, who has screened candidates for both teacher-ed programs and alternative programs, such as Teach for America.