WASHINGTON — Three years ago, Irene Huntoon was marketing the services of a New York investment firm specializing in fixed-income portfolios.
Today, the Harvard University graduate spends her days in a public-school classroom in Prince George's County, Md., facing the most challenging clients of her working life: 28 second-graders.
"I don't know whether I am a better teacher for having started late," Ms. Huntoon says, "but I am a happier teacher."
Younger colleagues say they wished they had better-paying jobs or worked in the D.C. government, and I think, 'Noooo.' "
Like Ms. Huntoon, many adults consider a second career in teaching and find themselves digging out old transcripts and going back to school.
More than 295,000 people over 35 were working toward a graduate degree in education in 1997, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Although many of these were teachers seeking advanced degrees or specializations, a portion of them were latecomers. At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. - an area rich in government and military retirees - 30 to 40 percent of the 1,200 students in the Initial Licensure Program "are career-switchers or women returning to the work force," estimates Mary Anne Lecos, director of teacher education.
For Ms. Huntoon and others, teaching satisfies a desire to engage in meaningful and fulfilling work. Retirees especially see the classroom as a vehicle to give back to society, while for others, teaching is attractive because its schedule parallels that of their school-age children.
Would-be teachers also share a love of children - although that's not enough to guarantee success in the classroom. As much as Huntoon had always enjoyed "a comfortable rapport with kids," she was amazed at how much of teaching consisted of responding effectively to the boy who knocks books over or the girl who talks back. "I didn't realize how much the educational process in early grades is about social control," she says.
"The first year of teaching is really painful," she adds. Indeed, 15 percent of teachers quit after the first year, according to 1995 figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. After the third year, attrition more than doubles to 32.6 percent. This is in part because few new teachers anticipate administrative duties outside the classroom, summer courses and training sessions, and hours of preparation.
Some surprises, however, can be avoided. Web sites (see box, right) offer access to discussions among teachers, articles on pertinent issues and trends, and job listings by region. Many departments of education operate useful help lines. "If the caller doesn't know much about teaching," says Amy McMurtey, education administration specialist for the State of Georgia, "we'll suggest he or she get on a substitute-teachers list." Ms. Lecos sometimes advises potential teachers to volunteer with the Scouts or coach a sport.
But Huntoon did none of the above and even warns against it. Had she substituted without any prior training and without a commitment to teaching, "I would not have probably kept on," she says. Instead, she entered Bank Street College of Education in New York as a part-time student for the first semester, then quit her job and attended full time.
If she had wanted to, Huntoon could have gone straight to the classroom. In most states, 20-year old transcripts showing a grade point average of 2.5 or higher (on a 4.0 scale), along with credits in humanities and basic mathematics or science, can qualify candidates for provisional certification. Those who lack humanities or have out-of-date science credits can supplement with courses from a community college or other institution.
Those with expertise in high-demand subjects such as math, science, or foreign languages can often qualify for emergency certification and grants to earn full certification. Another shortcut to the classroom is to opt for private education, where each school sets its own criteria.
But for public school teaching, most newcomers have to hit the books. State departments of education can tell potential teachers what courses they will need to be certified in that state, as can teacher-education departments.
The result is usually a program that takes 1-1/2 to 2 years and includes pedagogical theory and classroom-management techniques. In 35 states and the District of Columbia, certification also includes scoring well on the standardized Praxis test (see Web site for minimum scores).
Huntoon is among those who believe she was better off enrolling in a master's degree program. The course work required for certification typically leaves candidates just a few credits shy of a master's. The higher salary scale sets off the expenditure, and a master's degree can make candidates more attractive to recruiters. It also makes administration positions a possibility.
But it can be a double-edged sword. Mace Henderson, assistant chief of Troops to Teachers, an organization that helps retired military personnel enter the classroom, says that with a master's "most school districts have to pay you more and, as a result, may not hire you." He advises retirees for whom the extra income is not crucial to concentrate instead on making themselves more widely marketable.
Travel, business, marketing, sales, community service - everything can feed into the classroom and bring the lessons of the day alive, says Chris Richardson, recruitment specialist for the Georgia Department of Education. He notes, "Principals and school systems are looking for people who are dynamic, who can relate their experience to children, who can engage children in learning."
Teaching Web Sites
* New Teacher Page
www.geocities.com/Athens/ Delphi/ 7862
* Troops to Teachers
* Education Week
* Recruiting New Teachers
etsis1.ets.org/praxis/ prxstate. html