School science - a shortage of teachers or training? Programs change executives and engineers into classroom teachers
Cambridge, Mass. — AS a Wall Street stockbroker, Harry Jacobson used to move assets between funds. These days he's moving a stack of videotapes on a piece of cardboard with a stretched rubber band. That's to illustrate the phenomena of static and dynamic friction for his imaginary class of seventh-graders. Mr. Jacobson and his classmates (among them, a NASA official, a mechanical engineer, and an engineer in superconductors) have left long-established careers to train as science and math teachers at a Harvard University program.
Universities, the military, and corporations are all starting to develop similar science/math teacher-training programs for those who want to switch careers or who want a second career after retirement. The programs are a response to the current shortage of teachers in those fields.
According to a 1982 General Accounting Office study, 42 states out of 45 responding reported either a ``critical shortage'' or a ``shortage'' of mathematics and physics teachers.
Why would anyone leave a lucrative, prestigious job for the challenges of the classroom and school bureaucracy? For Jacobson's classmate Robert Randall, whose longtime superconductor job ``disappeared'' in February, it was time to start doing something he'd wanted to do for a long time. ``My youngest child had just finished college; most of the economic pressure was removed,'' he said. ``I thought it would be fun to work with young people and give practical examples to go with theory.''
Mr. Randall is just the type of person many of the new programs want to reach: someone close to retirement or laid off, who has finished paying off mortgages and college educations, who wants to give something back to the world.
``People who have had this experience can answer the question `Why do I need to know about quadratic equations?' sometimes with a more realistic response than folks who have never tried to use them,'' says Dr. Katherine Merseth, head of the Harvard program.
And they're out there. One year after then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of Education William Bennett signed a statement encouraging retiring military personnel to consider a second career as a math or science teacher, 5,550 people have inquired.
The National Executive Service Corps (NESC), a voluntary association of retired executives in New York City, conducted a recent study funded by the Carnegie Corporation which found that a substantial majority of scientists and engineers would look favorably on exploring teaching as a second career.
Andrew Popp, president of the Math/Science Education Group, a subsidiary of the NESC, directed the study. ``At least 50,000 scientists and engineers are expected to retire from industry annually,'' he says. ``Twenty-five percent will still be in their 50s, and close to half will be under 63. It is obvious that this largely ignored and untapped pool of well-trained and educated men and women can make an enormous difference if the education community is prepared to accept and work with them.''
And in some measure, the educational community is. In addition to Harvard's program, universities in Vermont, Washington, Virginia, Connecticut, California, Arizona, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. have all started mid-career teacher training programs. Mr. Popp estimates that there are four to five times that many programs all over the country, most of them less than two years old.
Many states are starting to make it easier for second-career teachers to get certified. All but six states have some form of alternative certification programs, according to Popp, so that the experience teachers-to-be have already amassed can apply toward teaching credentials.
There are also glimmerings of interest from corporations. Polaroid Corporation, in Cambridge, Mass., is developing a program that will enable senior employees in engineering, science, or finance interested in early retirement to attend the Harvard or Lesley College (in Cambridge) teacher training programs at full pay. General Electric and RCA are thinking of similar ventures.
The military, too, wants to ease the way into second careers in teaching for its 30,000 employees who retire each year, many of whom have spent their careers teaching young people technical skills. The Army has asked the NESC to set up a model retraining program at Fort Bragg; the Navy to set up one in San Diego.
But can men and women used to the world of uniforms and snappy salutes deal with rowdy classrooms filled with orange spiked hair and studied nonchalance? Most programs give the career switchers an orientation period to ensure that they'll be able to handle it.