Caution: Danger of switcher shock

Facing a shortage of up to 100,000 teachers over the next decade, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed spending $12 million to begin a recruitment program for retiring baby boomers. The Associated Press says the plan seeks to convince late 50-somethings to “swap tech for teaching.”

“The proposal sounds crazy at first,” says the lead paragraph of the AP story, which appeared in the San Jose Mercury. “Ask experienced scientists and engineers nearing the end of their professional careers to take a substantial pay cut and face a classroom full of teenagers in a public school.”

Schwarzenegger’s proposal is modeled after IBM’s two-year-old Transition to Teaching program, where 85 would-be teachers are moving out of their high-paying corporate jobs and into classrooms. (A team of mentors from the Teacher Leaders Network is offering support to some of those former IBM employers through a virtual mentoring program.)

“We have all these brilliant people that have the skills that we need to teach in math or in science,” Schwarzenegger told AP last week.

Well, maybe not ALL the skills. In a recent conversation in the TLN discussion group, several members shared stories about second-career teachers who were a bit overconfident about the ease with which they’d adapt to the teaching life. High school teacher Mary T wrote:

We had one: an anesthesiologist who decided to solve all of education’s problems by quitting his high paying job and moving into the classroom. His surprise: the kids wouldn’t automatically get on board with his teaching style. His management technique: throw a tantrum and refuse to teach, for which he continued to draw pay. Yes, there was arrogance initially on his part, and then finally the admission that teaching actually IS a hard job that has to be done right. I took small consolation in his epiphany after his year-long experiment. The losers: kids who were stuck in his class for a year and had to repeat the math course the next year.

As the conversation developed, we heard some success stories, too. Middle school teacher Susan wrote:

I have met some amazing career switchers, including my husband. I have shared the sometimes painful process of helping him make the transition from the business world. So here’s one more question that may be critical to switcher success: “Are you running to teaching or away from your current work?”

We once had new teacher who career-switched from Intensive Care nursing to middle school Language Arts. When I asked her why she made the change she replied, “ICU patients were just too demanding.” Want to guess whether she finished the year?

Mary thought the damage to students and schools from poorly designed transition programs was not really the fault of the career-switchers but “the end result of a system that refuses to acknowledge what a highly skilled profession teaching is.” She wondered why “the shortages in the classroom of qualified instructors is always being resolved with a finger in the dike kind of solution (like career switchers), rather than making the harder choice to acknowledge teaching as lifelong career choice that makes sense for heads of households and is worthy of compensation, both in pay and in respect.”

Schwarzenegger and others developing this program will need to heed the words of Margaret Gaston, director of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning in Santa Cruz, who was quoted in the AP article. She noted that the Governor’s own commissioned studies of education policy have revealed that California is (quoting from the AP story) “renowned for launching new education programs, many of which fizzle out after a few years or are not monitored to see whether they work.”

Gaston also warned that career-switchers must have support once they’re in the classroom. “We don’t want these retirees to develop what we call ‘switcher shock’ — to be so stunned by the conditions that they find themselves in that they leave right away.”

That “switcher shock” could be more intense than average if the plan proposed by Schwarzenegger goes anywhere. The oldest baby boomers will be about 70 a decade from now. Are they really ready for Emo — or whatever comes next?