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Teaching as a Career Change

Although the overwhelming majority of college graduates who choose teaching as a career do so as their first choice, the classroom is also becoming attractive to late starters ("Teaching as a Second Act, or Maybe Even a Third," The New York Times, Mar. 25). Despite threats to tenure, test score-based evaluation and pension insecurity, the move is gaining traction.

The question is what this means for student learning. Do mature career changers constitute an asset?  I think they do.  When college graduates go directly into teaching, they often are not much older than their students.  As a result, they lack the depth of experience that older adults have. Certainly knowledge of subject matter and pedagogy are paramount, but effectiveness is also dependent on personality.  People who have worked in other fields have learned to work with people from different backgrounds on a variety of projects.  This makes it easier to adapt to a classroom of young people.

There's another factor that is given short shrift.  Older adults bring an appreciation about the value of education to the classroom that their younger colleagues sometimes lack. For example, veterans who took advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights (the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944) and enrolled in college were among the best students that their professors had ever seen. It's not that they were smarter than other students. Instead, they were more grateful for the opportunity to earn a degree, and they showed it by their attitude.

Sometimes the best teacher is hard knocks.  Older teacher candidates have undergone their share and then some.  I'd be interested in a study that compares the effectiveness of late starters with that of traditional starters.  I think the results would call into question many of our assumptions.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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