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[whitespace] Teach Our Children? Some experts say that teaching's low salaries, high demands and need for patience with children make tech workers a bad pool of candidates.


Take This Job

What gave our governor the idea that laid-off tech workers should teach kids?

By Allie Gottlieb

YOU WOULDN'T think so, but getting canned has its upside. For one thing, it inspires career revelations. Obviously, there's no more urgent time to rethink one's calling than when in post-layoff desperation. And in Silicon Valley, there's plenty of job boomeranging going on.

For instance, one former engineer now gunning for a career change wants to become a middle school or high school science or technology teacher in northern Santa Clara County.

"Why am I applying? I was laid off on Tuesday, April 12 [2001]," the job seeker explained in an application for government funding through the job-transition agency the Silicon Valley Workforce Investment Network (SVWIN). The applicant, whose identity was withheld, notes in a personal statement that "previous income and investments" and "belt-tightening" would allow for the transition from engineering to teaching.

This is exactly the sort of star alignment California's governor recently banked on while brewing up a new math and science teacher recruitment campaign. Along with the rest of the country, California is short on teachers. (The country needs about 2.4 million over the next decade, and California needs 240,000--mostly in math and science--according to the National Education Association and the U.S. Department of Education, respectively.) The state is large on unemployed trained techies. So, in November, Gov. Gray Davis threw the doors to public-school teaching wide open for jobless folks who have math and science degrees and technical-work experience. An accelerated teacher-credential program starts this month at San Jose State University. Two birds. One stone.

On the surface, Davis' recruitment plan seems to be a neat package. It comes at a time when the chips are down and, of course, any job offer seems good; cash beats no cash. But does the sad state of California's teaching force really necessitate seducing into the fold people who picked another profession when they had the choice? Is trying to turn computer geeks into science and math teachers a good idea? No one seems to know for sure. Some, including a teachers' union rep and an outspoken psychiatrist who's studied professional personality traits, are certain it's not.

Geeks in Trouble

"These are hard-working, highly skilled workers," Davis said in a Nov. 19 press release announcing funding for new work-transition programs. "I want to put their talents to work as quickly as possible."

Davis earmarked $1.6 million for the statewide Technology to Teaching Initiative to allow for teacher-training subsidies of up to $8,000 per person. Two Santa Clara agencies, SVWIN and the North Santa Clara Valley Job Training Consortium (NOVA), partnered to pick suitable tech-to-teaching candidates out of the throngs of laid-off Silicon Valley tech workers.

The state funding is meant to help 200 people statewide become teachers by shuttling them through required college courses and tests geared toward verifying subject expertise. Certification is supposed to take a year but could take longer depending on the individual's experience and needs. SVWIN has 50 slots to fill, and NOVA has about 67.

Recruitment program organizers agree that not every laid-off tech worker is hopping on this accelerated teacher-credential program for the right reasons. SVWIN and NOVA are currently in the process of narrowing down those qualified for the program by gauging the seriousness of candidates' intentions in the move toward teaching. NOVA program supervisor Juliet Reyes was poised to start interviewing candidates for four days straight the week of April 15. The candidates were selected from a pool of about 100 applicants who applied through NOVA, which is hiring for the northern part of the county.

"What I've heard from at least some of the people," says Reyes, is that they originally wanted to teach but "were lured away by the high-tech industry's high salaries." Now, she says, they're "taking the economy's downturn as an opportunity to do what they originally wanted to do."

Reyes plans to rely on applicants to "self-censor themselves out of the program" if it hits them that teaching isn't a realistic prospect for them, or if it becomes clear that they're in it for the wrong reasons. She says SVWIN and NOVA are upfront about the difficulties of teaching. That, combined with the screening process--entailing the review of candidates' statements and interviews about why they want to teach and what they'll bring to the job--is supposed to determine the fit between job and applicant prior to acceptance into the program.

Desperate but Not Serious

Some Hewlett-Packard refugees turned in their application to SVWIN outlining how their software engineering and other work experiences and talents vouch for their teaching skills.

One 25-year corporate-world survivor who now wants to "deliver quality instruction to young people" told NOVA the following: "My goal is to leverage my extensive experience in online product, project and program management as well as my natural entrepreneurial orientation to shift from a career working for corporations to a career working to benefit others."

That's great, chimes in one 23-year veteran Morgan Hill math teacher. "Anytime you can bring expertise into the classroom, that's a good thing," Mary Alice Callahan says. But the Britton Middle School teacher, who is also the president of the Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers and a math teachers' coach, questions the tech-to-teaching initiative. "What a lot of people don't understand is that there's a pedagogy to teaching," Callahan says.

She coaches math teachers in the art of teaching and notes that subject content is much easier to learn. "If you can't keep the kids' attention, and you lose control of your class, it doesn't matter how smart you are."

The Truth About Kids

As those in the know can attest, it sometimes takes years to learn stuff you really need to know the first week of teaching. Math teacher Oded Gurantz says he learned from three years in the classroom about the importance of setting standards clearly and early in the game. There's a small window of time when a teacher has to lay down the rules. And it starts on school day No. 1, a day a teacher can never get back.

Another bit of wisdom from Gurantz, who's staying with his parents in San Jose while preparing to teach in Honduras in August: "Every kid has the potential to be a brat."

South Bay Teacher Recruitment Center recruiting director Ernie Zermeno says the tech-to-teaching program drew inquiries from about 450 various people. "For some, this is the first time they're thinking about teaching. For others, they've thought about it, but they followed the money," he says.

That fact suggests uncertainty about these applicants' long-term promises to stick with teaching. And indeed, says Zermeno, "There's some reservation from [school] districts. Will the commitment be there, or will they go back when the economy improves?"

In part because of this doubt, critics propose that this isn't the way to find teachers. "I don't think that it's generally a good idea to bring people in on a last-resort basis," says Fred Glass, communications director for the 100,000-member California Federation of Teachers. "That's not a way to recruit a permanent, committed teaching force."

Psychiatrist Robert Hogan lends another dimension to the criticism of this recruitment effort: personality. Hogan, who worked at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University and started an industrial psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Tulsa, now runs a consulting firm based in Tulsa, Okla., with his wife, Joyce Hogan, who's also known in the field of psychiatry for her professional personality-trait research.

Hogan says, simply, that teaching is altruistic and attracts a different sort of person than technical jobs do. The latter, he says, call out to people who "want money and want to work on technical things."

The typical person who moved to Silicon Valley to work in the high-tech field, someone Hogan dubs "the money-grubbing techno-freak," is, in fact, at the very opposite end of the professional temperament spectrum from teachers. The difference, Hogan says, lies between those who chose to "make lots of money by exploiting people, vs. teachers, who help people for little money." Ultimately, he says, "that's a tough transition."

SVWIN program coordinator MaryL (her full name is pronounced Mari-EL; she uses no last name) says not everyone accepted into the program will be a laid-off tech worker with a math or science degree.

"I don't have 50 people who are in that category that will qualify," she says. While the governor wants to target people fitting that description, his recruitment-subsidy rules allow for second- and third-choice applicants--those with a math or science B.A. who were laid off from any field, and laid-off tech workers with any four-year degree.

MaryL stresses the fact that teaching is a hard job that's "not for everyone." The work demands passion, and she's looking for people who internalize her straightforward warnings about what teaching is really about. Some applicants she's talked to are worried about the low salary that comes with the job. "Those are the ones that will be weeded out," she says. "They'll take themselves out of the process."

Where are the Good Teachers?

Meanwhile, perhaps the teacher shortage stems not so much from a lack of qualified teachers but from an underappreciation of the profession. With that in mind, some make the case that fishing for teachers in the trained tech pool misdirects government funding.

From the perspective of union spokesperson Glass, who works as an advocate for teachers, the thing to do to would be to pay teachers more (a.k.a. a "living wage") and actually fork over enough money for classroom supplies so they don't have to spend money out of their own pocket, as many now do.

He points out that the current teaching workforce bears inadequacies that need to be fixed and that there are hurdles complicating the teacher's job. For example, one in every eight public school teachers in California lacks certification and works in a classroom on an "emergency" basis. Tech-to-teaching reps admit that this initiative won't do anything to solve California's lack of teaching certificates, since it brings in more uncertified teachers, who get to teach as interns before completing the program.

It's a scary time for today's teachers. For the first time in years, Glass says, some are getting warnings that they could be laid off thanks to budget cuts. He also points out that California schools run at a disadvantage since they are atypically cash poor. The state pays schools $6,232 per student. Meanwhile, the national average is $7,146 apiece. The state's largest union, the 300,000-member California Teachers Association, also wants to fix what schools already have. The union is fighting an uphill battle against the governor over a proposed piece of legislation that would give teachers a say in textbook selection and the setting of standards.

Santa Clara-based CTA board member Bob Nichols says making teachers out of tech people sounds good. But he's got concerns. "There's more to teaching than just knowing your stuff," he says, such as talent for managing a class and understanding how kids think.

In the end, teaching well means knowing the subject. But that's not all. It also means really wanting to and being able to explain that subject to students. It bears repeating that this is a tall order. That fact is reflected in one 1996 statistic the National Education Association cites in its teacher-shortage fact sheet: Nearly half the teachers in urban districts abandon the job within their first five years.

The question becomes, what is Davis' tech-to-teaching campaign going to do for schools? As far as school districts' concern that laid-off computer programmers, dotcommers and engineers won't last as teachers, and will likely flee teaching for a higher tax bracket the instant they can, SVWIN's MaryL guarantees nothing. "I know I'm getting a lot of people who are desperate right now," she says.


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From the May 2-8, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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