N.Va. Community College offers career switchers quick path to teaching

By Holly Hobbs
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, June 17, 2010

As part of a statewide effort to fill a shortage of public schoolteachers, Northern Virginia Community College offers a program that promises to move people from other careers into the classroom in 16 weeks.

The program, Career Switchers, is offered at 11 of the state's 23 community colleges. It has drawn candidates from a variety of fields, including the medical, legal, military, government, engineering and commercial sales industries, program manager Julia Tucker-Lloyd said.

"The demand has grown exponentially," she said "When this program began [in 2006], we had 81 people finish. This year we had 231 people finish."

That's good news for Virginia's public schools, which have a shortage of about 8,500 teachers this coming academic year. The demand for teachers is higher in math, science and English for Speakers of Other Languages, said NVCC professor John Wells, who oversees the Annandale campus program.

The shortages are caused by the increased importance and demand in those subjects, as well as higher rates of burnout among teachers who feel the need to constantly keep up with new advancements, he said.

"The teacher shortage is much bigger than people think," Wells said.

Career Switchers aims to quickly train teachers in fields identified each year by the Virginia Department of Education in its Critical Shortage Teaching Endorsements Areas report.

With admissions closing July 31, the program has received 300 bids for the roughly 180 spots statewide for the fall program.

The program trains students to teach math, science, English, biology, chemistry, earth science and physics in grades six to 12, and foreign languages and ESOL in kindergarten to grade 12.

Most who enter the program want something new in their lives, Wells said.

"We hear, 'I've been a lawyer for 30 years and I quit. I want to be a teacher,' " he said, adding that many professionals -- especially those in the military -- want an opportunity to pass on what they've learned in life.

"This is for people who are literally switching their careers for life," Wells said. "It's a little emotional for these people because they have to take a step back and ask, 'Do I really want to give up on my career? Do I want to be a teacher because it looks like fun or because I want to teach?' This is not an easy program. This is taking a two-year education program and crowding it into 16 weeks."

Candidates must have five years of career experience outside the classroom and a bachelor's degree. The program, which costs about $3,300, consists of about 80 percent online classes.

Alice Burbank, 43, the mother of two teenagers, applied for the program about a year after her family settled in Springfield. She studied French in college and has a professional background in museum administration.

"The program was very intense," said Burbank, who completed the program in June and is looking for a job.

Tucker-Lloyd said participants should not be discouraged if they haven't found a position. During the next few years, about 33,000 educators in Virginia are likely to retire.

"That's a huge turnover in a large industry," she said.

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