Over the hill. Past his prime. As someone who came to the teaching profession in my fifties, I have heard all of these comments and more. I, however, see my age as an advantage. Late-career professionals bring with them real-world experience. We bring patience that comes from years of learning the hard way that impatience is seldom effective as a mode of change and growth. We can become role models for our students and younger professional peers. What if we as a nation focused on recruiting to teaching not just young, passionate college graduates but equally committed late-career professionals? The benefits to our students would be immeasurable.
Career-changers often bring with them a wealth of critical-thinking skills honed at past jobs. Problem-solving is a focus of the Common Core curriculum; mature professionals entering the teaching profession can model these skills to their students and peers. They have most likely worked cooperatively in a team environment, which is critical to student success now and for a lifetime. Late-career professionals have also usually developed skills of time management that can be critical in the planning and execution of lessons and compliance documentation.
Older adults who have raised a family have experience observing how kids think and what does or does not motivate them. We are able to evaluate the family dynamics that are so often among the challenges facing our students and can offer effective solutions using that experience. Oftentimes, parental meetings on student discipline at school evolve into discussions about how to consistently manage behavior at home. On one memorable occasion, the parent of one of my middle school students was unable to identify even one rule that had been established for the child at home, and asked for examples. We discussed such basics as bedtimes, eating habits, speaking respectfully to adults, and expectations for doing homework. The student's behavior changed noticeably after this discussion.
Career-changers' knowledge can also be of significance in the academic classroom and in extracurricular activities. For instance, as a result of my experience as a horticulturist, I was able to successfully organize a school garden club which has won civic awards for our work and created some valuable opportunities for teaching across several core curricula. My know-how in negotiating business relationships has helped me to bring on board a corporate sponsor as an adopter for our school.
Here are some possible pathways to teaching career for older professionals:
• Partnerships with corporations. Partnering with corporate entities to offer a transitional exit package, possibly including continued benefits and retirement eligibility, might attract professionals interested in opportunities to be active in the public service sector before they wrap up their careers.
• Focused recruitment by individual states. Departments of Education that are serious about this type of recruitment will need to consider alternative compensation strategies, perhaps with a completely separate preferred salary schedule based on number of career years prior to teaching. To offset these higher salaries, states might even see a savings in the cost of benefits, in that these teachers would have a relatively short tenure and therefore lower retirement pensions.
• Recruitment through organizations like Teach for America (TfA). TfA has a well-developed infrastructure that focuses on recruiting young professionals to teach in high-needs schools for two years before beginning their careers. Recruitment programs for career changers could easily parallel the existing TfA model, but with different entrance and exit strategies.
If our goal as a profession is to bring highly-qualified teachers to students who need them the most, we would be remiss in not considering professionals with life and career experience. My path to teaching was different from most. I believe that there are many others like me, willing and waiting to take the first step towards becoming excellent educators.
Daniel DeShon is a 6th-8th grade special education teacher at Treadwell Middle School in Memphis, Tennessee and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow. He became a teacher after a thirty-year career as a horticultural buyer.