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Going back to school

More making midcareer switch to teaching

In 2000, Matthew Beals figured that a Brockton High School MCAS math teacher position would be a temporary gig to help him ride out the dot-com bust. Now, the former database analyst is counting on making pedagogy a lifetime commitment.

Beals, 39, is among a new generation of teachers known as career-shifters, or disillusioned midcareer professionals who abandon their fields to pursue meaning and integrity at the helm of a classroom.

''It's being able to see that lightbulb go off over the top of some kid's head," Beals said.

Nationwide, these nontraditional teachers number in the tens of thousands. In Massachusetts, about one in three new teachers is a career-shifter.

In 2003, the state Department of Education issued 8,664 initial teacher certificates, 3,091 of which were issued to people who have held other jobs, said C. Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Education Information, a research organization based in Washington.

''We are finding that life experience and a desire to work with young people turn out to be strong components of good teaching," Feistritzer said.

Nontraditional teachers are enjoying a buyer's market in school districts across Massachusetts, especially in math, science, and special-education classrooms. There are simply not enough recent graduates of teacher colleges stepping into the positions of retiring baby boomers, according to area school administrators, who increasingly are turning to Internet recruiters and tapping nontraditional sources for candidates.

''Career-shifters are serving a great need in our district and other districts," said Kathleen Sirois, executive director for human resources for the Brockton public schools.

In turn, many of the new educators interviewed in schools south of Boston say their new jobs fulfill a profound personal need.

''There can be a lot of satisfaction out of helping the kids, and that keeps me coming back," said Beals, who also coaches wrestling at Brockton High.

For Denise Logan, a registered respiratory therapist, watching students ''get it" inspires her to pour heart and soul into her new vocation as a Brockton High School cellular biology teacher. She shares her experiences of working with cancer patients to add real-life perspective to her subject matter. On her final hospital shift, a 7-year-old boy died.

''I love to know that I'm passing on knowledge and it's going to give the kids a better chance in life," she said.

School administrators say career-shifters who succeed, like Beals and Logan, do so because they take initiative and pay their dues. A teaching career requires an ''intense investment" in students, said Robert White, West Bridgewater's superintendent of schools.

''This is a place where you as a teacher will be held accountable for product," he said.

Career-shifters must hold a college degree and pass state teacher license examinations in communication and literacy as well as in a specific content area. They must also enroll in a state-approved license program, said Lynne Yeamans, coordinator of one called the Accelerated Post Baccalaureate Program at Bridgewater State College.

For the uninitiated, today's classroom can be disorienting, adding urgency to the need for mentoring and professional development programs, said Patricia Oakley, director of curriculum and instruction in West Bridgewater. Gone are the days of the traditional ''talk-and-chalk" classroom format of half a generation ago, she said.

''It's really now the school's responsibility to help train these teachers more," Oakley said.

After her first full year on the job, Logan, 41, said she is mastering the ''customer-service" skills needed to motivate her students. ''It is kind of a sales job," the Brockton resident said.

Logan said she logs about 19 extra hours each week preparing lesson plans and catching up with what was missed.

''Each one of these students is like a customer. And you have to know what makes each student want to work," she said.

For West Bridgewater math teacher Noel Avellana, a civil engineer who worked on the Big Dig, having to stay one step ahead of her students for 84 minutes each class was her most difficult challenge when she started teaching last year. ''You learn so much on the job," she said.

Avellana, 30, of East Bridgewater said the monotony of a desk and office job is no match for the victory of helping a student master a difficult concept. ''I'm built to have more personal contact with people, more face time," she said. ''I like the one-to-one interactions, or the 25-to-one interactions."

For John Nenopoulos, 39, of Raynham, leaving a job in business administration was not a desertion but a realignment with a childhood avocation.

When growing up, Nenopoulos said, he would translate newspaper stories and TV news reports from English to Greek for his father. Seven years ago, he said, he decided to reinvest his passion in ''interaction with people and interaction with the world of ideas," and he became a history teacher.

Nenopoulos said he has learned the value of patience in his new profession at the West Bridgewater Middle-Senior High School. ''The teacher is self-made," he said.

Beals said his real-world experience factors into the value he delivers to his students -- his clients, as he calls them. ''I can let them know what is expected of them in the real world, and how they would have to perform in a job," he said. ''I have a little bit of an edge there."

Nevertheless, Beals follows the lead of his traditional counterparts when shop talk shifts to how to run a classroom. ''They have a much greater depth of theory, practice, and strategy that I'm soaking out of them to pick up along the way, to maybe help my teaching strategies," he said.

When Steve Tieri, a freelance videographer, first set foot in a West Bridgewater Middle-Senior High School TV production classroom a year ago, ''it was culture shock," he said. Now that he is more comfortable, he runs his classroom like a TV station.

The 37-year-old Sturbridge resident, who also manages WBTV (Ch. 9), the local cable television station, offers students on-the-job training. To make the grade, students must successfully produce coverage of West Bridgewater government meetings and special school events for communitywide broadcast.

Tieri said students can best learn video production by doing it. His teaching philosophy is a product of a career-long journey from Emerson College in Boston to production assistant gigs in Los Angeles to marketing positions in the Boston area.

He said he got hooked on teaching when he demonstrated video-production equipment to customers in his capacity as a salesman. The school of hard knocks furnished this career lesson, he said, and now he is passing the wisdom on.

''When you're fresh out of college," he said, ''you have a lot to see and experience for yourself, and you need a period of time for that."

For him, that experience makes the best teacher.

The reeducation of Matthew Beals

Previous career: Database analyst for New York State Office of Real Property Services

Number of years: 9

Education: University at Albany, State University of New York, MBA in information systems; Ohio State University, BS in math

Current position: Brockton High School teacher in academic prep geometry and advanced geometry; also a high school wrestling coach

Number of years: 5 1/2

Continuing education, training: MINT program at Stonehill College in Easton; Bridgewater State College, certificate in advanced graduate studies, educational leadership program

What he brings to students in his new career: ''I can let them know what is expected of them in the real world, and how they would have to perform in a job."

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