Casey Harl spent nearly 15 years working in information technology for a Fortune 500 chemical and polymer company.
There was little to complain about. He oversaw multi-million dollar projects, served as a team leader, made important presentations to plant managers and their staffs and took home a lucrative salary.
But Harl gradually discovered he had a different calling — one that comes with a smaller paycheck and more hassles but a greater reward.
Harl is an eighth-grade math teacher at Lake Dallas Middle School.
"I am more fulfilled now than I ever was as a corporate employee," says Harl, who earned his teaching certification from the University of North Texas in 2006 and is nearing completion of a master's degree in secondary education from UNT.
A collaborative effort between the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education, Teach North Texas is UNT's newest initiative dedicated to preparing undergraduate math, science and computer science majors to obtain teaching certification in those highly sought areas. This new effort will train an additional 60 new math and science teachers each year.
"I decided I wanted to make a difference more than a dollar," he says. "The work is harder, but the knowledge that I am making a difference in the world and leaving behind a legacy trumps the money I was making."
Unfortunately, there are too few teachers like Harl. Schools across the state and the nation are dealing with a massive shortage of qualified math and science teachers in secondary education. The dearth of quality educators has heightened concerns that American students will find themselves at a disadvantage in a work force that is becoming increasingly more high-tech and globalized.
To combat the problem, UNT has instituted a variety of grant-funded programs, including the Robert Noyce Scholarship, the Transition to Teaching program and the recently announced Teach North Texas initiative. The university is not only striving to turn out well-trained educators with degrees and certification in the subject areas they teach, but it also is providing support to teachers after they finish at UNT to help them choose to stay in the teaching profession for more than a few years.
"There are plenty of certified teachers. They just are not teaching," says Pam Harrell, associate professor of education and program administrator for UNT's Secondary Post Baccalaureate Online Teacher Certification Program. "Although a lot of progress has been made toward increasing teacher pay, in general, the increases level out by the fifth year. Additionally, when the economy is robust, science and math teachers are drawn to high-paying careers."
Most of the attrition happens early on. According to statistics cited in a 2006 College Board report, 14 percent of teachers leave the profession during or after their first year in the classroom. Ten percent more quit during or after the second year; another 9 percent bail out during or after the third year; another 7 percent abandon the job during or after the fourth year; and 6 percent flame out during or after the fifth year. It all adds up to a 46 percent attrition rate after just five years.
"Although some teachers leave to raise a family or to change jobs, working conditions in schools are considered a major factor in teacher attrition," says Mary Harris, Meadows Chair for Excellence in Education and professor of teacher education and administration.
"New teachers are often assigned the classes or students that the veterans consider most challenging."
The support that teachers receive early can go a long way toward determining how likely they are to continue in the profession over the long haul, Harrell says.
She credits the historically low attrition rate of UNT-trained teachers — more than 85 percent of UNT teachers remain in the class after three to five years — with the steps the university takes to ensure the teachers receive proper guidance even after they've graduated into the classroom.
Harl credits the Noyce scholarship he received at UNT with helping him make the transition from the corporate world to the classroom.
"I think I had a leg up on other alternative- certification teachers because of the depth of knowledge presented at UNT," Harl says.
Recipients of the Noyce scholarship receive $7,700 a year for a maximum of two years. Students receiving the scholarship — which is funded by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation that runs through August 2009 — must maintain a 3.0 grade point average, and they must commit to teaching at least two years in a high-need Texas school district for every one year they receive the scholarship.
But the Noyce recipients, who include undergraduates preparing for a teaching career and career changers like Harl, aren't just thrown into a challenging classroom environment. The teachers in training receive grade-level and assignment-specific professional development. And in the teachers' first two years on the job, UNT professors keep in close contact with them and arrange for mentor teachers to answer the fledgling instructors' questions and simply check in on them.
"I had mentor teachers the first year, and they helped me out a lot by coming to class and giving me feedback," Harl says. "They answered my e-mails and generally helped me out. Even though she wasn't required to help me after my certification, Dr. Harrell has been a tremendous resource for me."
UNT students will receive similar support through Transition to Teaching. The federally funded program, currently in a recruitment phase, is geared toward career changers pursuing certification — and in some cases certification and a master's degree — in their subject fields. The objective of the program is to annually bring in 15 candidates, who, in exchange for financial assistance, commit to teaching at least three years in Dallas, Fort Worth, Grand Prairie or Gainesville schools.
Throughout the commitment period, UNT faculty members will work with the teachers to steer them around potential pitfalls that often lead to poor retention rates. It's not uncommon, for example, for the job changers to feel overwhelmed at the seemingly chaotic classroom environment, Harris says.
"They plow a much harder path in which support is necessary," she says. "Some I think have always wanted to be teachers but didn't have a pathway."
"We think that our students will appreciate the connections between what they learn in Teach North Texas and the multiple field experiences they'll have practicing their teaching skills in public schools."
- John Quintanilla
In recent years, most of the math and science teachers UNT turns out are post-baccalaureate career changers. Harris admits that convincing undergraduate math and science majors to pursue teaching certification is a bit of an uphill battle.
"One of the barriers we face is the belief of some faculty that teaching is not the best use of their students' talents," Harris says.
The university learned earlier this year that it is one of 13 institutions to receive a $2.4 million grant to replicate the innovative UTeach program, which has been credited with more than doubling the number of math, science and computer science teachers graduating from the University of Texas at Austin. Grants from the Greater Texas Foundation, UTeach Institute and the National Mathematics and Science Initiative partially fund the program.
Co-directors John Quintanilla, associate professor of mathematics, and Harris project that the program, called Teach North Texas, will turn out 60 teachers a year. During the 2006-07 academic year, about 1200 students completed our certification programs for teachers, counselors or other leadership roles in schools.
"With Teach North Texas, future math and science teachers will be prepared for their profession with course work that is guided by current research and is specifically tailored for their field of interest," Quintanilla says. "We think that our students will appreciate the connections between what they learn in Teach North Texas and the multiple field experiences they'll have practicing their teaching skills in public schools."
A collaborative effort between the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education, the program will provide students with classroom experience as early as their freshman year.
Another key aspect will be students' interactions with master teachers. The master teachers are experienced high school teachers hired by UNT to teach courses, supervise field work and offer mentorship and real-world advice to the students.
One of the major aims of the program is for the students to earn degrees in science, math or computer science and acquire teaching certification in four years. Because that's a big career decision, the program will offer two free one-credit-hour courses to help students decide if they really want to pursue a teaching path.
Quintanilla and Harris are confident that dozens of students a year will say yes.
If Teach North Texas and other UNT teacher-training programs result in hundreds of career teachers who might otherwise have bolted for a cushy corporate job or perhaps never gone into teaching in the first place, the positive impact on the students they teach — and, by extension, the positive impact on the rest of us — could be enormous.
"I feel," Harris says, "as if this enables UNT to fulfill its obligation to society."
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