Teaching as a Second Act

Debates about how best to teach have been around as long as education. The recent development of Common Core learning standards, new changes to standardized testing (and old arguments about their relevancy), and sweeping changes in the way teachers are evaluated have commanded our attention in the latest episode of the great American education saga.

But these conversations, largely, aren’t new.

Despite a national media spotlight on education, much is still unknown about the daily life for the teachers and students most affected by education policy debates. Even less is known about just who these teachers are, and what brought them in front of a classroom to begin with. Columbia’s School-Stories team went into nine schools across Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens looking for rich stories that demonstrate how the often muddy policy talk that dominates media narratives plays out in real classrooms, real teachers, real students—and real stakes.

What we found was a growing class of new and veteran teachers who had come to the world of teaching as second attempts at a career. Among those in this set of profiles is a former Italian furrier, more than one former actor, a former police officer and criminal defense attorney, a former researcher at NASA, and even a former circus clown, who spent three years performing for Ringling Brothers.

Many of these teachers sought a profession that would provide them the opportunity to help young people discover passions of their own. Teachers’ varied backgrounds allow them to bring unique skill sets from other industries into the classroom. This controversial model has gained traction in many charter schools where business practices are often blended with educational ones. And many students—from those in the former police officer’s law class, to those who learn math from the former researcher at NASA—recognize the value of instructors who have entered teaching as a second profession.

Several of these teachers entered teaching through an accelerated or alternative teaching program, like Teach for America or New York City Teaching Fellows. Teach for America (TFA) is the controversial teacher placement program that recruits recent college graduates and professionals (who usually have no background in education) to teach for two years in urban and rural low-income public schools. Sean Healey, the Recruitment Manager for Teach for America in New York City, says that TFA has seen a growing pool of potential from professional applications who are seeking to change careers. “I think we’re really excited by those applicants because they’re bringing with them a whole field of experiences, and they’re really able to bring their skills sets, and knowledge of what really creates success in their field,” he said.

Although TFA is known for primarily recruiting recent college graduates, as the economy has shifted over the past five years, it has expanded its sights to older candidates who are seeking a professional change. “We’re sort of reaching our threshold on campuses in terms of campus awareness and presence,” Healey said. “In the last couple of years, the professional market has become a new frontier for Teach for America. So many people are interested in making a career change and making an impact in a new career.”

Like TFA, the New York City Teaching Fellows program is one of the largest and most selective alternate certification routes. Last year only 14 percent of the over 7,000 applicants were admitted. Twenty percent of last year’s cohorts came to the program with at least one advanced degree. Only 34 percent of the fellows came to the program with career experience in education. The rest are recent college graduates, or professionals who left careers in non-profit organizations, retail, sales, finance, healthcare, advertising, media, law and consulting.

The route New York City’s teachers travel to the classroom is proving to be just as diverse as the student populations they serve. These profiles seek to provide insight into some of the city’s most talked about—and often generalized—professionals: public school teachers.

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