Back To School
GRAND RAPIDS — Fred Posont glances over his shoulder at a sea of bland expressions. He’s starting to lose his audience. Years of experience in the courtroom — not to mention his training at Notre Dame law — tell him what to do. As he wheels around to face the crowd, he fires off a question. A few faces perk up. The mumbling in the back of the room stops. He just needs them to stay with him through his summation. He needs to get across the point that this could be one of the most important trials in American history.
As Posont delivers his closing statements, he isn’t talking to a judge and jury about the guilt or innocence of his client. He’s talking to a bunch of 13-year-olds about the Dredd Scott case. That’s because Posont gave up a career as a high-powered corporate litigator to become a high-powered middle school social studies teacher. And he couldn’t be happier.
Posont is one of thousands of West Michigan mid-career professionals who have chosen to go back to school so they can go back to school — this time as teachers. For Posont, that meant taking a year off from work to complete Grand Valley State University’s accelerated program for first-time certification. Maggie Vande Velde, one of the administrators in charge of the program, said that Posont’s motivation to become a teacher was pretty typical.
“A lot of them find that their jobs aren’t fulfilling, that they’re working too much,” said Vande Velde. “Or they’ve had experience working with kids, maybe coaching, that they find very rewarding. … In general they’re very passionate about teaching.”
Are they also passionate about the idea of months-long summer vacations?
“It is very rare for anyone applying here to say, ‘I like the schedule of teachers,’” Vande Velde said. “Most of them really just have that drive, that passion. They seem really inspired.”
Those inspired individuals who are considering a career change into the world of education have a number of options locally. Several West Michigan institutions offer post-graduate initial teacher certification programs. In Grand Rapids, students have a choice between GVSU, Aquinas College, and a joint program between Ferris State University and Grand Rapids Community College.
The programs vary in price from around $8,000 to upwards of $20,000, depending on the institution, the length and intensiveness of the program, and whether the student needs to take supplemental classes to satisfy entry requirements. Students can complete the programs in as little as a year, including student teaching. They can also extend the process to several years to accommodate their schedules.
Potential second-career teachers also have some challenges to face. Posont said that he, like many professionals who return to teaching, came into his first teaching job with a great deal of enthusiasm and idealism. That idealism can leave new teachers disillusioned when they first look teenage boredom and apathy in the face. Posont said that he has found it important to keep the life-changing potential of his work with students in perspective.
“New teachers have to go into this profession understanding that not every student is convinced that learning, problem solving or critical thinking are more important than issues they face at home or what they plan to do that afternoon. That is the challenging aspect of leading a group for one hour — working to get the best out of them on that day and to instill skills that they can take with them.”
Another practical challenge for would-be teachers is that very few people are able to immediately enroll in the certification programs without taking some supplemental courses to round out their teachable majors and minors. Kelly Thompson, teacher certification officer at Ferris State, said that the idea of jumping into a certification program without having to take catch-up classes is “living in dream-land.”
“Most people’s coursework is rather old,” she said. “So that puts them out of the running, because you’re going to be tested, and you’re not going to retain all of that stuff.”
Many students fit their supplementary coursework into their working schedules before beginning the certification process in earnest. At GVSU, that means taking a year off work. At Aquinas and the Ferris/GRCC program, more students choose to take classes part-time, spreading their certification program out over several years. For many individuals, the idea of taking a year off without any income is simply not feasible.
Even after a decade of work as an attorney, Posont wasn’t able to make the sacrifice easily. The family got by on savings and wife Ann’s income. She is a nuclear medicine technologist for Spectrum Health.
“Financially it was difficult,” he said. “And she doesn’t work full-time. … So she picked up hours whenever she could. But it was tough.”
Perhaps more difficult is facing the potential of completing the certification process only to face a saturated job market in West Michigan.
“We have a lot of that, but we also have a lot of people moving to other states,” said Thompson. “We make it very clear to folks coming into the program that things in Michigan are not looking good for teachers.”
But that depends on the subject.
“If you’re a math and science person, you can name your place and name your price,” said Dr. Michael Williams, dean of the school of education at Aquinas College.
Ferris’ Thompson agreed.
“Math and science, yes — and special ed is the third point on that pyramid,” she said. “Those are the three huge areas of concern.”
Those are also the areas that require the most intensive training and, therefore, turn out the smallest number of certified teachers. For example, Williams said that of 387 students currently enrolled at Aquinas who plan to go on to teach at the elementary level, only six are qualified to be science teachers.
Regardless of the subject taught, Posont said that people considering a career in teaching should carefully consider how it will affect their lives. Leaving a six-figure salary for $30,000 per year can be a major shift in standard of living. He also said that would-be teachers shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that they won’t work long hours — he works nearly as much during the school year now as he did in his days as a lawyer, though he admits the work is more fun. He also said that there is one more thing to consider for people who give up a prestigious, well-paying career for a new life as an educator: Some people just don’t get it.
“For the first year or two, there were teachers who were somewhat suspicious of me, wondering why I’d make that switch even no matter how many times I explained why — you know, wondering about the cut in pay and wondering why I would want to do this with the degrees I had and everything. So I heard one or two say, half jokingly, that I might be a plant for the administration.”