So You Think You Can Teach?

Posted: October 12, 2009 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: February 5, 2010 at 10:04 am

By Jennifer Edgerly

Lena. Photo by Lori K. Wilson

Victor Lena completed the Career Switchers Program and left his job as an electrical engineer to teach middle school. Photo by Lori A. Wilson

This fall is sure to be full of challenges and surprises for Victor Lena. After 37 years, Lena is trading in a lucrative career as an electrical engineer to fulfill a lifelong dream of teaching. Having thought about teaching at various times during his engineering career, Lena felt it was never quite economically feasible, since he has three children.

“When my middle son entered his fourth year of medical school, I was confident there was indeed a light at the end of the ‘tuition tunnel’,” says Lena. “I began to explore post-engineering alternatives in earnest, and it didn’t take long for the idea of teaching to reassert itself.”

Having completed Mason’s Career Switchers Program in May, Lena now teaches math, algebra and life science to middle school students at the Philip Michael Pennington School in Manassas, Va.

Lena is not alone in his choice to change careers and become a teacher. Since the Career Switcher Program started in 2000, 55 people have completed the program. With close to a 90 percent placement rate, graduates of the program have filled teaching positions in math, science, English and history/social studies in area classrooms.

Career Switchers, which is a state-approved teacher training program, provides an alternative route to attaining a secondary education licensure (grades 6-12). While the program requires applicants to have a minimum of five years of professional experience, most come to the program with 18-20 years of experience in their field.

“The average age of a career switcher is 42 years old,” says Libby Hall, coordinator of the program in Mason’s College of Education and Human Development. “Many of our applicants are attorneys, but we get applicants from all walks of life.”

In fact, this year the Career Switcher Program enrolled a veterinarian and two physicians. Hall explains that students with backgrounds in the sciences and math are extremely important to the program, which was created to fill teacher vacancies in critical shortage areas.

Christine McCommas. Photo courtesy of Christine McCommas

Christine McCommas. Photo courtesy of Christine McCommas

Christine McCommas, who has worked for 34 years as a government contracts attorney for the U.S. Army, enrolled in the Career Switcher Program this fall. Teaching is something she has always wanted to do.

“In college, I majored in English/secondary education and I have a strong interest in the subject matter,” says McCommas. “I chose the Career Switcher Program at Mason because of its strong track record and reputation, and because it affords me the flexibility to continue earning an income while making the transition to teaching.”

The program takes approximately 18 months to complete and requires students to complete six credits each semester.  In addition to completing the required course work, students must spend a minimum of 15 hours on field work for each of the four courses, which means 60 hours total in a local classroom. Upon completing the course work and procuring a full-time teaching job, each student registers for their final internship course.

While Career Switchers has seen a steady increase in enrollment in the program, it’s too soon to say whether it’s because of the economy, Hall says. She notes, however, that there is “definitely a trend in growth and interest.” Thirty-six people have enrolled in the program in 2009.

Hall cautions that while many people are interested in the program, it’s not for everyone. Career Switchers is an accelerated program and requires students to complete the PRAXIS II exam prior to entering the program. Most education students take the Praxis I test for admission to a licensure program and take the Praxis II  exam near the end of their academic program. Adding an interview to the application process has helped ensure that those who enter the program are truly qualified and capable. When the situation does arise that someone might not be a good fit for the accelerated program, Hall suggests that they look into the traditional secondary education licensure program.

Lena explains that his own experience in the program has been one of continuous discovery. Students who are new to the program will find it “to be more difficult than initially expected,” he says.

“Along with our methods courses, much of the course work focuses on educational and adolescent psychology. This was a completely new field of study for me,” says Lena. “In addition, exposure to all the nuances of ‘No Child Left Behind’ with respect to diversity and differentiated instruction proved to be an almost daily eye-opener. The teaching profession is so much more complex and challenging than I ever imagined. “

For more information on the Career Switcher Program, see the web site or call 703-993-3679.

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