Cubicle to Classrooom

08/06/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By REBECCA PIRO

LOWELL- There are days when Silvia Westerlind, former nuclear engineer turned teacher trainee, really misses her cubicle.

Westerlind chose to walk away from her high-paying, high-tech job this year to join the world of educators. She will sacrifice her large salary for a much smaller one and commit to teaching in an urban school district where poverty, special needs and few resources will challenge her at every turn.

Despite moments of doubt, Westerlind pushes on. She said nuclear engineering is no longer the right fit for her, given changes to the industry and the relocation of her company.

The world of education waiting for her couldn't be happier.

An educational crisis is around the corner in Massachusetts, where half of its teaching force is scheduled to retire in the next decade. (See related story.) Already hurting are the math and science fields. Fewer college students are signing up for the job, and fewer youngsters are enrolling in those classes beyond their middle-school and high-school requirements.

The National Education Association predicts that the country will need more than 2 million new teachers in the next 10 years. Programs like Project Excel, a partnership between UMass Lowell, Greater Lowell Technical High School and Lowell public schools, is designed to woo professionals from the private sector into the classroom.

But the switch from cubicles to classrooms is easier said than done.

When it comes to science, Westerlind, a Project Excel participant from Sutton, is more than comfortable with the material. But when she imagines herself standing before an unruly, disrespectful classroom, her confidence drains away.

'I'm constantly thinking, 'What would I do if that was me?'' she said.

The program awarded seven full scholarships to math and science professionals. Participants spend a year taking classes at UMass Lowell, observing teachers in Lowell public middle-school and high-school classrooms and Greater Lowell Tech classrooms, and teaching under supervision.

Then, they are released into the world with the credentials they need for their new teaching careers and a one-year commitment to teach in an urban district.

National statistics demonstrate what candidates like Westerlind are up against. About 50 percent of all new teachers in urban districts leave the profession in their first five years of teaching. The average salary for beginning teachers in the 2001-02 school year was $30,719, and the average salary for veterans was $44,683. (Westerlind didn't want to discuss the salary she walked away from, but some employees at her former plant make about $80,000.)

Charles Kitchin, a hardware applications engineer for Analog Devices in Wilmington, volunteers to teach science at Wilmington Middle School one day per week. He entertains and teaches students with hands-on activities, while the certified science teacher handles crowd control.

It recharges Kitchin's own passion for science, and his appreciation for teachers' hard work has grown with each of the three years he has volunteered.

But don't expect him to change careers anytime soon.

'I eat my lunch in the teachers' lounge, and I listen to their comments. I think they generally feel they are not respected by the community,' Kitchin said.

Then there's the fact that teaching full time involves much more than his once-per-week fun with the kids.

'I would get a much lower salary. I'd have to do discipline and things that are not fun,' Kitchin said simply. '(Full-time teachers) have to deal with parents. Kids have problems.'

Despite those truths, seven people are training to teach with Project Excel. The participants' life experience in high-tech, high-stress jobs makes them seasoned candidates for teaching, said Kathy Conole, director of curriculum and instruction at Greater Lowell Tech, where participants spent three days observing classrooms.

'The enthusiasm these people have exhibited is amazing. They're passionate,' she said. 'I think they love their subject matter. They're not afraid to ask questions.'

But that doesn't eliminate the uncertainty of leaving a familiar world for one filled with new challenges.

'At times, I think it's too fast,' said Karen Cole of Wilmington, a former software engineer for Raytheon and a Project Excel participant. 'I think we've realized how difficult a job this is.'

Pledging to teach at least one year in an urban school district is one of the more daunting aspects of the program for Westerlind and Cole.

'Classroom management that's one thing you're not learning in school,' said Cole, slightly unnerved after a recent visit to a Greater Lowell Tech classroom where the students 'heckled' the teacher.

'But I'm finding that challenge to be really inspiring.'