Want to boost teacher recruitment? Target career changers.

Recruiting teachers without previous experience in the classroom can help fill gaps—but these educators need strong support to be successful.

By Melissa Hite Last Updated: January 31, 2023

Tavon Mason’s career path has been anything but typical. Two decades ago, he was playing his first pre-season games as a wide receiver for the New York Jets. A few years later, in 2004, he tried his hand at acting, appearing in an episode of the acclaimed drama series “The Wire.” In 2009, he even performed as a stunt double for Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. But today, Mason is pursuing his true calling: teaching.

Listening to him recount his journey to the classroom, it’s clear that Mason’s passion for helping students has been a throughline in his life. Between an array of other jobs, he’s worked as a substitute teacher, a paraeducator, and a behavioral specialist. In 2011, he even started a nonprofit foundation to promote youth fitness, health, and literacy. “I never totally wavered away from the school arena,” he tells SchoolCEO. “My career branched out everywhere, but it always came back to education.” Now in his first year at Georgia’s Bibb County Schools, teaching special education and math and coaching football, Mason feels he’s finally right where he’s supposed to be.

Stories like Mason’s may seem incredible—but in reality, they’re pretty common. Though most teachers haven’t played in the NFL or appeared on HBO, a 2017 Harris poll indicates that more than a third of K-12 teachers had previous careers outside the classroom.

That’s good news for school leaders—especially since traditional teacher recruitment pipelines are running dry. As noted in Education Next, “there are 20 to 30% fewer people going into teaching each year than there were a decade ago”—and those numbers show no signs of bouncing back soon. This decline is also apparent when we look at what majors university students are choosing. In 2001, 8% of new college graduates received degrees in education; in 2020, the total number of new graduates dramatically increased, but just 4% majored in education. If our typical teacher recruitment pathways aren't bringing in enough educators to meet demand, we’ll have to look elsewhere—and career changers might just be the answer.

Who’s changing careers—and why does it matter for your teacher recruitment?

It’s nearly impossible to discuss career shake-ups today without alluding to the effects of the pandemic. Of course, people were switching industries long before COVID-19 hit—but it seems that right now, people may be more primed to change careers than ever before.

According to a survey from financial solutions company Prudential, 20% of workers have changed careers since the start of the pandemic. What’s more, data from Microsoft suggests that 46% of all workers are considering such a change. But what’s causing these career shifts? Finding the answer may help school leaders use this moment to boost their teacher recruitment.

Research from numerous outlets reveals a variety of reasons people switch careers, from better work-life balance and higher pay to more opportunities for advancement and healthier workplace cultures. If we’re being honest, teaching can’t fulfill all those priorities, but it does have one determining factor in spades: purpose. In a survey conducted by research and consulting firm Gartner, respondents were asked how the pandemic has affected their attitudes about aspects of life pertaining to work. Of those surveyed, 52% said “the pandemic made [them] question the purpose of [their] day-to-day job”; 56% said it “made [them] want to contribute more to society.”

But there’s one more important fact to note. In a survey from investment guidance company The Motley Fool, nearly 40% of respondents said they had switched industries during the pandemic because they had always wanted to explore their new careers. It seems that many workers, after losing their jobs or leaving untenable work environments in the wake of the pandemic, have taken the opportunity to make career changes that had previously felt unreasonable or impossible.

This means that as you work to recruit career changers, you don’t necessarily need to target people who have never considered teaching. Instead, look for those who already have some interest in the profession. Maybe they wanted to major in education, but their families discouraged it. Maybe they always loved working with kids, but felt pressure to enter a more lucrative field. Whatever the case may be, people with a heart for teaching are already out there. Recruiting them is about making this monumental career change feel like a realistic option.

How can your district recruit teachers who are career changers?

Imagine, for just a second, that you’re standing at the bottom of a steep cliffside, looking up. You want to get to the top, but you’ve got nothing but your bare hands to help you climb. What do you think? Is the reward worth the risk? Unless you’re the guy from Free Solo, the answer is probably no. But what if the climb were safer? With the right equipment—a harness, ropes, anchor points, maybe even a buddy to belay you—you might be more willing to take the chance.

In many ways, people considering a second career in education are looking up at that same cliff, debating whether to start the climb. Recruiting these potential teachers isn’t about convincing them that the view at the top is beautiful. They already know they’re interested in teaching. Instead, it’s about giving them enough support to make the whole endeavor safe and attainable. Here are a few realistic ways to remove obstacles, provide support, and help your potential teachers start the ascent.

Provide as much information as possible.

According to research from policy think tank Third Way, there are currently over 600 teacher licensure tests in use across the country, and requirements for teacher certification vary from state to state. So it’s no surprise that prospective teachers—especially those who haven’t gone through a comprehensive education program—are a little confused about how to enter the classroom. In a survey from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, more than one-third (38%) of potential teachers—those who would consider teaching in the next five years—say they know “very little” about teacher certification programs. How many second-career teachers are staying out of the profession simply because they don’t know where to start?

Luckily, you as a school leader can remove this obstacle pretty easily. All you have to do is give potential career changers as much information as possible about their pathways to the classroom. The more these prospective candidates know about the process, the less daunting it will be—and the more likely they’ll be to follow through.

This info should have a dedicated space on your district website. Take, for example, Dallas ISD in Texas. Easily visible beneath “Careers” on their homepage is a link to information on the district’s own alternative certification program. Everything candidates could possibly need to know about the program is here: admission requirements, certifications offered, necessary paperwork, dates for the upcoming program cycle, and even an easy checklist reviewing the application process. Through a form linked on the page, you can sign up for a live virtual information session—conducted once a week before a new cycle starts.

Even if you don’t have your own program, providing info about local or state alternative certification programs on your careers page can help you attract potential career changers. List your state’s specific certification requirements, your district’s areas of critical need, and any other relevant application information.

Ease financial burdens if you can.

Becoming a teacher isn’t cheap. Alternative certification programs can cost thousands of dollars, and that’s not even accounting for expenses like exam fees, textbooks, or study tools. There’s also a decent chance that second-career teachers—like 58% of career changers since March 2020—are taking a pay cut to make the switch. What’s more, because they’re older than recent college graduates, second-career teachers are more likely to have greater existing financial commitments like mortgages, childcare, or eldercare.

In order to make the jump to teaching, prospective career changers need to feel confident that it’s a financially viable option. Of course, competitive starting salaries never hurt—but they may not offset the cost of the certification process itself. Any financial burdens you can alleviate will make that transition a little more manageable and maybe even encourage more potential teachers to take the leap.

The extent to which you can do this is, of course, dependent on the resources available to you. As part of their alternative certification program, Dallas ISD waives more than $5,000 in tuition fees for those pursuing their certifications in critical need areas. But even if you can’t provide that level of financial relief, don’t underestimate the small things you can do to help second-career teachers. Mason told us that at Bibb County, one of the most helpful supports offered to teachers pursuing certification was a paid subscription to Study.com’s assessment prep resources—which would have otherwise cost him $59.99 a month. “For some people, that isn’t a lot,” he says. “But if you think about everything else you’ve got to pay for in your daily life, that’s a good chunk to help you out.”

Provide a strong support network.

Under a strategic waiver agreement with the Georgia Department of Education, hundreds of districts in the state—including Bibb County Schools—can hire teachers while they work toward their certifications. Coordinator of Talent Management and Acquisitions Holly Huynh is doing all she can to make sure these “waiver teachers” feel supported.

Among the most valuable resources the district provides for these teachers is robust mentorship. At Bibb County, each new teacher is paired with a “Get Better Faster” mentor, who provides real-time coaching and critique. The system is modeled on techniques from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. “The core principle is that you go really granular,” Huynh explains. New teachers practice the most minute details, from starting a lesson with an attention-grabbing “hook” to using a strong voice. “You plan, you practice, you follow up, you repeat,” Huynh says, “and all the while your Get Better Faster mentor provides frequent, meaningful, actionable feedback.”

While all first-timers benefit from this in-depth coaching, Huynh says it especially helps second-career teachers. “A lot of times, our career changers don’t even think about something like classroom management,” she tells us. “They think they can come into a classroom and tell the kids what to do, and they’ll do it—but that’s not reality.” With help from a Get Better Faster mentor, new teachers can be prepared for those challenges, not blindsided by them. “Having that support really puts them ahead of the curve,” Huynh says.

Bibb County also provides monthly professional development sessions for waiver teachers, as well as study tools and other support toward passing Georgia’s state certification assessment. But as Huynh points out, even the smallest supports go a long way. “It’s important to provide encouragement,” she says. “Sometimes as adults we think a paycheck should be enough. But these teachers have taken that leap into a profession where they can impact lives, and they have learned so much to be able to do it effectively. We need to be cognizant of that and be encouraging.”

Highlight the good.

Huynh herself is a former high school teacher. She knows how hard the profession can be—but she also knows what’s beautiful about it. “Making a difference in a kid’s life, being that steady adult that they see Monday through Friday—that’s a powerful and wonderful thing,” she says.

Let’s go back to the bottom of that cliff. You’re strapped into your harness and ropes, you’re ready to start your climb—but even with all those safety measures, you might still be scared. Is it worth pushing through your uncertainty?

As you work to recruit teachers who are career changers, to help them make their own climbs, you’ll need to provide all the supports we’ve discussed. But don’t forget: You also need to remind them why they want to begin this ascent in the first place. They need to believe that the view from the top—or from the front of the classroom—is as beautiful as they’d hoped.

So when you’re recruiting second-career teachers, highlight all the beauty and wonder of teaching. It’s a tough profession, no doubt, but it’s perhaps the most impactful career a person could choose. Remind them that bright futures sit in your classrooms, waiting to be inspired by teachers from all walks of life. Soon enough, your potential career changers will see that it’s possible—and worth it—to take the leap.

Originally published as "Taking the Leap" in the Winter 2023 edition of SchoolCEO Magazine.

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