Distinguished Professionals Education Institute

KnoxNews - Alternative teachers

New initiative aims to give professionals chance to work in schools part time.

By ERICKA MELLON, mellone@knews.com
April 23, 2006

Dan Murphy, the chairman of the Knox County school board, has a bachelor's degree in business administration, a master's in the same subject and a doctorate in accounting.

He runs the accounting and information management department at the University of Tennessee, the state's largest public university, and he teaches graduate-level courses there.

Yet, until recently, Murphy would have had to navigate a maze of red tape if he wanted to teach a single math class at a public high school in Tennessee.

"I can't teach bookkeeping. I am not qualified to teach bookkeeping," Murphy, a certified public accountant, said sarcastically.

A new initiative being piloted in Knox County next year aims to cut the red tape.

As the district struggles to recruit high school math, science and foreign language teachers, the initiative will allow professional mathematicians, scientists, engineers and others to teach up to three courses a year - without having to follow the traditional route to becoming a teacher.

Knox County's program is being administered by the Distinguished Professionals Education Institute, a new nonprofit launched by Betty Sue Sparks, the former director of human resources for Knox County Schools, L. Barry Goss, the founder and president of Oak Ridge-based Pro2Serve, and the Public School Forum of East Tennessee.

"What I like about this," said Murphy, "is it allows people who have demonstrated content expertise - be it in math, science - and have a desire to teach, a means of entering the profession (part time) without having to spend a year or two or three going back to college."

If successful, Knox County's distinguished professionals program could become a model for the rest of the state. But not everyone is convinced the program is the best long-term approach.

"I think it's filling a need we have at this moment," said Kim Waller, the president of the Knox County Education Association. "I guess my concern is, are we going to rely on this pool of people and not be looking for qualified people who could be employed (full time) by Knox County Schools?

"My other concern is, as we move toward programs like this, are we watering down the teaching profession?" Waller said. "We're saying, if you have a college degree, you can teach this class.

"I know there are professionals that have something to offer out there. I just would like to see more efforts to improving teacher pay, so that more people want to go into teaching. I think that's the bottom line."

Flexible staffing When it comes to staffing, the Distinguished Professionals Education Institute is taking cues from the business world. That's how Goss, who launched his business in 1996, explains it.

Goss's company, Pro2Serve, is like many companies in that it employs a mix of full-time and part-time workers. Newspapers, for example, have staff writers and freelance writers. Public school systems, on the other hand, primarily employ full-time teachers.

"Our business deals with these highly specialized people and highly specialized skills. We've amassed a special work force to address areas in national security," Goss explained of Pro2Serve. "To me it looked no different than the education challenges."

Can't find a full-time math teacher? Hire a professional statistician to teach 90 minutes a day. Can't find a chemistry teacher? Perhaps a retired chemist could teach a class or two.

"Pretty much anybody, you've got a core staff of full-time people and then you've got a flexible staff, a part-time staff," Goss said. "In our world, that's usually around 25 percent of your work force. That's not the case in education."

Goss, Sparks and others involved with the new institute hope to amass a pool of temporary math, science and foreign language teachers, drawing workers from the labs in Oak Ridge and other companies, as well as retired professionals.

"I mean, how many people have you heard say, 'When I retire, I'm going to teach,'" Goss said. "And they know, 'I've got all this lifelong experience that I'd like to share with students and I wish somebody had shared with me.' "

So far, Sparks said, the institute has three applicants: Meg Moss, an associate professor of mathematics at Pellissippi State; H. Lee Martin, the co-founder of Ipix Corp. who is running for the Knox County school board; and an Oak Ridge worker who declined to be identified.

Goss said he and his wife, Karen, also are interested.

Sparks, a former Knox County teacher who ran the district's human resources department until retiring in 2004, and Linda Irwin, the assistant director of the education-focused Niswonger Foundation, will oversee the 50 hours of training required of all the institute's applicants. To make it simpler, much of that training will be done via an interactive online computer program.

"We'll be using that 50 hours to provide the professionals with strategies to use in the classroom to help them to be successful," Sparks said. "In addition, each of the professionals will go through the same evaluation process that regular classroom teachers undergo," including classroom observations.

Help wanted Whatever approach a school district takes to recruiting math, science and foreign language teachers, one fact is clear: These teachers are in high demand.

The Tennessee Department of Education estimates the state will need, over the next three years, 300 additional math teachers, 210 more science teachers and 225 additional foreign language teachers.

Sparks recalls the challenges she used to face in Knox County.

"It was very difficult to find teachers who were professionally licensed in science and mathematics and in foreign languages," she said. "I'm a bit biased, but I think Knox County Schools does a good job in recruiting. There's just so much competition for teachers who have that particular certification."

States and school districts across the nation are facing similar teaching shortages, prompting some to get creative. The New York City Department of Education, for example, announced last week it would offer up to $15,000 in housing assistance to certified math, science and special education teachers willing to work in the neediest schools.

With Gov. Phil Bredesen's backing, the Tennessee Department of Education last year launched the Teach Tennessee initiative, which allows midcareer professionals to enter the teaching profession full time without having to return to college for an education degree.

Also, the University of Tennessee's Lyndhurst program has offered an alternative to traditional teacher education programs by fast-tracking second-career professionals for more than 20 years.

Unlike Teach Tennessee or Lyndhurst, Knox County's distinguished professionals program targets those who want to teach part time.

John Ayala, a chemistry teacher at Farragut High School who entered teaching through Lyndhurst at age 36, after working as a training director for a pest-control company, said he thinks the new part-time program could work, depending on the applicant.

"Many people have the technical knowledge and the book knowledge, but they are so used to working in a research area that they can't project that on a lower level to students," said Ayala, chairman of Farragut's science department.

"But then there's some that just have that innate ability. They go in and they're, I don't want to say born teachers, but that's what they are."

Gary Nixon, the executive director of the state Board of Education, said school officials are going to have to "get out of the box a little bit" when it comes to finding teachers in some subject areas. He said Knox County's distinguished professionals program fits that bill.

"It addresses a particular group who are not looking for full-time employment," Nixon said. "It creates an opportunity for organizations like the labs, Eastman Chemical and any other company who may have some scientists or mathematicians who can loan an hour to go to a school and teach a physics class. It opens the door."

Teaching teenagers Establishing the Distinguished Professionals Education Institute has been a two-year effort. It began when county, school and community leaders were brainstorming ideas for the school improvement initiative "Every School a Great School."

In January the institute's founders overcame perhaps the biggest hurdle when the state Board of Education approved the creation of an adjunct teacher's license. The Department of Education will evaluate the institute after three years to see if it should be continued.

"I am very used to dealing with the federal government and the associated bureaucracy, but education scores higher," Goss said.

To start, the institute has received a $25,000 grant from Pro2Serve and a $15,000 grant from the Public School Forum of East Tennessee. The school district will pick up the tab for the courses. The professionals likely will receive about $5,000 a course, Goss said.

The institute's board of directors consists of Sparks and Goss, who is chairman; Gordon Fee, co-chairman of the Public School Forum; Homer Fisher, senior vice president emeritus of the University of Tennessee; Lynn Cagle, an associate dean at UT; and Ed Hedgepeth, Knox County's director of high schools. Oliver "Buzz" Thomas, the executive director of the Greeneville-based Niswonger Foundation and former chairman of the Maryville city school board, also has been involved.

Moss, the associate professor of mathematics at Pellissippi State, knows firsthand what it takes to become a teacher through traditional means. She has undergraduate and graduate degrees in math education, and she coordinates the teacher education program at Pellissippi.

"Just because you know mathematics doesn't mean you know how to teach mathematics," she said. "So it will take some support and training to help them understand things like writing a test and using technology to teach."

Moss said even she is going to need a refresher course in classroom management before teaching a high school math course through the distinguished professionals institute.

"I think it's a good opportunity for me and a good opportunity for retired professionals and even people that are at Oak Ridge National Lab," she said. "I think it's a great way to give back to the community and learn something."

The real test might be how much students learn.