New Career Path: Teaching Math & Science

A new training program seeks to recruit math and science specialists for teaching jobs in urban schools

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April Apfelbaum lost her job two years ago as human resources manager for a small forklift company in New Jersey. She was earning about $80,000 a year when she was laid off, but, at age 60, wasn’t ready to retire. She spent more than a year looking for another job, without luck.  “I really felt I wasn’t going to be able to get a job at this stage of my life,” she says.

Then someone sent her an email describing a new training program that was recruiting math and science specialists for teaching jobs in the Philadelphia urban school district.  It would mean a year of graduate school to complete a masters degree, as well as student teaching, followed by a fulltime teaching position the second year  - and a huge pay cut.

But for Apfelbaum, a math major in college, it meant a job, as well as “a chance to give something back to the world, and influence the next generation,” she says.

Today Apfelbaum, 62, and nine other student teachers are finishing their first year in the program, which is supported by a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation as part of its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding. Armed with a masters degree and new skills to teach in an urban setting, the new teachers will begin full-time jobs in high-poverty Philadelphia schools in the fall. They will earn their salary--for Apfelbaum, about $46,000 as a beginning teacher--plus a $10,000 annual stipend from the program. They must commit to staying and teaching in Philadelphia for the next four years.

“It is not an easy job to teach in these schools that are really struggling.” says Katherine Schultz, professor in University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education, which is collaborating with the Philadelphia Education Fund, the Philadelphia school district, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to run the teacher residency program. In the masters program, “we are not just generically teaching them how to teach math; we are teaching them how to teach math in an urban setting. 

“It’s an investment in human capital in these people, and in these schools in these impoverished neighborhoods,” she adds.  “And it’s an investment in these children who often don’t have math and science skills The goal of preparing these people to be excellent math and science teachers is so they, in turn, can prepare the students to go into math and science fields in the future.” 

The members of this year’s class are all math specialists. Next year’s class will be made up of those with science expertise. This year’s group includes recent college graduates, as well as “career-changers,” like Apfelbaum, and Frank Fesnak, 51, recently downsized from his job as a vice president at Unisys, a large technology company where he had been earning between $300,000 to $1 million a year.

“They got rid of my whole department. They sat me down and said: ‘you can stay here and do something else, or take a package,’ “ Fesnak says.  “I was getting tired of the game. I took the package. We have some financial security. My wife is a partner in a law firm, so we talked about it. She said: ‘do something that makes you feel good.  You always wanted to be a teacher.””

So he, too, is back in school learning to become a teacher. “It’s a luxury after working 30 years,  taking notes, going to classes, writing papers,” he says. “It’s easier than when I was at Dartmouth.  Now, I have an opinion about everything, and some experience in life.”

In student teaching, he has found the ability to connect with many of his students.  “I’m reaching some of them, but not all,” he says. “It’s harder than I thought it would be. Some don’t want to be there, some are persuadable and a few really want to learn.”

Yet, “during my free periods, I have kids who come in and hang out with me,” he adds. “Some just do their homework. Others want to talk. I help them with their vocabulary. I help them write a history paper--whatever they need. That’s the most gratifying piece of it - that every free period, there’s a bunch of kids sitting there. They would rather be with me than hanging out in the lunchroom, or outside.”