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.”
The goal, according to Schultz, is to keep the teachers in the schools and build a math and science capacity there. “What’s typical is that the poor schools often get the newest, least-qualified teachers,” she says. “The goal is to put highly qualified teachers in those schools, and give them four years of support.”
The program begins in the summer, when the new recruits work in programs in neighborhoods similar to where they will be assigned student teaching posts in the fall. “We really focus on urban teaching and learning in the summer,” Schultz says. “We really try hard to prepare them for the kinds of conditions they will go into. The schools are very tough places. It’s hard for people accustomed to being competent in their jobs; they have a lot to learn. It’s a classroom of kids who bring all sorts of challenges, and people find it’s not as easy as they thought.”
April Apfelbaum, trying to teach ninth graders math, would agree with that.
“The kids are unruly, sexually active, and undisciplined,” she says. “Some of them have strong family backgrounds that they rebel against. Some of them have nobody who gives a darn about them. These kids do not have the life I had. When I came home, my mother made sure I did my homework, told me I was smart and that I would go to college. One kid threw a desk at me. Another called me something unspeakable. Another kid threatened me. I stood up to them. They know I am not afraid of them. They are starting to understand that I am here to do my job, and that I care about them.”
Over time, she has begun to reach some of them, stressing her willingness to spend extra time working with them, and meet with their parents, among other things. “I know I can’t change the world, but I want to influence as many kids as I can,” she says.
She sets realistic goals for herself, targeting at least one or two children every month, trying to engage them in math, and into working with her to improve their skills and their grades.
One boy, for example, failed his first two marking periods. “He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t taking the course seriously,” she says. “I cornered the father. I told him I thought the kid had possibilities, but just wasn’t showing his stuff.”
The father explained that his child had suffered some health problems when he was younger that forced him to miss part of third grade. “He missed some important concepts that he never made up,” Apfelbaum says. “I began working with him, and with his father. The kid has a B this marking period.”
She pauses. “I am passionate about this job,” she says. “I know that I can really make a difference. I tell people that my worst days teaching have still been better than any of my worst days in industry.”
—By Marlene Cimons, NSF
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