Second chance: Many Collier, Lee teachers chose it as their second career - PHOTOS

Neil Gahagan teaches math to his fourth grade class at Gateway Elementary School in Fort Myers on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011. Gahagan, who is in his mid-50s, spent his career working in upper management for an insurance company in Connecticut, but was laid off and became an elementary school teacher six years ago. Tristan Spinski/Staff

Photo by TRISTAN SPINSKI // Buy this photo

Neil Gahagan teaches math to his fourth grade class at Gateway Elementary School in Fort Myers on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011. Gahagan, who is in his mid-50s, spent his career working in upper management for an insurance company in Connecticut, but was laid off and became an elementary school teacher six years ago. Tristan Spinski/Staff

— Neil Gahagan was always interested in teaching, but when he mentioned it to his high school guidance counselor, he was told he was “better than that.”

“I said OK and that was it – teaching was out,” he recalled.

So he majored in politics and economics in college, graduated and eventually landed a job at the helm of a corporation in Hartford, Conn.

He hardly looked back – until about eight years ago, when his position was eliminated and he was left jobless.

Gahagan, then in his late 40s, thought back to that old dream of teaching. He decided to give it a shot. He and his wife – a teacher herself – moved to their Florida home, where he began taking teaching courses.

And Gahagan became one of thousands of people pursuing teaching as a second career.

Part of a trend that began about 30 years ago and picked up speed in the past five, Gahagan and many like him with degrees outside of education have left jobs in fields ranging from business to acting to engineering, gone through alternative teacher preparation and certification programs, taken the requisite exams and stepped into teaching positions in classrooms across the country.

In Florida, they’re required to have at least a bachelor’s degree, get a passing score on a Florida subject area exam, complete education coursework and gain some teaching experience.

Teachers who came through alternative preparation programs represent four of 10 teachers hired nationally in the last five years, according to research from the National Center for Education Information.

They aren’t tracked in Lee County schools, said Linda Jo Sanders, a human resources generalist with the district. In Collier County schools, 55 of 310 teachers hired in the 2010-11 school year have degrees outside education.

And in Florida, 3,524 people completed state-approved teacher education programs in 2008-09. That same year, 7,043 people received a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education.

Opinions vary on whether experience from former careers makes second-career teachers more or less prepared to lead classrooms, and on whether it translates into more or less success in the classroom.

“In a corporation, you have people that can help you,’’ businessman turned teacher Neil Gahagan said. “So when you come in in the morning, you have a staff and you lay things out and you have a mission and people who are going to be working toward that mission.

“In teaching, you’re it. You do it all.”

But stories abound of former actors who make learning math fun, former engineers who have an answer to “How will I use geometry in the real world?” and newspaper editors who challenge students to make the student newspaper better.

To Gahagan, who is in his sixth year of teaching and teaches fourth grade at Gateway Elementary in Fort Myers, it’s been surprising how much of his first career is applicable to his second. There’s at least one major difference.

“In a corporation, you have people that can help you,’’ he said. “So when you come in in the morning, you have a staff and you lay things out and you have a mission and people who are going to be working toward that mission.

“In teaching, you’re it. You do it all.”

It’s difficult to make that transition – to come from a career other than education and walk into a classroom of kids for the first time, said Lois Christensen, associate dean for the FGCU College of Education. But then again, it’s difficult no matter what.

“Teaching – for any of us – is a challenging thing,” Christensen said. “But that’s part of the excitement of it. It’s like a new thing every day.”

Gahagan calls some days the “golden days” – when everything goes well, the students are interested in the subject matter, asking questions and answering the ones he asks them.

“There’s just nothing like it,” he said.

Then, occasionally, there’s the opposite – days when nothing seems to go right and he leaves after working a 12-hour day wondering what’s been accomplished.

“You’re telling yourself, ‘Holy smokes, did I make a difference today? Did I accomplish anything today?’ And you just come back and hope for a golden day the next day,” he said.

“No one can tell you what it’s going to be like,” said Karen Dent, who is in her first year teaching second grade at Lely Elementary in East Naples after working in management. “You have to experience it for yourself. And at times when I had that new-teacher overwhelming feeling, you look into your classroom and you see your students and you see just one light bulb go off and it goes away.”

Many second-career teachers say they’ve ultimately gained respect for the teaching profession as a whole, after realizing the number of hours it takes and how much teachers care about their students.

It’s just like being a dad, math teacher Tim Schnabel said, “except instead of five kids, I have 105 kids.”

Schnabel became a teacher at Trafalgar Middle School in Cape Coral after careers in acting and real estate.

Career-changer teachers who enroll in alternative preparation programs – offered in all 50 states through districts and universities – learn how to manage a classroom and actually teach a subject.

“How to teach is what it really is – all those things aside from the subject they’re going to be teaching,” Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said.

Dave LaRosa, principal of Fort Myers High School, said he believes a traditional education degree is the better route.

“I’m one of those people where I feel that nothing beats an education degree if you’re going to teach,” he said. “If your college courses and your experiences were geared toward that, it’s to your advantage.”

But, he said, there are many cases where having a second-career teacher has been to the great advantage of students. Two years ago, LaRosa hired a man who had been an engineer for a construction company to teach in the school’s engineering program. The teacher has been able to bring to his classroom an understanding of what an engineer does besides draw plans.

In fact, 50 percent of public school teachers surveyed by the National Center for Education Information said hiring teachers from outside the education field is one way to improve America’s education system.

Angela Pruitt, principal at Trafalgar Middle – a career-changer teacher herself after working in business – said about 70 percent of teachers who come from different careers have been successful at her school. And in cases where it hasn’t worked out, she said, it’s usually because the person wasn’t passionate about teaching.

“I always say I can help teachers learn content and teaching techniques. I can’t necessarily teach teachers how to care about students and want to make the connection,” she said.

But the people who help prepare career-changers, such as those at FGCU’s Teacher Immersion Program, say that passion is one trait they notice among many of the people who sign up for their programs.

“They usually come in saying they always wanted to do education and now seems like a good time for them to do that,” said Diane Schmidt, who coordinates FGCU’s program.

And they often find it more rewarding than they could have imagined.

Gahagan recalled students he taught in previous years who have come back to see him.

“They stop by in your room, give you a hug or a high five and you know they just come back and want to visit with you, which means you’ve reached them,” he said. “That’s probably the greatest reward you can see.”

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