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Starting early to find teachers

The Baltimore Sun

Every year, Maryland schools face a persistent challenge: finding teachers to educate the thousands of children coming through their doors.

Even with recruits from other states, career-changers and retired educators returning to fill vacancies, many systems are looking to themselves - and their students - for a solution. They have adopted the budding Teacher Academy of Maryland, a career and technology education program that introduces classes about teaching into high schools.

"We've taken care of every career in the universe except our own," said Marjorie Lohnes, supervisor of career and technology education for Carroll County, where students can take classes for future jobs in health, engineering and fashion, among other fields.

"One of these days, we're going to go home and retire," she said. " ... We need other people filling these spots."

Designed with partners from state universities, community colleges, the Maryland Higher Education Commission and the State Department of Education, the program consists of a track ideally beginning sophomore year: "Child and Adolescent Development," "Teaching as a Profession," "Foundations of Curriculum and Instruction" and an internship.

"This is an opportunity for students to see that a lot of good happens in the classroom," said Jeanne-Marie Holly, the state's program manager for the career and technology education systems branch. "It's a good time for students to make some choices that wouldn't be made until they were well into a college-level program."

About half of the 24 state school systems have adopted the academy, Holly said, including Baltimore City and Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. While the city was developing a program before the statewide model existed, several other systems started their academies this year, piloting them in a few high schools. As of the 2006-2007 school year, Holly said, more than 1,000 students are involved.

Towson University professors wrote the curriculum, which high school teachers adapt for their students, said Pamela Williams Morgan, Towson's project co-coordinator for the academy. The recommended textbooks are college-level. Ideally, once articulation agreements are ironed out, Morgan said, students who successfully complete the requirements could earn early credits toward an education degree.

"It's an experiment," Morgan said. "If we can keep kids focused on a goal, then chances are they will be more successful and more apt to move toward that goal."

And they will meet a dire need.

For years, Maryland has lacked qualified teachers, according to a state staffing report released last fall. That report listed "critical shortage areas" for the current school year and beyond, including math, science and special education areas, health occupations and technology education.

It also identified every school system as a geographic area predicted to suffer a shortage.

State college or university programs have never produced enough new teachers, the report noted, although their graduates have included abundant elementary education candidates.

The academy aims to draw more students who wish to teach middle or high school, said Judy Geiman, a family and consumer science teacher at Westminster High, which started the academy this year, along with two other Carroll schools.

"The piece was missing for our secondary [education] students," said Geiman, referring to the lack of opportunities for those interested in teaching upper grades compared with their counterparts in early childhood programs.

That piece appealed to Rachel Morris, newly graduated from Westminster High, who plans to study at Towson University to become a high school history teacher. After working with younger children in church and preschool, Morris said, she preferred interacting with older students.

"I didn't want to be their second mom. ... I wanted to teach more independent students," Morris said. "I like high school. I've had fun in high school."

If it hadn't been for the academy classes, Morris said, she probably would have spent her final semester taking college courses full time.

Beyond fortifying their ranks with students like Morris, educators say the academy exposes them to teaching from "the other side of the desk." Students have watched teachers for more than a decade, but that doesn't mean they fully understand what their jobs entail, said Susan Garrett, supervisor of career programs and art for Harford County, where the program was piloted at two schools.

"They really don't see all the behind-the-scenes preparation," Garrett said.

Geiman's students have had the chance to go backstage in her classes.

"There's definitely stuff we've learned in here that I didn't even think about," said Gavin McGuire, who took "Teaching as a Profession" as a senior this spring.

McGuire said his career goal is to return to Westminster High and coach varsity football. But first, he knows he must take several tests to even enter the profession.

"It's cool that I can start in it now. ... I have sort of a step up on other kids in college," he said.

Alex Held, one of his classmates, enrolled thinking that she wanted to teach human anatomy and special education. Instead, she said she discovered a passion for elementary education.

"I'm glad I got this experience because then I know what I'm in for," Held said. "There's a lot of work for being a teacher."

One morning, after hanging a poster with "TECHER" written down one side, Held turned to her classmates, who posed as students awaiting instruction.

"I gave you all a letter, and you're going to write a word on it that pertains to a teacher," Held said. "Who had 'T'? What did you write for 'T'?"

Before anyone could answer, one of Held's students pointed to the poster and said, "Miss Held, you spelled that wrong."

"Oh, I guess we'll have to start over," she replied, removing the first sheet to reveal one with "TEACHER" properly spelled down the side. As they worked their way through the letters -talented for T, effective leader for E - her students called out her errors, leading her to start anew every time.

Finally, Held revealed the method to her seeming madness. "Today we're going to learn how to write a rough draft with acrostic poems," she said.

The exercise was an "anticipatory set," used to capture student interest in a lesson, for a high school creative-writing course.

Word of the fledgling academy's hands-on instruction seems to have spread, teachers said. In Howard, more than 300 students have committed to enrolling this fall, when all high schools are expected to offer the classes.

Harford teacher Joan Hayden said she expects her initial seven students this year to jump to 30. Carroll and Baltimore counties hope to continue introducing the program at more schools, said Lohnes and Maggie Caples, Baltimore County schools' family studies supervisor.

Despite a desire to inspire their potential successors, many of the academy teachers said the classes also can help students realize early that their interests lie elsewhere - instead of waiting until they begin student-teaching, Garrett said.

And as they are exposed to various aspects of the education system, Holly said, they will discover they're not limited to the classroom: They could be principals, nurses or support staff for special needs students, to name a few possibilities.

Still, Hayden said, teaching is "not a place to end up. It's a place to head first."

Debbie Welsh, teacher academy coordinator at River Hill High School in Howard, agreed. While students can begin early training for their jobs, she said, there are some crucial elements to the profession that just can't be taught.

"You've got to love what you do ... kids see through the teachers that really love what they do and the teachers that are doing a job," Welsh said. "It's tough. It's a commitment. It's a career."

Which is why, she and her colleagues contend, high school is an ideal time to give it a try.

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