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An orientation for classroom hires provides an idea of what's ahead

The Baltimore Sun

This summer, Sue Ford is preparing to write lesson plans instead of legal briefs.

After 18 years practicing environmental law, Ford left a comfortable job at an Annapolis firm to teach biology at Annapolis High School.

Now she's learning an alphabet soup of concepts -- AYP, NCLB, IEP -- that are part of the modern-day, high-stakes era. Her students' scores on the state biology test, one of four they have to pass to get a diploma, will be under a microscope at a struggling high school that is at risk of a state takeover if it doesn't improve.

Some would consider this a burden. Ford calls it a gift.

"I feel so privileged to be given the chance to work with and make a difference in these students' lives. If I can change just one student's life ... ," she said, trailing off.

"I feel challenged," she added. "There's a lot to learn."

Ford is part of a steadily growing group of mid-career professionals across the country who have left sometimes lucrative posts to teach. Schools are increasingly turning to nontraditional educators, such as Ford, as they try to stem teacher turnover, which a report in June found has cost the nation $7 billion in recruiting, hiring and training for replacements.

This week, she was among more than 430 Anne Arundel County public schools hires at a new-teacher orientation, which ends today.

They spent three days at Old Mill High School in Millersville learning the nuts and bolts of the profession from veteran teachers, who shared pearls on everything from creative ways to hold a class's attention to how to dress in school.

At times, mentor-teacher Louise Batchelor was more stand-up comedian than lecturer.

Her audience of teachers giggled through her stories about the first years, when students warped her last name into an unkind expletive. She shared the anxiety that she felt about not doing enough to help certain students, and then the slow realization that test scores weren't all that measured progress, that sometimes it was enough to show a student "you care." She told them there would be days when they would feel the same way.

"On those days, you need to create a wall of kindness in your classrooms" full of notes from grateful students, she said. "Look at that wall, and you'll realize why you started teaching."

Ford knows exactly when she decided to drop her law career for teaching.

In 2003, her husband's job had forced the couple and their two daughters to stay in Germany for two years. Ford was happy the first few months, settling into a new home in a new country, playing bingo with the wives on a military base. But she said she soon longed for something more meaningful. She started substitute teaching for a science class at a school on the base. The experience was a turning point for her, she said.

"I loved watching the students learn, watching them figure out how to use a microscope, watch them master the labs, it felt like a gift to be a part of that process," she said.

When the family returned to Maryland in 2005, Ford returned to law "because it was what I knew."

Then, this spring, the teaching profession lured her again. She was at Annapolis High, one of many community professionals who had volunteered to help students learn interviewing and job-hunting techniques. In the course of the job fair, she encouraged an 11th-grader who said she liked children to consider work as a kindergarten teacher.

"She looked at me like the idea had never crossed her mind, and she asked me if I thought she could really do it," Ford said. "And I said, 'Yes, you can do this.' Sometimes, I think that's all it takes, someone to tell you, 'You can do this.'"

"And that's when I realized, I should do this. I should teach."

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