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Teaching out of field

Get Erich Wieloszynski talking about literature and his eyes light up.

A voracious reader, Wieloszynski delights when one of his students finally "gets" Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. He enjoys riffing on the intricacies of Edgar Allan Poe's work.

After floating from one job he didn't like to the next, Wieloszynski feels he's finally found his place teaching at Chamberlain High School. He teaches English to 130 freshmen, including several with learning disabilities.

"It's a pretty neat experience that I've never been around," he says.

Wieloszynski, 32, is neither an English teacher nor a special education teacher by training. Rather, he has a history degree from the University of Florida and a temporary certificate to teach social sciences. He got his job after principal Jeff Boldt, lacking certified applicants, decided to give him a shot.

He's hardly alone: One of every 10 Hillsborough County classroom teachers is classified as "out of field."

This past fall, the School Board authorized 1,002 people to teach subjects they don't have certification to teach. The board previously okayed another 542 out-of-field teachers.

Some schools have none, while others have lots. They're not in every subject area, either. The biggest numbers are in special education, math and science.

Out-of-field teachers must make continuous progress toward their missing certificate. Otherwise, they never can teach out of field in Hillsborough schools again.

Should you worry? Depends on the answers you get when you inquire about why your child's teacher is out of field and what he or she is doing about it.

Connie Gilbert, who oversees certification for the Hillsborough school district, calls the high number of out-of-field teachers "worrisome and problematic." Florida K-12 Chancellor Cheri Yecke calls the effort to overcome the situation a "huge challenge" statewide.

The state's goal is to place highly qualified and properly trained teachers in every classroom. But rapid enrollment growth and new rules requiring smaller class sizes have complicated matters by nearly doubling the number of teachers Florida needs. In many cases, there simply aren't enough certified teachers to go around.

"When we go out and recruit teachers, there is a scramble," Yecke says.

Yet someone has to teach the class. So why not someone who at least has committed to the profession, even if they're not fully trained, says Jean Clements, Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president.

"What's the alternative?" Clements asks. "Put a substitute in there every day?"

She and others say a cursory look at numbers on Web sites and in letters sent home fails to tell the whole story.

"My first question would be, what are you doing to get that certification?" Yecke says. "If the teacher says, 'Nothing,' then I'd be concerned."

This happens.

Early in the fall, Benito Middle School lost a reading teacher who failed to follow through. It forced principal Bobby Smith to look for a new teacher just a few weeks into the school year, after everyone thought they were settled in.

"We were fortunate enough to get someone who was qualified," Smith says.

Sometimes schools aren't so lucky.

When a qualified math teacher recently left Chamberlain High, principal Jeff Boldt had just three applicants for the job. Two were not certified in math. Another math teacher died soon after, and the field of hopefuls was nearly nonexistent.

Not off the streets

Principals often have simple explanations why teachers appear on the out-of-field list.

Five of 19 teachers on Benito's list, for instance, lacked a gifted education endorsement but otherwise are certified and qualified, Smith says.

Ten of Chamberlain's 22 out-of-field teachers lack a relatively new certificate in teaching reading strategies.

Most have taught English for years. Boldt points to one name, Jean Flynn, and says the 23-year veteran volunteered to teach an FCAT reading prep class.

"Should a parent feel comfortable? Absolutely 100 percent," Boldt says. "Is reading on her certificate? No."

He continues down the list and stops at Elaine Gibbs. She's a chemistry teacher who instructs one astronomy class, out of field. Next he pauses at Chris Kearney, an English teacher with a journalism background who teaches TV production, out of field.

It's not as if these teachers just came in off the street and took over a class, Boldt says. "You've got to look below the surface."

Some have completed the courses but are waiting to change their certification until their regular renewal, which comes every five years. Several are in a state program for career changers, who bolster the education college supply line.

Most haven't taught before.

Wieloszynski is one. He worked through several uninspiring jobs, including a stint purchasing for a Procter & Gamble distributor, before turning to teaching.

He started as a frequent substitute at Chamberlain. Before long, Wieloszynski got to know the students, and the students and the other teachers and administrators got to know him.

Boldt was particularly impressed with the aspiring teacher's ability to reach students. That's a critical piece for principals, who take the hiring of untrained teachers seriously.

"You never hire a teacher just because you need to fill a slot," Smith says. "If you do, it will come back to haunt you and your students."

At home in classroom

Toni Leon came to teaching after 21 years as a banking executive, responsible for project management and corporate training. She resigned to care for her son, who required major surgery, and slowly gravitated to teaching.

First, she began volunteering at her son's school, Citrus Park Elementary. Eventually, the PTA president started subbing there.

"I could have easily gone back (to banking) making tons more money," says Leon, 46. "But I decided it wasn't what I wanted to do. I felt so fulfilled to be able to teach a child something."

Principal Joan Bookman was so impressed with Leon, whose past experiences qualified her for a certificate to teach business education, that she invited her to take a full-time job teaching first grade this year. Watching Leon in class, you'd be hard pressed to tell she hasn't been working with youngsters all her life.

"Do you want to do money?" she asks her class, which has just completed calendar time.

"Yay!" the kids shout enthusiastically.

Leon distributes small bags of coins as the children return to their seats. I'm headed down Gunn Highway, she says, and I see McDonald's. I really could use a chocolate shake. But you know what? You can't have a shake unless you have 51 cents.

Go.

The children busily sort through the coins, finding five dimes and a penny, two quarters and a penny, whatever combination works. Leon circulates. "Ah, Natalie gets a shake!" "Aww, Joyce has got to think again."

"I think they love this more than anything," Leon says to Bookman, who is visiting. "Because of it, I can get them to do just about anything."

The same could be said for Leon, who just this month passed her test and became certified to teach elementary school.

Looking for a change

Some teachers venture out of field because their chosen field disappoints them.

Brian Buckley found that he "hated" teaching fifth grade.

"I felt like I was drowning,'' said Buckley, 26. "I didn't feel effective."

He now thrives teaching agriscience, out of field, at Webb Middle School. One of his favorite aspects is giving his students 3-foot by 3-foot plots to tend, so they have hands-on lessons even while living far from the country.

"I feel at least 20 times more effective than I was," Buckley says, who was helped by a supportive team of ag teachers across Hillsborough County.

But the transition is not always easy.

Karin Visnosky taught high school English outside Florida for more than a decade before having a stroke. After rehabilitation, Visnosky, 54, switched to the elementary school level, so she would not have to read so many papers.

"It was so different, especially the writing and reading," says Visnosky, now a third-grade teacher at Bay Crest Elementary.

"I did need classes, even though I think I was a good high school teacher. ... I never in my life knew that you had to teach a kid how to walk in a line."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5304.

28 Gaither High

22 Chamberlain High

22 Freedom High

20 Alonso High

19 Benito Middle

15 Pizzo Elementary

14 King High

12 Pierce Middle

12 Jefferson High

12 Greco Middle

12 Leto High

10 Lowry Elementary

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