When Elizabeth Cowles of Bedford graduated from college in 1987, she had two job offers: one to work for IBM and one to teach high school physics. She chose IBM because the pay was better, but always imagined she’d switch to teaching at some point — until life got in the way.
“When you end up with a mortgage and kids and everything else, it’s hard to imagine going back for a new degree, paying tuition, and not working,” said Cowles, who has three school-age children. “I thought about it over the years, but it’s hard to make it work.”
Then Cowles learned about Transitions to Teaching, or T2T, an IBM program that offers money and schedule flexibility to employees who want to retrain as math and science teachers. While continuing to work half-time as an IBM analyst, Cowles enrolled in a part-time program to earn a master’s in education at Boston College, and IBM footed about two-thirds of her tuition bill. Last December, she left the company after 21 years, and is now student-teaching at Bedford High School while she finishes up at BC.
Cowles says she expects a full-time teaching salary to be equivalent to her half-time IBM salary, but she still thinks the trade-off will be worth it and is looking for a permanent post for September. The biggest incentive is that she enjoys teaching. A close second is the chance to have the same vacations and daily schedule as her kids.
“When you have kids, having to travel in the corporate world is very challenging,” says Cowles, who was on the road every few months in her IBM days. “It’s a quality-of-life issue.”
Maura Banta, the IBM executive who helped launch the program in 2005 and who also chairs the Massachusetts Board of Education, acknowledges that T2T follows a rather odd business model. That is, most companies don’t pay to train employees to go work somewhere else. Part of the goal, she said, is for the company to position itself as a leading voice in math and science education — and to demonstrate that teachers who come out of industry, rather than schools of education, can succeed in the classroom.
“We knew that if we didn’t prove that you could do this, we’d have no ability to actually work in the policy area around how to prepare teachers differently,” she said. “The program was born out of a desire to walk the talk.”
IBM gives program participants up to $15,000 in tuition reimbursement, as well as scheduling flexibility that allowed Cowles to take a morning class three days a week. Employees choose and apply for their training and certification programs; the company helps out only with money and time. Participants must work for IBM for at least a decade to be eligible, and Banta says the current crop ranges from 30-somethings wanting a seismic life change to Baby Boomers eager for a meaningful “encore” career.
Four years after the program launched, there are 105 participants nationwide, 12 of them in Massachusetts, making for a relatively small number compared with IBM’s total workforce of nearly 400,000. Banta predicts T2T will always be small, thanks to teacher’s pay (compared with engineer’s pay), the challenges of the profession, and the realities of starting over.
But she hopes other science and technology companies — and, perhaps most importantly, policymakers — will follow IBM’s lead and make it easier, and cheaper, for mid-career professionals to share their knowledge with kids. “I would personally like to see us be more realistic, and understand that you don’t necessarily go into teaching for 30 years,” says Banta. She hopes T2T will help challenge the common public image of teaching as a job for “people with low SAT scores” to one that talented people are eager to choose, either for all or part of their working lives.