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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Every year, U.S. schools hire a quarter of a million new teachers. Schools are desperate to boost the number of top quality educators. That means they are casting a wide net trying to lure people into the classroom from other professions.

SIEGEL: NPR is beginning a yearlong series on that effort to find, train and keep the best teachers. And today, NPR's Larry Abramson has this story about a Maryland woman who has switched careers and about the program that's training her for the classroom.

LARRY ABRAMSON: For this group of teachers in training, this is the end of the beginning.

Ms. KENDRA HEFFELBOWER (Prince George's County Teaching Fellows): So you're going to have to set up a preschool routine, whatever that may be.

ABRAMSON: It's August 5th, the last day of a summer training program with the Prince George's County Teaching Fellows, which sends career changers into the classrooms of this Washington, D.C., suburb.

Ms. HEFFELBOWER: So at 7:45 is when you would start to do now the method.

ABRAMSON: Kendra Heffelbower is only 27 years old, but with six years experience, she is the expert here. She's giving final words of advice to this group. Most are only a few years out of college. One has left behind a quarter century in the banking industry.

Unidentified Woman: I'm going to start with Beverly and go around.

Ms. BEVERLY HARVEY (Teacher): How often do you let them go to the water fountain? And do you have any special procedure?

ABRAMSON: Beverly Harvey is middle-aged, a former vice president with CitiGroup who decided to switch careers. Beverly asks her a water fountain question with a deadly serious expression.

Ms. HARVEY: In practice teaching, I would count like, one, two, three, so that they wouldn't just stay there too long and just hold up the line.

ABRAMSON: Classroom management of young students is a key focus here. All of these teachers will be working with the early grades. They want to know: what will my first day be like?

Unidentified Woman: It's like, say they do go in their pants, like, what do you do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ABRAMSON: Questions like that one from a colleague have to remain unanswered. It's time to graduate, time for Beverly Harvey to fulfill a childhood dream.

Ms. HARVEY: This day has finally arrived. This is it.

ABRAMSON: Beverly Harvey gave up a successful career. She had to take extra classes on her own dime to boost her math qualifications. Now, she's signing a piece of paper that turns her magically into a teacher. It's a contract with the Prince George's County School System.

Ms. HARVEY: Everything I've done to get to this point this day, really important to me, very important.

ABRAMSON: Beverly tears up a bit. Beverly Harvey is the second youngest of seven kids. She grew up in the South, raised by a mother who cleaned houses, a father who could not read or write. Her parents wanted her to do better. Today, she's still inspired by teachers who insisted that she try harder.

Ms. HARVEY: My teachers were always kind of on top of me, the good and the bad. And when I see some of these students and kind of off track, and not going to believing in themselves that they can't do it, then it's just encouraging them that they can do it, and then giving them the opportunity to do it.

ABRAMSON: Beverly is exactly the kind of person this teaching fellowship is designed for. She's an experienced professional with proven leadership skills who didn't want to go through a traditional teachers' college program. So after a crash course in the summer, including some practice teaching, she's being thrown into the classroom. Experience, it turns out is a harsh teacher.

(Soundbite of children talking)

ABRAMSON: Oakcrest Elementary School in Landover, Maryland. It's September 9th, two weeks into the school year. Beverly Harvey, newly-minted teacher, has been handed 33 squirming, fidgeting first graders.

Unidentified Child #1: Look, right there. I didn't even know what to do…

ABRAMSON: Beverly's principal has told her this class will soon be cut in size. Despite all those lessons in managing behavior, Beverly has both hands full. They are a rambunctious bunch. The constant noise interrupts everything she does, every reading lesson.

Ms. HARVEY: All right, I'm continuing a story. There's no need to yell, said Frog. I will race you down to the pond, and we would see if you are really are the fastest, Frog added.

(Soundbite of children talking)

Ms. HARVEY: No talking.

ABRAMSON: She tries a little physical activity to burn off some energy.

Ms. HARVEY: Hop on one foot.

ABRAMSON: But that just gets them riled up. In her moment of need, there arise a rescuer of sorts: Patricia Williams(ph), Beverly's mentor, shows up. Williams has 10 years of experience, and it shows.

(Soundbite of children talking)

Ms. PATRICIA WILLIAMS (Teacher): Two red apples high in the tree. Two red apples bound at knee.

ABRAMSON: Williams moves around the class calmly, rubbing kids' backs to reassure them and to let them know: I'm watching you.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you. Are you ready now?

Unidentified Child #2: Yes.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Because I don't think you were ready before. Show Ms. Harvey that you're ready.

ABRAMSON: Patricia Williams has a presence and a confidence that are hard to describe. She also has a superpower at her disposal: a penetrating stare so awe-inspiring, it made me want to fold my hands and hush up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ABRAMSON: How do you teach that?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: I don't know. You just have - I don't know. You give them the look and they know to stop. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

ABRAMSON: The kids are at lunch, peace has returned, giving Patricia Williams and Beverly Harvey time for a little debriefing session.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Questions or concerns?

ABRAMSON: Beverly has made progress since I watched her teach on the first day of school, and she feels she is getting the hang of this.

Ms. HARVEY: I like the fact that they pretty much know, like, their morning routine. I have something for them to do, you know, while everybody is coming in.

ABRAMSON: Like two doctors consulting in a tough case, Williams and Harvey scratch their heads: how can we keep this large class occupied? Williams has a satchel full of activities, chants and songs to grab kids' attention.

Ms. WILLIAMS: The other one, "Scooby Dooby Doo, where are you?"

Ms. HARVEY: Okay.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And they're to a respond: (Singing) We got some work to do now.

Ms. HARVEY: All right.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) So Scooby Dooby Doo, where are you?

And they should say, we got some work to do now.

ABRAMSON: The mentor warns Beverly Harvey kids will get tired of any activity, so she'll have to keep inventing new ones all yearlong. It's exhausting. Sometimes, she renews her dedication by thinking of her illiterate father.

Ms. HARVEY: Mm-hmm, sometime, yeah. Can't let what happened to him happen to them. It's more challenging than I thought, but I'm still having the opportunity to do it. And the need is so great. I see it.

All right, let's everyone read it together. Morning, class. Alexander likes Australia.

Unidentified Group: Good morning, class. Alexander likes Australia.

ABRAMSON: Back in class, Beverly Harvey savors a moment of calm. She has a long way to go. And so far, Beverly still has 33 students in her class.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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