Montana State University

Transition to teaching program helps get teachers into rural Montana schools

October 30, 2008 -- Anne Pettinger, MSU News Service


Northern Plains Transition to Teaching student Nia Vestal works as a teacher at Harrison High School. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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David Hembroff was just a year away from retiring from the Air Force - a career to which he had devoted 28 years - when he enrolled in Montana State University's Northern Plains Transition to Teaching (NPTT) program.

Hembroff, 46, decided to enroll in the NPTT program later in life, though he had considered teaching for many years and had even taught college-level courses before.

Working 40 to 60 hours a week for the Air Force and then doing NPTT schoolwork once his two children - who are now ages 8 and 12 - went to bed was tough, Hembroff said, but the benefits have made the effort worth it.

With six months of NPTT coursework under his belt and just 45 days after his military retirement ceremony, Hembroff, who is originally from the state of Washington, began teaching high school chemistry in Kalispell. (Instead of student teaching, people enrolled in the NPTT program are hired to work in a school setting in order to continue and complete the licensure program.)

"I enjoy connecting with kids," Hembroff said. "I found an affinity helping prepare young people for life post high school. I'm teaching chemistry, but I'm hoping to prepare them for more than that."

The NPTT program is designed to help meet the needs of people just like Hembroff: those who are interested in going into teaching after spending significant time in other professional careers, said Jamie O'Callaghan, the program's adviser. It is also intended to help place qualified teachers in rural, high-needs schools in states like Montana. Those positions have become increasingly hard to fill over the years, O'Callaghan said.

The way the program is set up makes it easier to get teachers into rural schools more quickly, O'Callaghan added.

Since the two-year program is taught entirely online, students do not have to be based in Bozeman, or even Montana, to enroll. Students have come from as far away as Nepal, China and Guatemala, O'Callaghan said, although most are from the U.S. and the majority - about 60 percent - are from Montana. The program leads to secondary teacher licensure, which is the same license as that earned with a four-year education degree. Students also have the option of completing two additional courses during a third year to earn a master's degree in curriculum and instruction.

Also, since tuition is a flat rate per credit, the cost of tuition does not differentiate between a Montana resident and a non-resident. Currently, the cost is $300 per credit hour. In general, students take just one course at a time that lasts between eight and 12 weeks.

Like Hembroff, Tammy Jones decided to enroll in the NPTT program after devoting significant time to a different job. Jones, who is originally from Geraldine, Mont., completed a bachelor's degree in home economics and child development from MSU in 1981. Instead of taking a fifth year of college to get certified to teach, Jones and her husband, who live in Conrad, started a family. Much of Jones' work career was as a paraprofessional in the schools, but, she said, "I always felt I really wanted my own classroom."

With Jones' son and daughter grown and away at college, a few experiences made Jones think harder about going back to school to become a teacher.

"One of my experiences as a paraprofessional was to be an aide for a student with cerebral palsy," Jones said. "She couldn't speak, but she loved life. I thought, 'if she had the chance to go back to school, she would.'"

Another experience that helped convince Jones to go back to school was caring for her mother.

"I was a caregiver for my Mom for a short time, (while she) was in the final stages of Alzheimer's," Jones said. "She was always a big proponent of education. I thought she would probably go back to school if she could, so I should, too."

Jones, who had heard about the Northern Plains Transition to Teaching program through an advertisement in her local newspaper, decided to apply for the program. She said couldn't be happier with her decision to enroll.

"This is the best thing I have done for myself -- for my sense of self-accomplishment, and realizing a dream I've had for many, many years," Jones said. "It has been life-changing."

The fears that had kept Jones from pursuing the degree earlier were ones that she was able to overcome.

She said she was afraid of going back to school in her 40s, after being out of college for so many years. Writing in an academic style and learning new computer programs seemed daunting, she said. Moreover, would she be able to juggle everything and still be happy with her performance?

"I was afraid of working and raising a family at the same time," Jones said. "But overcoming that fear and starting the program, realizing I could do it, felt great."

The program is challenging, Jones said, but she has learned to structure her life so that it can work.

"I put deadlines on myself," she said. "It makes it go so much smoother. You need some self-discipline."

Now, Jones works as a family and consumer sciences teacher at Utterback Middle School in Conrad. It's a position she'd like to keep even after she is finished with the NPTT program.

"I love middle-school age kids, and the content area is fabulous," she said.

Though Jones wasn't initially planning on completing the master's portion of the program, she changed her mind.

"My daughter was getting ready to take the GRE, and she thought I should take it, too," Jones said. "I was in my late 40s, and thought there was no way I can do the GRE! But I did take it, and I'll have the master's next May."

Jones' 50th birthday will coincide with earning the degree.

"Isn't that a neat way to celebrate the mid-century mark," she said.

Hembroff and Jones are just two examples of NPTT graduates who have found jobs in small Montana communities. Since 2003, when the program began, it has resulted in placing 116 teachers in small, rural communities in the state.

Getting into the program is fairly competitive, and it's challenging to complete, O'Callaghan said. However, she thinks the students they draw appreciate those challenges.

"The students we attract are very well-educated and well spoken," O'Callaghan said. "Some of them have doctorates, many have master's degrees. They are amazing people who have done amazing things."

The program used $2.82 million in federal grant money in its early years. Though it is no longer grant funded, it has been growing in recent years. Program administrators expect the NPTT program will continue to grow as demand for the services it provides increases.

Nia Vestal, a NPTT graduate who, like Hembroff and Jones, plans to complete her master's through NPTT, is now teaching English and Spanish at Harrison High School. She is also the guidance counselor at the high school, which has an enrollment of about 41 students.

Vestal said the need for teachers in small schools like Harrison is great, and the NPTT program allowed her to get into the position more quickly than she would have had she enrolled in a four-year program.

"Cost-wise, it was a little easier to handle, too," she added.

Moreover, the program prepared her well academically.

"It gave me a lot of ideas for creativity in the classroom," Vestal said. "It also gave me that much-needed, basic foundation for teaching.

"The program cuts to the chase," she said. "It helps people realize whether or not this profession is for them. It gives you academics, and it also gives you a chance to get right into the classroom."

Jamie O'Callaghan, 406-994-6743, jocallag@montana.edu