Her teaching specialty? Preparing career changers to become teachers

Dr. Kathleen Pierce works with students aspiring to a second career in education
Keith Fernbach

Dr. Kathleen Pierce was working in a New Hampshire high school in 2001 when she saw an advertisement for a teacher preparation position at Rider University. At the time, she had been a teacher for more than 20 years, at levels from middle school to college. Although she hadn’t been planning to leave her job, she was intrigued by the possibility of introducing prospective teachers to the same joys she had experienced in the classroom.

“I had had my Ph.D. for quite a few years, and I thought the idea of working with people who wanted to be teachers was really, really compelling,” she says. “I was interested in people who were career-changers with some life and work experiences and who wanted to learn how to teach.”

Pierce ended up getting that job, and today is a professor in Rider’s Department of Graduate Education, Leadership, and Counseling, where she specializes in preparing post-baccalaureate candidates for careers as teachers.

She believes that what distinguishes career changers from other students are the journeys they’ve already undergone to get to that point where they aspire to go into teaching.

“What’s interesting about this population is that many of them have had very fulfilling careers already," she says. "Currently I have a lawyer, a former hospital communications director, several accountants and two former college student athletes. Because this population brings experiences and perspectives that you can’t have when you’re 21 years old, they are not willing to accept the status quo in education. Many are really eager to learn how to do school in a different way, to create different possibilities for teaching and learning.”

While they may come from diverse backgrounds, one thing Pierce’s students have in common is that they are starting over. “There is something very brave about our post-baccalaureate teacher certification candidates because they’re beginning again, and beginning again is a very awkward place to put yourself,” she says. “They’re not content to be unhappy in a career, and they really want to make a positive difference in other people’s lives.”

A big part of Pierce’s research is trying to gain a better understanding of how to teach and facilitate learning. She believes teaching is done most effectively by allowing students to work through a learning prompt, or challenge, and asking questions and soliciting feedback. “For instance, what’s happening from students’ perspectives may be very different from what is happening, or what I planned from my teacher perspective,” she explains. “If I want to be purposeful about my teaching, I’ve got to give people good prompts and questions to ponder, so they can respond to them. Sometimes a very simple question like ‘What did you learn from that?’ is really effective at helping me to re-teach something or to find out what my student doesn’t understand or needs to learn.”

One of Pierce’s proudest professional accomplishments has been a collaboration that she and a former student, Amanda Schott '13, have been involved in for the last four years. The project started as a way for Pierce’s students to help Schott’s eighth-grade class at Helen Fort Middle School in Pemberton, N.J., with their writing. Each of Pierce’s students mentors, via Google Drive, a group of three or four eighth graders over the course of a semester. The assignment is to write on the topic of resilience, using themselves or someone they know as an example. The original goal was that via the one-on-one interaction, Pierce’s students would hone their teaching skills and Schott’s students would become better writers. But it has turned into something even bigger.

“From doing research with the project and participants over time, I realized that my students were learning so much more than the mechanics of writing,” she says. Pierce adds, “In one of my studies, I asked participants if I should revise the project to include face-to-face contact instead of working anonymously in Google Drive. ‘No way!’ said one of my participants. ‘We are just learning how to teach and talk with students, and it is an advantage to ponder responses without the student looking right at me when I might make the wrong or insensitive comment.’ That insight from my research helped me understand that beginning teachers are really learning how to teach and mentor students through the project.”

Due to the intimate nature of sharing stories about resilience, the eighth graders open up to their Rider mentors in ways that were not expected. “They reveal themselves. They can be silly, serious, sad, and some of them are even silent,” says Pierce. “This is a powerful mentoring tool. My beginning teachers take this very seriously and they want to hear what these eighth graders have to say.  And frankly, there’s nothing more powerful in the world than to believe that somebody wants to hear what you have to say.”

Q&A with Dr. Kathleen Pierce

What do you love about your job?

I love working with people, and I love the excitement of the adults in our program when they’re learning something new or understanding something about their own perceptions of teaching. They are very childlike in their enthusiasm for figuring that out and then wanting to get into classrooms to do it themselves.

What is something about you that would surprise people?

Two jobs I really enjoyed before I got my first teaching job were working in a bakery and working in a record shop. I still enjoy talking with people about food and music! Working full time at Sam Goody paid my way through undergrad.

In addition to your faculty role, you’re also the program director of Rider’s Shakespeare Festival. Can you tell us more about that?

About 12 years, ago I was challenged to create a festival at Rider where middle school and high school students would bring Shakespeare pieces for performance on our stage. It’s evolved into two full days, with diverse secondary students from all over the region preparing for the festival, then meeting at Rider to share work and fun together. My colleagues from across the University conduct workshops on topics like speaking Shakespeare’s language, combat choreography, and country dancing. Then we go into the theater for the afternoon and five or six groups perform their presentation of Shakespeare. At the end of the festival, our theater faculty offers commentary on each of the performances, and we give awards to each group for things like Fidelity to Text, Spirit of the Festival, Social Relevance, and Inventive Reimagining of Shakespeare.

What advice do you have for people who want to change careers and become teachers?

Grab and enjoy as many experiences outside the classroom as possible, whether it’s in art or athletics or travel. That way you’ll have lifelong hobbies and interests to keep yourself refreshed as a human being, and you’ll be a lively, refreshing teacher and adult for kids to look up to and enjoy.

What sets Rider apart from other universities?

I think it’s a unique little gem that is small and intimate. I work with my students as colleagues, and the personalization goes a long way to enhance all our learning. That’s something you don’t necessarily get in a large university, like the two I attended in my post-baccalaureate experiences. When I enter my classes and seminars at Rider, it feels like a bunch of friends have gathered. I really value that.