- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006


After more than three decades at IBM, Larry Leise and Susan Luerich could be planning a leisurely retirement. Instead, the married couple are headed back to college, with plans to start new careers in retirement as high school science teachers.

“Seeing the proverbial light bulb come on [in a student], there is no better feeling,” said Mrs. Luerich, 54. “It’s a way to give back.”

Their bosses at International Business Machines Corp. are only too happy to help.

Mrs. Luerich and Mr. Leise, 58, are among the first batch of IBM employees taking up the company’s offer to pay for the college classes needed to leave behind Big Blue for a math or science classroom, where a shortage of qualified teachers concerns a company that thrives on high-tech innovation.

“We’re only as successful as our innovation is and we have to have future talent that will bring that kind of innovative thinking and help us as future employees,” said Rick Falknor, a community relations manager at IBM. The company thinks it is the first to help workers make the switch into teaching careers.

So far, hundreds of employees of the Armonk, N.Y., computer giant have expressed interest in the program, through which the company will financially support employees as they earn teaching credentials. Employees will continue to work for IBM while taking classes part time, with a leave of absence for time spent teaching students, supported by up to $15,000 in tuition reimbursements and stipends.

About 65 IBM employees have been picked so far for the 100 spots in the pilot program. All must have worked at IBM for 10 years and ideally would have to have a bachelor’s degree in math, science or a higher degree in a related field.

“The IBM program is designed to attract high performers,” Mr. Falknor said. “We want people that are valuable to the company to participate because we know that those are the same people who will be valuable in schools.”

Such a commitment from business and industry can make a positive impact on schools, especially as the nation’s schools continue to struggle with a shortage of math and science teachers, said Cathy Seeley, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The shortage is growing because students now are expected to take more math and science than ever before, she said, and IBM cites federal statistics predicting a need for more than 260,000 new math and science teachers by 2008.

“If you are a math and science teacher in this country, you can choose many different places where you can go teach,” Ms. Seeley said.

Clearly, it’s not about the money. The average teacher’s salary was $47,808 last year, according to the National Association of Educators.

Neither Mrs. Luerich nor Mr. Leise would discuss how much they make at IBM, noting the company doesn’t even allow them to discuss their wages with other employees. But Grant L. Holley, the alternative licensure director at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said that many of the professionals who go through his program leave six-figure salaries and take more than 50 percent pay cuts to become teachers.

Mr. Leise, a technical manager who tests ergonomics to ensure IBM’s products meet international standards, says leaving the Big Blue cocoon will be difficult. But he has made some investments and he will receive retirement pay, making his move from the corporate world into the classroom easier.

“The impact to me is not nearly as great as it would be to somebody else that didn’t have the opportunities in the past that I did to save and invest for my future,” Mr. Leise said.

Both Mr. Leise and Mrs. Luerich have some teaching experience, frequently participating in programs that let them teach a science class for a day. Mrs. Luerich, who develops touch and display systems, said IBM bought her two lasers she could take to classrooms to teach students about their practical applications.

But they know teaching full time will be a lot different from dropping in for a day.

“It’s easy for me to go out for a classroom visit, you know, be the white knight, doing all these demonstrations and super-zowie things,” said Mr. Leise, who said classroom management is one of his biggest concerns about his new career.

“I don’t have to deal with the students when they are unruly or not interested or they’re bored of the material,” he said of his past classroom time. “That’s going to be different, trying to motivate them when they are not really there, not really interested.”

Mrs. Luerich worries about students peppering her with questions she can’t answer. When the situation arises at IBM, she can make a quick call or look on the Internet to find the solution.

“I don’t know everything and high school kids are going to ask you questions that you can’t answer,” Mrs. Luerich said.

Both plan to take classes at N.C. State through Mr. Holley’s program. Mrs. Luerich needs to take biology and Mr. Leise needs to study earth science, Mr. Holley said. When they are finished, both will have earned a North Carolina teaching license.

They haven’t decided where they want to start their new careers, but are excited about the opportunity. Mrs. Luerich said she had always thought about teaching after she retired, but never had a clear plan on how to do it.

Now, she does.

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