Some professionals bail out of finance and into teaching

Looking for a silver lining in the financial meltdown? How about this: Your child's next math teacher could be an absolute whiz.

It's too early to say for sure, but a few observers believe public schools could be the beneficiaries of a brainpower shift from the trading floors of Wall Street and the hedge funds of Greenwich, Conn., to classrooms nationwide.

This fall, for instance, New York City's Teaching Fellows program, which trains career-changers to work in city schools, saw the percentage of applicants listing "finance" as their current job rise to 10%, up from 6% in 2006.

"As I've been trying to think of silver linings, that's the only one I've come up with," says Allan Taylor, a Greenwich attorney who chairs the Connecticut State Board of Education.

"We've taken some of the strongest mathematical minds and sent them to figure out computerized stock trading programs. I'm not an economist, but in my mind, the country would have been better off if some of them had gone into K-12 or college teaching."

At Teach For America, the prestigious program that taps graduates at top universities, the percentage of trainees who majored in business has grown to 10% as well. "The turmoil in the market, I think, has opened up a lot of possibilities for people in terms of options they would consider professionally," says Elissa Clapp, who directs recruitment.

A large shift to teaching is by no means a sure thing: For one, the meltdown is forcing school districts to cut costs. But many say it could end up having an effect similar to that of the aftermath of 9/11, which drove thousands into teaching and other service careers. In 2002, for instance, Teach For America saw applications nearly triple.

"These big moments — and I think Sept. 11 was the last big moment — cause people to look for work that has meaning to them," says Tim Daly of the New Teacher Project, which recruits teachers nationwide.

Tristan Rudgard spent 20 years in finance in London and New York — most recently at Morgan Stanley. But the economic meltdown — as well as the sight of his children, ages 6 and 8, going off to school — changed everything.

"I started to think about what my options were," he says. "I'm 42 years old and I asked myself, 'Can I really take another boom and bust?' "

He trained last summer as a Teaching Fellow and noticed "at least a half-dozen" Wall Street acquaintances training with him.

Last month, Rudgard began a daily A-train commute to Harlem to teach ninth-grade math at Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School. "It's personally very much more rewarding," he says. "It's both surprised me and enthused me."

And a lot of old Wall Street friends, he says, are "ringing me up and asking me about details of the program and the training I took."

Many observers say they're hearing of friends and colleagues — or the children of friends and colleagues — who, like Rudgard, are hunting for teaching jobs.

"We'll get more applicants as a result of what's going on," says New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein. "I hope we'll get some really great people."

Klein, himself a career-changer — he was CEO of Bertelsmann Inc. before taking the schools job in 2002 — isn't waiting around for talent to appear. Last August, he finally filled the schools' long-vacant chief financial officer job. Klein's pick: George Raab, a former managing director at Bear Stearns, the failed investment bank.