Winding Roads to the Classroom
Second-Career Teacher Candidates
by Wendy Harris
To borrow a phrase from American novelist Tom Wolfe, Wendy Graham was a Master of the Universe - one of the dark-suited cadre of Manhattan's financial district described in Bonfire of the Vanities.
Graham was one of those who direct the flow of capital around the world and are rewarded handsomely for their cunning, risk-taking and long, stressful working weeks. Her specialty was institutional bond sales - finding buyers, such as pension funds, for the millions of dollars in bonds issued every day by governments and corporations. She loved her job - the high-stakes excitement, the tension, the deal making - and she was good at it. It allowed her to enjoy a life the rest of us only see in movies: the best restaurants, the finest wines and the most exotic vacations.
But despite the salary, the bonuses and the lifestyle, Graham occasionally felt in her heart there was something more she should be doing in her working life than enabling the large-scale movement of money from one pocket to another. She remembered that her mother, a lifelong teacher in Ontario and Quebec, had always said that she would make a great teacher.
"Mom told me all along I should be a teacher," she says. But when she was young and ambitious, teaching didn't seem to have the pizzazz or the rewards she was looking for.
In 1986, having already completed an economics degree and an MBA at McGill University, the Montreal native was snapped up at the age of 23 by Goldman Sachs to work in their New York office.
While there, she met her husband, got married, had her first child and went back to work (after a four-week maternity leave). Then she was transferred to Toronto and had two more children. But by November 2001 she was fed up with trying to be a super mom and quit work to care for her kids at home.
Graham was 38 and her children were seven, five and three. She had a choice: she could, at some point, rejoin the heady world of finance or she could forego that income and lifestyle and follow where her heart was now pulling her - into the classroom.
"I had always talked about how, after I made my first million, I'd do something worthwhile," she says. "What motivates me now is the hope that I can actually make a difference in somebody's life. I guess I've always wanted to teach young children."
Last spring Graham was accepted to the post-graduate teaching program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, where she is preparing to take her place in a primary-school classroom in the fall of 2004.
What is most remarkable about Graham in her classes at OISE - or what would stand out about her if you plunked her into any of the 12 teaching programs in Ontario this year - is that she doesn't really stand out at all. Her fellow teaching candidates are so diverse in their backgrounds, ages and previous careers that Graham's story doesn't seem so unusual. She's neither the oldest, by far, nor the best educated. Nor is her career transition the most dramatic. She's part of a growing cohort of new teachers who choose the profession after successful careers in everything from forestry to television production to medical research.
Their career shifts are fuelled by a passion for teaching, for offering themselves as role models and guides for future generations. That passion is corroborated by a survey conducted by the Ontario College of Teachers in July 2003, which indicated that the vast majority of the 190,000 teachers in this province say the best part of being a teacher is "teaching, mentoring and inspiring young people."
As evidenced by the teacher candidates interviewed for this article, idealism and altruism bring new teachers into the profession.
A seed grows
Within weeks of being laid off, while considering his options, the father of six began volunteering in one of his children's classrooms - helping Grades 7 and 8 students make a submission for the University of Waterloo math contest. In November 2002, although he wasn't sure it was what he wanted to do, he applied to teachers' college. In the meantime, he was working with a small group of people setting up a dot-com business. But the more he worked on the start-up company, the more he realized that his heart was gradually being claimed by a desire to teach.
"It was like a little seed that started to grow inside me," he says. "By the time April rolled around and I was accepted, I knew I was going. I didn't have to do the pluses and minuses."
Like many who decide to teach at a later stage in life, Riddick believes his rich and varied experience will be an asset to his future students. "Great teachers can have such a huge influence. They had a huge influence on me.
"The question I eventually asked myself was what kind of mark would I like to leave on this planet. The things you leave behind live in other people. That is what I think education can do."
A clear choice
St. Pierre spent five years there, becoming the quality control manager for one of the facilities. "But the whole time, I just couldn't justify making automotive parts," he recalls. "I didn't think the world needed another automobile. It didn't seem like I was doing anything worthwhile."
Over the years St. Pierre had teaching at the back of his mind as a possibility but wasn't sure he wanted to go back to school. By 2002 the idea had pressed forward. He applied and was accepted in the one-year Bachelor of Education program at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.
"This was a definite choice," he says. "I now have the drive and the motivation that I'm not sure I would have had coming straight from university. I know this is what I want."
Asked why, St. Pierre explains that he loves the energy that flows back and forth between student and teacher. He learns from his students as much as they learn from him. And he values the moment when information starts making sense for a student.
"That's hard to explain to people who haven't seen it or experienced it," he says. "You can influence, you can make a difference, you can do such good."
Juanita Epp, chair of the Undergraduate Studies in Education program at Lakehead University, is enthusiastic about the mature students she has helped shepherd into a teaching career. Epp agrees that older students, like St. Pierre, bring not only wisdom but rich and varied experiences into the classroom. And she says that because teaching is such an individualistic pursuit (as Clive Beck who teaches at OISE puts it, "teachers teach who they are"), all life experiences tend to enhance classroom practice.
But Epp offers a caution, saying that some older students can have such a clear idea of what teaching will be like for them that it can get in the way of their own learning.
"Sometimes mature students have a strong understanding of what they should do and how they should be as teachers," she says. "Part of our job is to challenge their preconceived notions."
But life experience remains a central and shared asset of second-career teachers. Certainly, Rodger Beatty, during his time as chair of the pre-service department at the faculty of education at Brock University, has seen a cross-section of professionals - doctors, lawyers and dentists included - pursue this second career. And he is a strong advocate for the bonus this delivers to the profession.
"Our candidates bring rich experiences," says Beatty. "They have interpersonal skills, organizational skills and program planning from other sectors." Such prior knowledge is invaluable in the classroom.
"I always thought I would have a profession where I might contribute something," she says. But she found engineering unrewarding. From her first practicum Kolisnek-Kehl's experience was precisely the opposite. She stayed after class to help a student who was struggling with some science co-ncepts that she had taught. She worked with him that afternoon and the next day he passed his quiz. Both student and teacher felt like a million bucks.
"It was incredibly rewarding. I am learning so much from the kids.
It's very fulfilling work."
One young female teacher candidate who is steeped in science is Catharine Munro. After finishing her master's degree in experimental psychology and neuroscience, Munro decided to take a year off before completing her PhD. During that year she found a job running a research laboratory at Sunnybrook Hospital. She loved studying peripheral nerve injuries and developing artificial nerve grafts for massive trauma.
But Munro also loved supervising the students in her lab, and from that experience (reinforced by the role models provided by her parents, who were both teachers) grew the desire to shift her career to education. At 34 she is now in the one-year graduate program at OISE.
"One thing missing when I was in school was having teachers who
had really worked in science," she says. "The students can't
get a sense of what a life in science might be like.
The desire to give - to make a contribution to their students and their
community - is a persistent theme among these second-career teachers.
And this bodes well for their future as teachers. As last year's members'
survey revealed, at the end of the day it is idealism and altruism that
will keep them in the classroom.