Switch to teaching after real-world experience comes with skills, confidence

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photoErika Strauser worked on a project for Hoffman Construction Company called The Nines in Pioneer Square, in downtown Portland.

BEND, Ore. — Standing before her language arts students, Kyle Suenaga often thinks back on her time racing jet cars and flying smokejumpers into forest fires.

"It's stressful standing up there in front of high school students, in one way. Their lives actually are in my hands," said Suenaga, who is in her second year of teaching at Mountain View High School. "But given everything I've done before, I can say to myself, 'Chill, nobody can die in here.'"

Suenaga, 42, is an example of what Carolyn Platt calls a mid-career changer.

Platt, who is program lead of teacher education at Oregon State University-Cascades Campus, estimates that one-third to one-half of her secondary education students each year fit into the mid-career changer category. The university does not track the students or have a formal definition, but Platt said students who come to teaching after five or more years in another profession tend to have an advantage when they step into their own classroom.

"They bring a wealth of knowledge about their field into the classroom, and can talk to students about it, giving them the chance to wrestle with real life problems," Platt said. "Whether it's a scientist discussing their research or a business person economics, it grounds the lesson in an authentic context."

For Suenaga, the application is less direct — pilot ratings don't necessarily help one teach novels by Toni Morrison.

"It's not just the physicist or the lawyer who can do this, as teaching is not only knowledge and pedagogical skill, but also the dispositional ability to connect with students," Platt said. "Mid-career changers, coming in from whatever field, have a bit more self-confidence and self-awareness. Because of this, they can better adjust to students."

After controlling hunks of metal moving at high speeds, Suenaga says she has overcome the shyness she was known for in her younger days.

"I wouldn't have been able to teach without everything else that came before," she said.

Platt emphasized that she was not trying to disparage students who arrive straight from an undergraduate program, though she did bring up a practical advantage mid-career changers have over their younger colleagues.

"When we have students come in directly, often they can be quite young-looking," Platt said. "If you want a position in a high school, it can sometimes be hard for high schoolers to see you as an adult, which can pose problems."

At an applicant interview day at the OSU-Cascades Graduate and Research Center, a range of mid-career changers explained their reasons for wanting to make the switch.

"An engineer can spend months tinkering endlessly on one widget, but you don't get to branch out and see the big picture," said Patrick McBrien, 31, a product designer and software engineer who hopes to become a science teacher. "Especially with high school and middle school, you get to teach such a broad range of topics, which is something I'm excited for."

While McBrien plans to draw on his past career, he also admitted that knowing the material is hardly enough to guarantee success.

"I think it will almost be like being a performance actor," McBrien said. "If you don't keep kids' attention, they'll let you know, maybe not with boos, but definitely with yawns. That's something I'm ready for but will have to work on too."

James Wakefield, 50, a chemist who has taught on and off at colleges on the East Coast, said he has always felt the call to teach high school science.

"It's really an existential question for me. Some people tend to love flying airplanes, and others love to teach," he said.