NEW YORK — One year ago, the Monitor interviewed several professionals in the middle of a major career shift. All had decided to leave their previous pursuits -as attorney, marketing executive, professor of law -to become elementary school teachers.
As students at New York's Bank Street College Graduate School of Education, all had to work throughout the year as teachers' aides in various New York City classrooms.
For most of the group, teaching was very exciting but also highly challenging. That may explain in part why some now feel drawn to careers at private schools, where resources are often better and classes smaller. Here are their thoughts, one year later, as two prepare for their first full-time teaching positions, and two continue their studies.
FORMER LAW PROFESSOR
Jonathan Mintz says the biggest surprise for him about his new career was the degree to which it challenged him intellectually. "So much had never been asked of me before," he says of his year as a teacher's aide in a New York City public elementary school. "For me, this was the most rewarding, most demanding thing I had ever done."
Notwithstanding the exigencies of his previous work as a law school professor, Mr. Mintz says he found teaching small children - he worked with both first- and fifth-graders - much more challenging. "It's the complexity of a child's developmental process," he says. "Different children learn in different ways. You're constantly thinking of new ways to convey information."
The second-biggest surprise for Mintz was determining that he preferred working with first-graders rather than older students. "I had assumed I'd want the older kids," he says. "They're beginning to grasp abstract ideas and you can have interesting discussions with them."
But with the younger children, he found, "I was more engaged by where they were in the learning pro- cess." And emotionally, he adds, "They're the ones who just break your heart - in a really good way."
Of course, he acknowledges that some transitions were tough. For one thing, he says, his new work is physically taxing. "It's 3 o'clock and you're beat," he says. "You've just hugged 15 children and six were crying. You're giving a lot all the time."
Also, he admits, some of the perks of his past work have disappeared. "There's no assistant to do photocopying for me," he says. "I do it myself." In his first weeks, he remembers, "Once in a while I'd find myself washing a paintbrush and thinking, 'Wow, this is different from my past professional experiences.'"
Next month Mintz begins full-time work as a second-grade teacher at The Little Red School House in Greenwich Village. He was attracted to the private school, he says, by its tradition of progressive education, but says to some extent he regrets leaving the public system. "I was very happy in the public school," he says, "but I had to go where I felt I could accomplish the most as a teacher."
Once in a while, Lisa Gross admits, she gets a pang when she tells a new acquaintance she's an elementary school teacher and gets a negative response. "You can tell they think it's not an impressive job," she says, and that's not a reaction she ever got when she practiced law. "But the more I like teaching the further away that world gets and it stops mattering."
Ms. Gross spent this past year working as a teacher's aide at two public elementary schools in New York City, in addition to taking classes at Bank Street. This September, she'll take charge of a classroom of her own as she begins work as a fifth-grade teacher at New York's private Dalton School.
Gross says she loved working as a teacher's aide. "It's fun and challenging and intellectually stimulating." Despite the job's challenges, she says she has never had a moment of regret about leaving law. "I just can't see myself not teaching," she says. "You're touching people, you're affecting their lives. It's so much more fulfilling."
The biggest negative surprise for Gross was finding out that personality clashes can be as much a part of life at a school as in an office. "I was hoping it wouldn't be that way but there are a lot of egos out there," she says. "Discovering that was a dose of reality."
Eventually Gross says she'd like to work in the public school system but is happy to begin her career at The Dalton School where she'll have a class of 18 students. "I didn't think I was ready to be in a class of 30." Plus, she says, the private school "just happens to be fabulous."
FORMER MARKETING EXECUTIVE
Keelin Gallagher still has another year of classes to go at Bank Street before she's ready to head into a classroom of her own, but after a year of working as a teacher's aide in a private pre-kindergarten classroom in New York City, she's looking forward to the experience.
"It's busy and active and you're seeing the kids really grow and develop and you see them so different by the end of the year," she says, ticking off the reasons she loves her new work. There are bad days, she admits, but, she insists, "Even the worst days are a lot better than working in an office."
What troubles her most about her new profession, however, is the salary level. "I do wish teachers made a little more money, especially given the importance of what we're doing," she says. "It's amazing what a gap there is. We say we support teachers but we really don't."
Ms. Gallagher is hoping to work as an intern with older children this fall and ultimately would like to teach third grade at either a public or private school. "I could go either way on that," she says.
FORMER MARKETING EXECUTIVE
"Teaching was incredibly rewarding," says Jamie Blatt of his first experiences in the classroom, "but far harder than I ever imagined."
In many ways last year was a tough one for Mr. Blatt. Despite having an MBA from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., he was diagnosed with a learning disability while taking classes at Bank Street. It's a discovery that he says only increased his determination to become a teacher, but which at the same time may have explained why he struggled with his coursework.
Both the classes he took and the actual teaching -which he did in various first-, third-, and fifth-grade classrooms -were a struggle for Blatt and Bank Street has not invited him to return in the fall. He is appealing that decision, hoping the school will take into account his disability. "I can be of tremendous service to children with those same issues," he says.
Nevertheless, he's candid about how difficult he found teaching to be. "It's not like summer camp where you're with children and you do a sport or game with them," he says. "It's mental activity. It's very taxing."
Blatt says he also found it hard to respond to the different learning styles of children. "There's such diversity," he says. "Some learn better in an auditory style, others are tactile, others are visual. It's incredibly hard to understand where they are, what they know, where you want them to be."
That's one reason he now feels drawn to private school. "As a newer teacher starting out, I'd prefer the smaller classes and better resources."
*Previous interviews ran Sept. 22, 1998. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society