THEN I BECAME A TEACHER: Changing Careers, Figuring Out Life

Walt Hays got his bachelor’s degree in international relations from UC Davis, and went on to spend 14 years working in the software industry. He did software testing and tech support, moved into engineering management and eventually rose to become a vice president of products with close to 40 people working under his supervision. The company, Dantz Development, then was doing $10 million a year in sales with over 120 employees. The work was “complex, stressful and fascinating.” In 2002 he left the company, moved to Sebastopol and got his teaching credential at Sonoma State University. For the past six years he has been teaching mathematics at Analy High School in Sebastopol.

This article was first published Oct. 26, 2010

THE INTERVIEW

What was the best part of working for a company that developed computer software?

I got involved in personal computer software before we all started using the Internet and I had an inside view into the whole crazy dot.com boom and bust. The industry was growing in leaps and bounds and was vibrant and engaging. Part of what made the work so fascinating was that I was the third employee at a growing company. My job constantly evolved as I took on new responsibilities and the company changed and grew. Probably what I liked best was the constant opportunity to discuss and solve interesting problems. When you try to create software that does something new you discover and then solve fascinating engineering challenges. I loved working with our engineers and other colleagues to find the best solutions.

Why did you want to make the switch to teaching?

Ever since I finished college I had this thought in the back of my mind that I wanted to try teaching math. Instead I fell into software and stayed for over 14 years. The work was engaging, challenging, and paid very well, so it seemed wrong to leave. I looked into getting my teaching credential 10 years before I ultimately quit, but decided to defer it as my job was still quite engaging. In the end I grew tired of the fast pace and the stress of managing critical projects and I wanted a change. I felt that if I didn’t try teaching soon, I would never get around to it.

What was the hardest part about changing careers?

The hardest part of leaving the software industry was taking such a large cut in pay. Teaching doesn’t pay very well (Even now in my seventh year of teaching I make about one third of what I made when I left high tech.) Fortunately my wife and I are able to make enough together to be fine. After the money, I miss three things in particular about my old job: 1) managing a team of hardworking, smart people who together made great products; 2) solving fascinating engineering challenges; and 3) being able to come to work and sit quietly in my office and get things done. Schools are loud, busy places.

Did you ever wonder if you had made the right decision? If so, tell us about it and what enabled you to persevere?

When I first got my credential I was working at a middle school. That job made me wonder if I had made a huge mistake. While some kids were sweet, many were disrespectful, distracted, and energetic. I didn’t know how to handle them and everything was overwhelming. I told myself to stick it out a few more years before making any long term decisions, and fortunately when I moved over to the high school things got dramatically better. The students were on the whole more respectful, mature, and ready to learn, which for me made all the difference. I appreciate middle-schoolers: they’re great kids doing what they are supposed to do (grow, learn, discover the world). That just wasn’t the right place for me to be teaching. Here’s a story: at the end of my first day at Analy I was walking to my car across the campus when a student who I didn’t even recognize yelled across the quad with a big smile on his face: “Hey Mr. Hays, have a great afternoon!” I’ll never forget that welcome. It set the tone for me at Analy, and I haven’t looked back.

What skills or lessons did you bring from your previous career to help you as a teacher?

First, I came with great technology skills. I can troubleshoot and set up computers, and I do these things for myself and for many of my fellow teachers all the time. Second, I came from a company where initiative and hard work were recognized and rewarded. I approach my work at school in the same way: if I see a problem, I try to fix it or help get it fixed. Third, I noticed as I came into teaching that some teachers spend a lot of time complaining about things. Teachers feel put-upon or put-out by many very real issues (state standards, mandates, budget cuts and other very real outside pressures and influences.) I know every job has ups and downs and things to complain about, but I think my previous experience in business where I had more personal influence on my goals and attitude helps me keep a positive attitude as a teacher. I’m not saying that I never complain, just that I make an effort to not get stuck there. You can control a lot with your attitude.

What was the biggest surprise once you started teaching?

I couldn’t fire my students. But seriously, in business when someone doesn’t do their work, you let them go. In school, students have the right to fail and this took some getting used to. At first I took it personally when students didn’t do their homework or failed. I have come to see that while I can and should do my best to motivate, engage, and encourage students, ultimately each student has their own circumstances, home, family, background, and interests, and that I can’t get or make everyone do math. I appreciate even my failing students for what they bring to the world in other areas such as music, art, sports, or farming. Life isn’t all about academic success.

What lessons did you learn from making the switch in careers?

I would say that it’s never too late to do something that you really want to do. I know that’s an overstatement, but it does hold a kernel of truth. I learned that with hard work, supporting family and friends and some luck, you can follow your dreams even if they involve big changes. Look at me: I started at UC Davis undeclared, switched to international relations, got a minor in Russian, got a job in computers, and then became a math teacher. While I’m not planning to change careers again… you never know!