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

(Today, Nov. 15,  I’m going to speak at Cardinal Newman High School. To mark the date, I thought I’d republish this post about Bernadette Calhoun, a Cardinal Newman math teacher. It originally ran almost exactly a year ago, on Nov. 16, 2010. — Robert Digitale)

Bernadette Calhoun grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and got her bachelor’s degree in Economics and Business Administration at St. Mary’s College. She spent 14 years in the software industry, doing software development. Her last seven years were with Apple. In 2000 she went back to school to get a master’s degree in education. She has been a math teacher for nine years, now instructing students in algebra II, trigonometry and pre-calculus at Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa.

THE INTERVIEW

What was the best part of working in the software industry?

The best part of working in the software industry was getting to play with cool technology. It is a huge rush to be in on the ground floor of great technology. The creativity, energy and time that go into new products is amazing. I also got to work with some amazingly bright and talented people.

Why did you want to make the switch to teaching?

While technology has its highs, it also has its lows. You can work on something for years and then watch it get canceled by management or rejected by the market. I was often reminded that the many, many long hours of work may not be rewarded with the response I was expecting. After one particularly grueling project and the birth of my third child, I re-evaluated what I really wanted to do with my life. I wondered if I was still willing to work the insane hours if what I was doing wasn’t really going to make a difference in the world.

During some time off, I was asked to teach Algebra to 6th graders and also to teach a web design class. It was during those experiences that I realized that if I really wanted to change the world (and still work with amazing and energetic people…although they are a little younger now), I should be teaching. I went back to school to get my Master’s Degree in Education and I have never looked back. I found what I truly love doing and I feel like I’m making a difference.

What was the hardest part about changing careers?

The hardest part about changing careers is the change in salary. I left Apple almost 13 years ago and I still make less than half what I did when I left Apple. It was also difficult going from a position and job in which I was respected and known to a new position and job where I did not have any track record. I was the “new kid on the block” again.

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

I’m lucky, I have never wondered if I made the right decision. I have always known that I made the right decision for me.

What skills or lessons did you bring from working at places like Apple to help you as a teacher?

I think that there are three valuable skills that my previous career has brought to my teaching. The first is the ability to solve problems in a creative way and without constraining my thoughts and ideas to “what has been done before”. Sometimes education environments need a fresh perspective.

The second skill I think I bring is the ability to place the educational experience within the context of the workplace. When I plan a lesson I can think about what can make the experience more real and life-like for my students. I am better able to contextualize their learning experiences for what they are likely to face in their careers.

The third skill I bring to the education environment is my technology knowledge. I love using technology in my teaching and it really helps me add life to my lessons. I also think it helps me connect with my very technology-savvy students.

What was the biggest surprise once you started teaching?

The biggest surprise in teaching was definitely the number of hours it takes to put together good lessons. I thought teaching would provide me with more free time than I had when I worked in high tech. Boy, was I mistaken. I definitely work as many hours teaching as I did when developing software.

Another big surprise was the amount of time I would spend laughing during the day. I love the energy of my students and I have many, many opportunities for fun and laughter during the average teaching day. The relationships I have been able to develop with my students are the biggest benefit and joy in my current career.

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

The biggest lesson I learned by switching careers was that doing what you truly love brings great joy in life.