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

This interview first appeared Jan. 12, 2011.

John Chevalier grew up in Ballston Lake, NY, a small town just south of the Adirondack Mountains. He spent 14 years as an automotive technician and shop manager, then changed careers and became a trainer in leadership, team building and multimedia communication.

Since high school he has always been involved in various aspects of technology as an audio engineer and video editor. He is an Apple Certified Trainer, serves on the editorial advisory team for Technologies for Worship Magazine and is a regular speaker at the National Association of Broadcasters Conference and the INFOCOMM Convention.

He has recently found a “calling” in teaching high school students digital film making from the planning process through production and editing. Having dropped out of high school, earning a GED, and with no “formal” education (John graduated from the “School of Hard Knocks”), John is a modern-day “Welcome Back Kotter” and has a knack for relating to high school students where they are.

John currently works for the Sonoma County Office of Education as the Digital Video Technology Instructor at Healdsburg High School.


What was the best part about your old job?

As a trainer, I had the opportunity to teach at conferences all over the country. Working with individuals in a variety of jobs, in various cultures was always a challenge and an educational experience for me, as well as for those who attended the conferences that I was speaking at. The people interaction was great.

Why did you want to make the switch to teaching?

I saw teaching high school as an opportunity to use my passion for teaching and media communication to invest in our youth with both the subject matter that I teach, as well as to interact with young people. I had been teaching “principles” of leadership and team-building and really wanted to teach a “skill.”  Being able to work as a CTE (Career Technical Education) instructor was going to give me the opportunity to give young people a skill that they can take into the work force.

What was the hardest part about changing careers?

Besides getting up at six every morning, there was a HUGE learning curve in becoming familiar with the educational system. From learning how to work for a government agency to having to learn acronyms that those who take the formal route to education learn in the process of their own schooling, it was a pretty steep uphill battle. The things that most career teachers take for granted and learned in “teacher school” I had to learn through the process of figuring it out for myself.

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

Working with teens can be a challenge. For the first 3 months in this gig I asked myself on a daily basis, “What in the world did I get myself into?” When you teach at the conference level, people attend your classes because they either really want to learn what you’re teaching or they know you from other conferences and really want to hear you… Conference attendees sit still, actively listen, take notes and ask good questions. Not so much in high school. The constant distractions, and learning how to manage a classroom full of teenagers, was hard for me at first.

But after the first semester was over I was able to think through what I was really doing, and as well as teaching them a skill, I was modeling for them what it meant to be a good person and a good employee. Over the next several months I was able to learn more about the whole culture of high school and I began to see that the needs of the students were greater than just learning the material. Students need to have value as people.

Instead of being an authority figure, I began to relate to the students as I would if I was their boss and not a classroom teacher. When I had to deal with discipline issues I would explain why this was important. I learned that many educators don’t take the time to explain “why they do what they do” to the students.

When I saw the impact of how I related to my students, I realized that I was making a huge impact on more than just their education. This really motivated me to keep on keeping on.

What skills or lessons did you bring from your old job to help you as a teacher?

Once I learned my “audience” it was fairly easy to write lessons that kept the students engaged. My class is very hands on. I took my ability to teach and combined it with a practical skill that the students could learn. I was used to being up in front of a group so it was a fairly natural transition.

What was the biggest surprise once you started teaching?

This isn’t going to be a popular answer. The biggest surprise to me is that the student’s expectations many times are larger than the teacher’s expectations. This was a shock. The outcome of this is that many students are not very motivated to learn. They don’t see a practical reason to engage in school. In my classes I make it a point to emphasis that they need Math, English, Science, etc. to be able to do the things that I teach in my Digital Video class. This may help a little, but overall my AH-HA moment was that I need to make sure that I am constantly challenging myself and my students to be excellent in whatever they choose to do as a career.

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

That teaching is more about building relationships with your students than being an information dump. To roughly quote Russell Quaglia (Educational Speaker & Consultant); “The Achievement gap will only be closed by dealing with the Motivation Gap, the Participation Gap and the Relationship Gap. Once you deal with those gaps, student achievement will no longer be an issue.”

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