Education Teacher Leaders Network

My Brilliant Second Career

By Heather Wolpert-Gawron — December 10, 2008 5 min read

An Illinois newspaper recently reported an increase in second-career teachers. But really, aren’t most of us “second-career” in some sense? I mean, unless we bopped straight out of high school into a B.A., into an education program, and directly into the teaching field, surely we had experiences in civilian life that contributed to who we are now in the classroom. Having had a childhood back-dropped by the Hollywood sign, I don’t think anyone could say I skipped down a neatly paved Yellow Brick Road to reach my ultimate destination as a teacher.

Let’s open up my travel diary and see just where my path has wandered. Maybe it will inspire you to also take a walk down memory lane and mull over the road that led you to this great career. Besides, everyone’s got a flying monkey or two in their closet. Here are mine.

2 years old: My father, who was the producer of “The Price is Right” at the time, hired me as a toddler model for that week’s grand prize—a carousel. What did this bring to teaching? Something funky to talk about in the classroom during my Find-a-Fib activity.

15 years old: I was a production assistant on a number of my father’s game shows. I ran errands, answered the big blinking red phone on the floor of the studio, and set out the veggie tray. What did this bring to teaching? Someone once said there are only two people on a production staff that know everything: the producer who orders everyone around and the production assistant who is ordered around by everyone. It teaches you humility and empathy to be at the bottom. In addition, I learned to say yes first and then figure it out.

17 years old: Summer camp counselor. What did this bring to teaching? I now have tons of circle games up my sleeve for earthquake drills.

18 years old: I spent a vacation as a kiddie-wrangler at a dude ranch in Arizona. Cowboying is one of the toughest jobs in the world for wages that don’t reflect the effort. What did this bring to teaching? Well, it just so happens that teaching is also one of the toughest jobs in the world for wages that don’t reflect the effort. A cowboy once said, “Everything in the desert wants to mess with ya.” He could have easily been referring to some school districts.

21 years old: I graduated from a liberal arts program and went out into the world just excited that I didn’t have any more homework. Had I only looked at my degree, I could have read the signs: English with specialties in creative writing and Renaissance literature.

I also worked that summer as an assistant editor at a music video company. What did this bring to teaching? Each song has a narrative: rising action, climax, falling action. The whole summer was spent working on pace, tone, and mood. It comes in pretty handy as an ELA teacher now, let me tell you.

22 years old: Production assistant for a movie company at Disney. Since they figured anybody could teach 2nd grade, the producers I worked for asked me to come on location with them as a tutor for their 2nd grader. They put me in touch with the private school their daughter went to and I set up a class space in the corner of our room at the Ritz in Chicago. Although I knew how to check a sushi order before delivering it to a trailer, I didn’t know a thing about teaching.

But something clicked. I took the kid to the aquarium, the zoo, and the museums. We used the city as our school. I was not the best production assistant around and the producers let me know it. I will say this, though: they undeniably put teaching on my radar for the first time and for that I am grateful.

24 years old: Executive assistant for two television producers. They were nice people. Southern. But I didn’t work too hard, which kind of disturbed me because I knew that if I continued to be unchallenged my ability to meet challenges when they arose would be stunted. But it was through the producers that I became interested in politics, policy, and law. They were friends with President Clinton and this was during the Travelgate era. I was even interrogated by Kenneth Starr over the phone, but he soon learned that I knew nothing.

What did this bring to teaching? I learned that there are politics everywhere and that nobody who aspires to the top has a golden hue. Even the best administrators have played the game to get where they are. I don’t pretend that the game doesn’t exist, I don’t complain that it does, and more importantly, I’m not threatened by those who play.

26 years old: Publicity at CBS, Television City. I made the clip reels for the news outlets, which I was in charge of distributing to the T30 (top 30 news outlets in the country). I worked the press junkets for the affiliates and budgeted the editing bays for the department.

What did this bring to teaching? I worked with white collar and blue collar, with CEOs and those who turned off the lights at night. I also learned about the power of the press. I learned how to write a pitch letter. I learned how to persuade.

It was also during this time that I began a serious search for my true calling. Once again, I found myself in a place where I wasn’t working hard, just watching the clock and being miserable. So I sat down and made a chart that would help guide me to choose a path more worthy of what I could do.

It looked something like this:


Hey, that last category was important! I was never a nylons-all-day kind of gal, and if I wanted happiness it meant looking at myself squarely for who and what I was and finding somewhere that would appreciate what I had to bring to the table.

All arrows pointed to teaching.

The light bulb flashed over my head, my eyes brightened, and I finally started moving forward. I’ve never worked so hard or been so happy since.

28-30 years old: I got a job moonlighting as a tutor for the kid of an NBA star, which led to my first real teaching gig as a co-teacher in a progressive private school. I taught during the day and went back to school at night to get my credentials. I paid my tuition by directing children’s theater and tutoring on the weekends. I busted my butt because I was called to it.

Did I find teaching or did teaching find me? I don’t know. But teaching and I walk hand-in-hand now, down a road together, never one without the other. It’s my brilliant second career.

What was your path?