Recruitment & Retention

Reversal of Fortune

By Rhea R. Borja — January 22, 2003 13 min read
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A line of tan trailers squat on the northern perimeter of Cupertino High School here in Silicon Valley. On this November morning in the fifth-to-last trailer, in Room C-6, math teacher Anthony Silk tries to hold the attention of 31 energetic teenagers.

Technology workers move from high-paying jobs to public school teaching.

It’s not exactly working. As he talks and writes algebra problems on a whiteboard, the students’ low conversational hum grows to a muted roar. A burst of laughter comes from two girls. The 38-year-old Silk takes a breath, grips his felt-tip marker tighter, and continues writing.

Then someone drops a book with an explosive thwack, a heated discussion erupts between two students, and the teacher temporarily loses his cool.

Silk bangs a fist abruptly on the whiteboard, making the trailer wall shake a little. “Good gosh!” he says in exasperation. The students, momentarily chastened, bend their heads to their work.

Sixty miles south, in the farming community of Hollister, teacher Sean Senechal smiles determinedly at her pre-algebra class of Spanish-speaking students at San Benito High School. The 53-year-old teacher waits patiently as a bilingual classroom aide translates what she just said about changing a decimal to a fraction.

The aide finishes, and Senechal, dressed smartly in black and red, continues her lesson. She talks animatedly, gesticulating with her hands. The 26 students, many of them sons and daughters of Mexican migrant farmworkers, look at her blankly. Then they swivel their heads toward the aide and wait for a translation. Senechal also waits, her smile fixed, wishing she could better communicate with them.

Just two years ago, Silk and Senechal were running meetings in Silicon Valley’s fast-paced high-tech world, testing software and devising marketing strategies.

Silk was a product manager for a Web start-up that gathers its clients’ financial and travel information into one place. Before that, he was a Navy aircraft systems instructor and flight test officer. Senechal was a seasoned pro working in quality-assurance management.

They had stock options, catered lunches, and other perks. Then the dot-com bubble burst. Company after company merged or flamed out. Venture-capital funds dried up. Tens of thousands of employees got pink-slipped. The newspapers kept a running count of the casualties.

At the same time, California was experiencing a long drought of mathematics and science teachers. Last year, the state put two and two together. The result: a $1.6 million, two-year grant for its “Technology to Teaching” program. The state’s goal is to move up to 200 college-educated, displaced high-tech workers into K-12 math and science classrooms.

The money pays for mentoring, tuition for certification, textbooks, testing fees, and other services, says Mike Curran, the director of the Sunnyvale-based North Valley Job Training Consortium, one of four agencies in Silicon Valley that administer the grant.

Silk and Senechal are in the first wave of these cyber converts hitting classrooms, representing a major switch from just four or five years ago, when many California math and science teachers were leaving the classroom to make it big in the high-tech world.

The two are more experienced in leading brainstorming sessions and management meetings than in teaching algebra; they’re more used to working with conscientious adults than temperamental teenagers. And they’re more accustomed to high-speed laptop computers than the low-tech equipment and slower Internet connections schools have.

They’ve left one high-stakes world only to enter another—one that’s proving to be just as tricky and stressful.

In January 2001, Silk was working at Yodlee Inc., a Web-based information-aggregation company that was “growing like wildfire,” he recalls.

“We were energized. We were getting lots of clients and money. It was the world.”

The former U.S. Navy lieutenant, accustomed to Spartan conditions on ships, lived in a three-bedroom house in a nice neighborhood, earned $90,000 a year, and had a healthy stock portfolio. It was a comfortable life.

But it wasn’t a perfect fit. The job of a software-project manager wasn’t as fulfilling or as fun as he had thought it would be. And after being in the Navy (nickname: “Dogfight”) for 10 years, Silk found it hard to sit behind a desk.

He didn’t like being boxed into a 6-by-8-foot cubicle, one in a maze of identical, off-white cubicles. But he enjoyed parts of his job—so the busier he was, the better.

Then Yodlee started to collapse under its own weight. It had grown too big too fast. People started job hunting. Layoffs began. Silk, along with his entire department, got termination notices that June.

Looking around him, he saw the dot-com world imploding.

“It was like, ‘The last one in the Bay Area, please turn off the lights,’ ” Silk quips.

Silk re-evaluated his life after his dot-com job. Now he's fulfilling his second calling as a teacher.

Burnt out from working long hours, and disillusioned with the world of high technology, he took a brief stint as a social host for Carnival Cruise Lines. A week after being escorted out of Yodlee headquarters with all of his belongings in a box, Silk was sailing in the Bahamas with 2,300 guests. Decked out in shorts and polo shirt, he emceed bingo and “Shipboard Survivor” games for honeymooners, families, and retired couples.

It was fun, for a while. But he knew that job was short-lived, a seven-month respite from reality. So Silk re-evaluated his life. A friend asked him what he wanted to do. He said that he liked problem-solving, being in front of a crowd, and managing people.

“And she told me, ‘You should be a teacher,’” Silk says.

Ironically, as a high school senior in Philadelphia, Silk had taken a test on what career would best suit him. The test results came up with two options: Navy officer, or math or science teacher.

Now, 20 years later, he’s fulfilling his second calling.

The Fremont Union High School District, which includes 1,450-student Cupertino High, hired Silk last May as an emergency-certified teacher. With a vague plan of starting graduate classes for certification as a math instructor, and some job counseling from the state workforce-development agency, Silk got his first taste of teaching a few weeks later.

It was a 4½-hour summer school algebra class. The class had its share of unmotivated students, and for some of them, it was their second go-around. Silk didn’t get a look at the textbook until a few days before classes began.

He had no lesson plans, no mentors to coach him. He was on his own.

“I had stage fright. It was sheer panic,” Silk says. His idyllic vision of what a teacher should be like—between a kindly Mr. Chips and the eccentric teacher played by Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society"—evaporated within the first few minutes.

The reality, he says, was 35 students looking at him in boredom and indifference.

“I could see in their faces they were thinking, ‘Who the hell are you, and what the hell are you doing?’ ”

Silk learned quickly. He stopped making assumptions about what students knew, and broke down his lessons into small steps. He toned down his penchant to crack jokes and act gregariously—assets on the cruise ship, but not necessarily in the classroom, he concluded.

He learned how to change his lesson plan if it wasn’t working and try something else.

And, he learned how to handle small crises, such as the time a boy vomited copiously in class. Silk gave him a trash can, got the student cleaned up, and held the rest of class outdoors.

“This is so much more work, so much more stress than I’ve ever had,” Silk says. “I’m in full-blown survivor mode.”

Sometimes, he has anxiety dreams about teaching. In one, he forgets to make copies of a test. In another, he can’t find his classroom, and his students are waiting for him.

‘This is so much more work, so much more stress than I've ever had, [but] this is so much more rewarding.’

His life has changed in other ways. As a teacher, Silk earns half of what he made at Yodlee. He’s in the Naval Reserve Force, which brings in another $12,000 a year, and even works some weekends at a local Williams-Sonoma store, an upscale home furnishings shop, to earn extra cash.

But by Silicon Valley standards, where the average cost of a 2,000-square-foot house tops $1 million, that’s still not much.

Silk gave up the spacious house and now lives in the basement of the house of his best friend, who is married and has two small children. Silk tries to work at home when the kids aren’t running around upstairs, making it too noisy to concentrate.

There are things about teaching he’s trying to get used to. Students calling him “Mr. Silk.” The never-ending paperwork. The many teacher meetings. The college courses to get subject- certified.

“Do I really need two years of education classes two nights a week to do what I’m already doing?” he asks.

But despite the pay cut and the many demands of his new job, Silk finds teaching satisfying. He can see tangible results of his hard work. He finds that teenagers approach things with more of an open mind than adults do.

He likes helping students learn, watching them grow. Every day is different from the last, and that variety appeals to him.

“This is so much more rewarding than high tech,” he says.

Michele Avvakumovits, who participates in the district’s Silicon Valley New Teacher Project and is his school adviser, says Cupertino officials hired Silk because he brought a depth of knowledge and skills not many new teachers have.

He had an excellent understanding of math, she says. With a master’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, Silk not only had rock-solid mathematical knowledge, he had used it daily in his Navy career.

“Math is a tough sell in high school,” Avvakumovits says. “So he brings something that’s very valuable.”

Silk can also adapt swiftly to different students’ personalities, and he possesses an innate confidence, she says.

“He has presence,” Avvakumovits says. “He knows how to relate to kids, and that’s something you can’t teach.”

The day Sean Senechal closed on her dream home—a three-acre ranch in rural northern Monterey County—she got laid off from her information-technology job, her fourth in three years. She was a quality-management director for the Peabody, Mass.- based Converge, a computer-parts and networking-parts company. The company shut down its West Coast office in the summer of 2001, leaving her and more than 50 others jobless.

It was one of a handful of technology companies that Senechal worked for that either downsized, merged, or permanently shut their doors.

She went from making $150,000 a year and thinking nothing of spending $200 at her favorite gourmet market and boutique shops on a leisurely Saturday afternoon, to lying awake at night, worrying how she’d cover her $3,500 monthly mortgage payment and feed her two horses.

Unlike Silk, who entered the dot- com boom just before it went bust, Senechal had worked in the IT industry since the late 1980s. She was there when dot-coms’ skyrocketing ascent began and experienced their giddy, high-flying years.

In many ways, she lived the well-compensated and hard-driving existence of many dot-com workers. She worked long hours, but her hours were flexible. She got hefty bonuses and even a gift allowance for her staff.

As the dreams of many dot-com workers fizzled, Senechal became attracted to the stability of the teaching profession.

At Scotts Valley-based Borland International, where she worked as a quality- assurance engineer in the mid-1990s, there was a gym with a masseuse and a personal trainer, an espresso bar, and a cafeteria that served health food. With its manicured grounds and pond, the company headquarters looked more like a college campus than an office building.

“It was wonderful,” Senechal says. “You didn’t want to leave.”

Then she experienced the industry’s sobering crash.

“The culture became very frantic. It was survival mode,” Senechal says of the final two years, when the companies she worked for struggled to stay afloat.

“I would leave for work at 7 a.m. and not get home until 1 a.m.,” she recalls. “This went on for weeks at a time.”

Like Silk, she looked around her as the dreams of many dot-commers fizzled, and she said to herself, “Enough.”

So Senechal decided to become a teacher. She liked the idea of stability. Teaching also attracted her because she liked managing and training people—her favorite part of her IT jobs.

The profession wasn’t entirely new to her. In the early ‘80s, Senechal had taught cell biology to as many as 200 undergraduates while she was a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis.

“Teaching was a natural development for me,” she says.

But the switch from high tech to high school hasn’t been entirely smooth.

Senechal is still trying to get used to the many rules of classroom life and its rigid schedule. In information technology, she could come to the office at 8 a.m. one day, and 10 a.m. the next if she wished. Senechal could also telework from home.

At the 2,600- student San Benito High School, her life is regulated by the bell. She must be in her class a little before 8 a.m. (she usually comes in an hour earlier), and she sets two alarm clocks every night, afraid she’ll oversleep.

She can’t go to the bathroom unless it’s between classes or during lunch. And like the students, Senechal isn’t allowed to use a cellphone.

This last rule frustrates her. If there’s an emergency with her horses, she can’t be reached. And no one outside of school can call her classroom directly, which makes her feel even more isolated.

What’s more, in IT, she had an office or roomy cubicle that she could decorate any way she wanted.

In the classroom, her space is a desk and a filing cabinet in the corner of the room. She thinks twice about adorning that space with personal items, such as an espresso machine, a David Bowie music poster, and framed photos of her friends and horses.

“Are they appropriate?” she asks herself. Just to be safe, she leaves them at home.

The biggest adjustment, though, was financial. She took a 60 percent pay cut to become a teacher, even though she teaches six periods instead of five for extra money. Senechal, who is single, rents out two rooms in her house to help pay the mortgage. And to save money, she rarely shops anymore or eats out.

“It’s a struggle, she says. “I try not to think about it.”

But she says the good more than outweighs the bad. She likes the reliability of her teaching schedule. Unlike the high-tech industry, where people are expected to work nights and weekends, school administrators respect teachers’ personal time, Senechal says.

‘Teaching math is easy, it's building relationships that's hard.’

As a result, her workdays are much shorter than in high tech—even with the grading and lesson plans she does at home and the night classes she takes at California State University-Monterey Bay.

“The [extra] time is a tremendous plus. If you’re really organized and you’re experienced, you could actually have a second job,” says Senechal, who will soon start teaching a night physiology class at a local community college. She may also take a part-time job as a test screener for the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service.

Most of all, Senechal enjoys teaching her students, and tries hard to get to know them.

“Teaching math is easy,” she says. “It’s building relationships that’s hard.”

Krystal Lomanto, her school adviser, says that will come in time. “She truly cares about kids,” she says, “and that’s half the battle.”

As with Silk and most other new teachers, one of the biggest challenges for Senechal is classroom management. But she’s learning fast, says Lomanto.

“Before, she’d tell a kid who was talking to pipe down in front of the class, which is embarrassing to the kid,” the adviser says. “Now, she talks to them one-on-one. She’s learning to choose her battles.”

Senechal finds that working with teenagers is very different from working with adults. In her technology career, she assigned projects to members of her staff, who completed them without complaints. In high school, she has to work hard to keep her students’ attention.

The former IT director describes teaching this way: “It’s like having meetings you’re in charge of all day. The hard work is figuring out what works with 200 students.”

At the end of the day, Senechal walks through the school’s sun-filled corridors to her minivan. She drives home, where she brushes her horses and does other work on the ranch. Then she takes out her school files and gets to work. Her next class is just 12 hours away.

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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