Reversal of Fortune

By Rhea R. Borja — May 01, 2003 15 min read
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When the tech bubble burst, Sean Senechal and Anthony Silk lost their IT jobs. A recruitment program in California landed them in high school math classrooms. But will they stay?

On a chilly November morning, about a dozen ugly tan trailers squat on the northern perimeter of Cupertino High School in California’s Silicon Valley. In the fifth-to-last module, in Room C-6, math teacher Anthony Silk tries to hold the attention of 31 energetic teenagers. He’s not exactly succeeding. As he talks and writes algebra problems on a white board, 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 more tightly, 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 white board, making the trailer wall shake a little. “Good gosh!” he says in exasperation. The students, momentarily chastened, bend their heads to their work.

Meanwhile, 60 miles south, in the farming community of Hollister, Sean Senechal smiles determinedly at her pre-algebra class of Spanish-speaking students at San Benito High School. The 53-year-old waits patiently as a bilingual classroom aide translates what she has 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 farm workers, 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 startup that consolidated its clients’ financial and travel information. 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 math and science teachers. During the 2001-02 school year, the state put two and two together. The result: a $1.6 million, two-year grant for its Technology to Teaching program. The goal is to move up to 200 college-educated, displaced high-techworkers into K-12 classrooms. The money pays for mentoring, tuition for certification, textbooks, testing fees, and other services, according to Mike Curran, director of the Sunnyvale-based North Valley Job Training Consortium, one of four Silicon Valley agencies that administer the grant.

Silk and Senechal are part of the first wave of cyberconverts hitting classrooms. They represent 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. Both of them—especially now, just two months into the new school year—are more experienced at leading brainstorming sessions than teaching algebra, 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 slow Internet connections most schools have.

One part of the education world, however, is not foreign to them, and it will become a serious issue later in the school year: economic hardship. This spring, California’s budget shortfall of up to $35 billion will threaten to put teachers, especially new, emergency-certified ones, on the chopping block.

So Silk and Senechal have 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., aWeb-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 serving 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 six-by-eight cubicle, one in a maze of identical, off-white work stations. But he enjoyed parts of his job—so the busier he was, the better.

A school adviser says Silk “knows how to relate to kids, and that’s something you can’t teach.” Still, he’s required to attend subject-certification courses at a local college two nights a week.
—Photographs by Steve Goldstein

Then Yodlee started to collapse under its own weight. It had grown too big, too fast. Employees started job hunting. Layoffs began. Silk, along with the rest of his 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.

Burned out from working long hours and disillusioned with the world of high-tech, he took a brief stint as a social host for Carnival Cruise Lines. A week after being escorted out of Yodlee headquarters with his belongings in a box, Silk was sailing to 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 the job was short-lived, a seven-month respite from reality. So Silk reevaluated his life. A friend asked him what he wanted to do. He saidhe liked problem-solving, being in front of a crowd, and managing people. “And she told me, ‘You should be a teacher,’” Silk recalls.

Ironically, as a high school senior in Philadelphia, Silk had taken a test that was supposed to determine what career would best suit him. The results offered two options: Navy officer and math or science teacher.

The Fremont Union High School District, which includes the 1,450-student Cupertino High, hired Silk as an emergency-certified teacher in May 2002. With a vague plan of starting graduate classes for certification as a math instructor, and after some job counseling from the state workforce development agency, he got his first taste of teaching a few weeks later.

He was put in charge of a daily four-and-a-half-hour summer algebra course. The classroom had its share of unmotivated students, and for some of them, it was their second go. 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 how a teacher should be—a cross between a kindly Mr. Chips and the eccentric 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 a cruise ship, but not necessarily in a classroom. He also learned how to change his lesson plan when it wasn’t working. What was most important, he learned how to handle small crises. One time, much to Silk’s dismay, a boy vomited copiously in class. Silk gave him a trash can, cleaned up the student, 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 still has anxiety-induced dreams about teaching. In one, he forgets to make copies of a test. In another, he can’t find his classroom, and the students are waiting for him.

His life has changed in other ways. As a teacher, Silk earns half what he made at Yodlee. He’s in the Naval Reserve Force, which brings in another $12,000 a year, and he works some weekends at a local Williams-Sonoma store 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.

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

Anthony Silk

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

In the middle of November, there are still 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 come springtime, he’ll be feeling a little more relaxed—more confident in the job. “There are still good days and bad days,” he’ll say then. “But I don’t feel the stress I did the first few months.”

And 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 most adults do. He likes helping students learn, watching them grow. Every day is different from the last, and that variety appeals to him. “This,” he says, “is so much more rewarding than high-tech.”

Michele Avvakumovits, who serves as Silk’s school adviser as part of the district’s Silicon Valley New Teacher Project, says Cupertino officials hired Silk because he brought a depth of knowledge and skills not many new teachers have. With a master’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, she explains, Silk not only had rock-solid mathematical knowledge; he also 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 students’ different personalities, and he possesses an innate confidence, she adds. “He has presence. He knows how to relate to kids, and that’s something you can’t teach.”

But just as he’s starting to get the hang of things in the classroom, the threat of layoffs looms over Silk once again. This spring, tens of thousands of public school teachers and administrators throughout the state will receive layoff notices—warnings that, unless the budget shortfall is reversed, they may lose their jobs next year. “Things are grim here,” Silk will say in March. “It’s a certainty that I will get a layoff notice, but whether or not that turns into reality is still anyone’s guess.”

Rather than wait for an answer, Silk will end up taking another job, at a private school, just a few miles from Cupertino High. The classes are smaller there, and the pay will be better. And what’s most important, in Silk’s point of view, is that he’ll still be teaching.

The day Sean Senechal closed on her dream home—a three-acre ranch in northern Monterey County—she got laid off from her information technology job. She was a quality-management director for Converge, a computer- and networking-equipment company. Based in Massachusetts, the company shut down its West Coast office in summer 2001, leaving Senechal and more than 50 others jobless. Converge was one of a handful of technology outfits that Senechal worked for that had either downsized, merged, or permanently shut their doors.

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

Senechal has gone from supervising a small IT staff to “figuring out what works with 200 students.”
—Photographs by Steve Goldstein

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 the skyrocketing ascent of dot-coms began and experienced their giddy, high-flying years. And she’d lived the well-compensated, hard-driving existence of many of her colleagues, working long yet flexible hours and getting hefty bonuses as well as a gift allowance for her staff.

At Scotts Valley-based Borland Software, 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 recalls. “You didn’t want to leave.”

But even before getting a job with Converge, she could tell that the industry was going to 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, Senechal looked around as the dreams of many dot-commers fizzled and said to herself, Enough. So she decided to become a teacher. The idea of stability appealed to her, and she liked managing and training people—her favorite part of the IT jobs. Plus, the profession wasn’t entirely new to her. During 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 these last couple of months. At first, Senechal chafed against the many rules of classroom life and its rigid schedule. In information technology, she could go to the office at 8 a.m. one day and 10 a.m. the next if she wished. She 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 in the morning (she usually arrives 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 cell phone. 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.

‘Teaching math is easy. It’s building relationships that’s hard.’

Sean Senechal

What’s more, in IT, she had an office or roomy cubicle that she could decorate any way she wanted. In school, her space is a desk and a filing cabinet in the corner of the classroom. She thinks twice about adorning the area with personal items, such as an espresso machine, a David Bowie poster, and framed photos of her friends and horses. Are they appropriate? she has asked 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.”

The good, she believes, 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. 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 also teaches a physiology class twice a week at a local community college.

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.”

As with Silk and most other new teachers, one of the biggest challenges for Senechal this fall is classroom management. But she’s learning fast, says Krystal Lomanto, her school adviser. “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.”

Still, Senechal finds working with teenagers different from working with adults. In her technology career, she assigned projects to members of her staff, who completed them without complaint. 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.”

By spring, Senechal will have changed her tune a bit. She’ll report then that she’s adjusted to the classroom culture and is even flourishing. As her first year of teaching draws to a close, she’ll have a better rapport with her students, know what works and what doesn’t in reaching them, and establish a clear set of disciplinary procedures.

But like Silk, she’ll also be facing a possible layoff. Her strategy: To make herself as marketable as possible in a fiscally fragile environment by rushing to get certified, not just in math but in biology and social science as well. She might even consider going back to the high-tech quality-assurance field. “I can’t not have a position,” she’ll say emphatically. “Too risky.”

On this mid-November day, however, those worries aren’t on Senechal’s mind. As she does every day at this point, she 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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