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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Rewarding Career Switch to Education

A journalist turned teacher settles into his new profession.
By Russell Scott Smith
Credit: Wesley Bedrosian

A weird thing happened in January as I was starting a new career as a high school teacher: My face broke out.

"That's great," my wife said, when she noticed the red bumps on my chin and nose. "You'll fit right in with the kids."

Ugh. Pizza face wasn't the effect I was hoping for. But the mirror didn't lie: I was 40 years old and needed a tube of Clearasil. Plus, I had developed a chronic stomachache. And my left eye kept twitching.

In other words, I felt a little edgy. Part of it was nerves, but I was also feeling resentment. I used to be a staff writer for newspapers and magazines, but through some seriously bad timing, I found myself out of a job and freelancing in 2008, just as the financial crisis rocked the publishing world to its core.

It was an awful time (and still is). Magazines closed; newspapers went bankrupt; there were massive layoffs. Two companies instituted hiring freezes within a month after I interviewed with them. Like many other Americans, I couldn't find a job in my chosen profession. And meanwhile, my wife and I had just had a baby. I was in trouble, and I had to think about a career change.

Teaching was my first and last idea. I come from a family of educators, and people have always told me I'd be good in this field. I found an internship program through a nearby university that offers hands-on classroom experience -- a one-year gig as an in-house substitute teacher at a high school. In the evening, I would take classes. At the end of a year and a half, I'd emerge with a master's degree and certification. I decided to go for it.

But as my start date approached, I got more and more nervous. It didn't help that I kept reading so many negative news stories about education. They all seemed to be about low pay, metal detectors, standardized testing, and tenured but ineffective teachers. No wonder my skin was breaking out. Still, I registered for classes at the university, and on a cold winter Monday, I walked through the front doors into the cinder-block hallways of the high school where I was to intern.

If my life were a movie, this is the part when the violins would crescendo, the action would switch to slow-mo, and I would experience an epiphany: "This is exactly where I belong."

The reality wasn't quite so dramatic. But you know what? It wasn't that far off, either.

I became a writer because I love stories. I love to talk about people. I love to find out what excites them. What terrifies them. What's hard for them. What makes them proud. As a journalist, I covered a lot of artists and actors, and I thought they had pretty interesting stories. But they don't hold a candle to the stories I can tell after just a brief time at that high school.

My best story so far is about watching Barack Obama's inauguration with the students. The day of the swearing in, the school set up a screen in the gymnasium and hosted an assembly. At first, the students were squirmy. But when the new president stepped up to take the oath, an amazing thing happened: Many of them spontaneously rose for a standing ovation.

"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility," I heard Obama say, "a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task."

Credit: Wesley Bedrosian

Yes, teaching might be a difficult task. But as I gazed around the gym at those students, I started to feel something that went beyond grudging acceptance for my new career. I realized that it just might work. And ever since then, my complexion has been much improved.

Russell Scott Smith lives in Connecticut and teaches at Norwalk High School.

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