The Virginia high school teacher who recently handed over his chalk to Secretary Duncan for a guest lecture on the federal education budget started his career not in a classroom but in a courtroom.
Up until six years ago, Greg Walsh was a lawyer. He had begun his career in Washington, DC, as a civil litigation attorney, later working his way up through the leadership of a DC-based trade association. Approaching age 50, Walsh decided to pursue what he now describes as “a different kind of excitement.”
When he arrived at Falls Church High School in 2003, Walsh was assigned to teach world history to 9th graders. Within a year the social studies department shifted him to teaching AP government and politics, along with an elective course of his own making – “Law in Action.” In 2009 the Center for Civic Education recognized Walsh as one of three winners of its annual American Civics Education Teacher Award.
Walsh suggests that litigators are, by nature, educators; both professions are an art of organization and presentation. He notes, “I’m using the same set of skills, basically, but with much more forgiving clientele.” His enthusiasm for teaching, merged with the experiences of his prior career, makes for fascinated students and one of the livelier classrooms in all of northern Virginia. After hours, Walsh sponsors the school’s Model United Nations club and coaches Falls Church’s mock trial team.
The United States can expect to lose a third of our veteran educators over the next four years. As legions of Baby Boomers settle into retirement, schools across the country will seek to recruit new waves of able teachers. While Secretary Duncan hopes to inspire our young people to continue to answer the call to work in America’s classrooms, he is also looking to attract experience and enthusiasm of all ages, from all sorts of professional backgrounds.
Work history isn’t Walsh’s only advantage in the classroom, he notes:
There are a lot of teachers who, like myself, are career switchers. While we may lack the immediacy of life experiences that younger teachers share with students, many of us bring a more refined work ethic, realistic expectations, and a host of career and personal experiences directly related to the material that we teach. … More significantly, many “older” teachers at the primary and secondary levels have raised families, or may be raising children of the same age that we teach. In many cases, that experience sensitizes us to personal, social, or family crises underlying a student’s poor academic performance. Often, age and experience can give a teacher more cachet in dealing with parents and getting a student started on a new path.
While Walsh fondly recalls his days as a trial attorney in the nation’s capital, he says he has never regretted his decision to teach kids for a living instead. He encourages other ex-professionals to commit themselves to a classroom but offers this advice for those considering the switch.
- Experience teaching to make certain that you’re suited for it. Volunteer for substitute teaching assignments (preferably long-term ones) at the level you would be teaching. Observe teachers and students in a variety of schools. Spend some time crafting interesting lesson plans, assessments, and rubrics that meet curriculum standards and are sensitive to the learning needs of different students.
- For yourself and your students, teach in a subject area that you’re absolutely passionate about. Students want relevant knowledge and will engage with a teacher who credibly conveys the importance and appeal of his/her subject.
- Don’t teach if you’re fleeing from the oppression of an earlier career. Only teach if you’re fleeing to teaching. Like any profession, teaching has its disadvantages, and a high turnover rate among young teachers proves the point. Come to the job with a positive, but realistic, attitude, and if you can bring your old career along with you, so much the better.
Don’t expect that Walsh’s job will be one of those teaching positions opening up anytime soon. “I’m only 53 years old, just getting started in this profession,” he said, “and assume that I’ll be good for at least 17 more years!”
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