The Brothers Levin on Teaching and Second Chances

The other day I received an email from a reader by the name of Robert who is planning to leave a successful management position, complete his M.A. in history and eventually secure a position as a high school history teacher.  Robert has a number of concerns and questions: "So my question is this – Am I crazy?  I am not concerned about money, advancement, etc.  My concern is that when I am done with my studies, I will be 40 years old.  Will anyone take me seriously as an entry-level teacher at 40 with two advanced degrees?  What advice do you have about this or anything else I need to know before starting on this exciting, challenging path."  Since I have a brother who is in a very similar position and has already begun the transition I asked him to respond to Robert’s questions.  What follows is my brother’s response along with a few thoughts of my own.

Hello Robert,
No you are not crazy. My name is David Levin, I am Kevin’s brother. You and I have two things in common. We both want to become history teachers and we both have already had very successful careers. I was an Executive Chef for over 10 years working for some of the biggest hotel companies in the world, like Hilton, Marriott, Four Seasons and Doubletree hotels. I worked all over the country from Los Angeles, to D.C, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Atlantic City and Houston. As a chef I was very successful and moved my way up the corporate ladder very fast. I was in charge of my first hotel kitchen in Washington D.C by the time I turned 24. Being a chef was something that I was very passionate about. Unfortunately after 17 years in the restaurant/hotel industry I became burned out from all of it. Too many hours, too many missed holidays and too much corporate you know what.

The big question was what could I possibly do for the next 30 years as a career since being a chef was all that I knew how to do. Now going back to my younger days, I always loved history. I always enjoyed learning about World War II, the Civil War and I have always followed current world events. When I was a chef, people used to ask me, if you were not a chef what would you like to do? I always said if I had the opportunity I would love to be a high school history teacher. I always said this thinking that it never would happen. I was a chef, and that is what I did.

Well long story short, two years ago I was the Executive Chef at the Sheraton-Meadowlands Hotel in northern New Jersey. Eight months into the job a new company came in and bought the hotel. From there they told all of the managers, including myself, that they no longer needed our services. They said that they were bringing in their own managers. That is when it hit me. I didn’t want to be a chef anymore. It was like one of those pivotal life changing moments. I decided that I was going to go back to school and get my bachelors degree in history and become a teacher.

Two years later I am half way there with a 3.85 GPA Not only that but I realize that I have a real passion for history. I can’t stop reading beyond what I am supposed to read for class. I am currently taking a summer course on the Vietnam War, but at the same time I am reading books on President Andrew Jackson, The Mexican American War, Rise to Globalism, War of 1812, as much as I can.

If I can offer any words of wisdom for what you are doing it would be that you will be very impressive to any school district once you start interviewing for a teaching position. I believe that school districts would love nothing more than to hire individuals who already have had a successful career. I currently go to school with kids that are 13-16 years younger than me. No disrespect intended to my fellow students, but I put forth more of an effort in studying, and my experiences in management, training, hiring, motivating, etc will give me a big advantage in the interview process as well as classroom management. Remember it has to be very difficult for a 24 year old college graduate to be placed in a situation where he or she has to get in front of 25-30 kids and teach them, control them and motivate them, all within months after they were themselves sitting in a classroom. Also keep in mind, and this is just my own opinion based off of my college experience so far. Out of lets say 50 history majors, maybe 10 really have a passion for it. The rest may like history or simply didn’t know what else to major in. Point being, with your experience an age, you will be able to talk about history, your individual goals as a teacher as well as personal philosophies on motivation better than someone younger with less experiences compared with you and I. Your background will enable you to sell yourself to a principal or school board in a way that your competition will not be able to match.

A school district will take you very seriously and they will definitely be impressed with your background. As far as other things to keep in mind: If you already have a bachelors degree, most states have an alternate route program where you can get a job right away and work on your certification while teaching. Also any kind of background or a minor in language or special education could give you an advantage given the need in this area. Don’t worry about your age. I wont be teaching until I am 38 or so. 40 is fine.  You work 25 years and you can retire at 65 with a pension. I wish I had made this move years ago. I have re-discovered my competitive drive and passion as a result of going back to school. I can’t wait to become a teacher!

Good Luck Robert

Dear Robert,

Well, there isn’t much that I can add beyond what my brother has already mentioned.  I should say that I do indeed believe that both you and my brother are "crazy" given the rarity of these kinds of decisions.  It’s always much easier to continue down the comfortable path even if it brings little happiness or personal satisfaction.  After all, it is what is familiar to us.  I am struck by the number of people in my life who are unhappy with their choice of careers.  Some of them can voice their frustration, but most just continue on automatic pilot in exchange for financial security and sense of self-importance. 

Part of the problem is that we don’t ask young adults to think critically enough about their passions and interests.  I see this with my own students who tend to look at me askance whenever I raise the issue.  First, they believe that they must have everything figured out by their mid-20s, including marriage, career, and children of their own.  It’s as if they truly believe that there is a road map out there that must be followed or a game that must be played.  You’ve actually crossed the biggest hurdle on your way to a new career and that is the realization that a life can be recreated at any time. 

Of course, I can’t tell you whether teaching is the right move for you, and unfortunately you can’t answer that question as yet.  That uncertainty comes with the territory and you will have to accept it.  For now, however, it’s enough that you are thinking along the lines expressed in your letter.  It’s your attitude and willingness to take a chance that will get you to where you need to go.  That said, in reading through your letter I saw a bit of myself in your words and this leads me to believe that it is at least worth a shot.  I’ve been teaching in some capacity for 10 years and have loved every minute of it.  Teaching is not a job, but a lifestyle.  It has given me the opportunity of structuring my life around my deep interest in the study of history.  In a sense my time in the classroom is an extension of other manifestations of this interest, including writing, speaking, and now blogging.  In the end I get to spend my days talking about a subject I care deeply about with young adults.  I hopefully teach them as much as they teach me. 

Good luck with your decision and keep us up-to-date. 



Update on JAH: Ed Linenthal Responds

A few weeks ago I was informed by a reliable source that the Journal of American History will no longer review Civil War campaign studies.  I blogged about it here, here and here.  Last week I decided to contact the editor for a response and Ed Linenthal was kind enough to share the guidelines that are currently in place at the journal. 

I want to assure you that the /JAH/ continues to review important works in military history, including battle and campaign studies. We have had recent discussion about criteria for selecting which of the many books in this category are most appropriate for a /JAH/ review. Each year we receive thousands of books at our office and can only select 600 to send out for review. These reviews need to cover all of the many sub-fields in the study of American history. Given the great number of studies about the Civil War and World War II, we always have to make hard choices about which books in this field to review.

We try to pick books that offer new interpretations of battles/campaigns, or introduce important new information. Our goal is to make sure we review those books which speak to broader trends in American history and are of interest to the largest number of American historians. Let me add that my interest reflects both my professional obligation to the /JAH/ readership as editor, and also my own scholarly interests in military history. In March 2007 we published a fine state-of-the-field essay in military history, with short commentary from military historians from several countries. And in 1993, the second edition of my book /Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields/ was published by the University of Illinois Press.

I am sure given the competition for review space that we will not be able to review every battle/campaign studies book, but we will do our best to review what we believe are the most significant ones. To that end, I saw on your blog (thanks for sending me the reference) that you felt that in the last issue (June 2007) we ran a review of the Samuel P. Heintzelman biography instead of “any number of campaign-battle studies that are analytically sound.” I would appreciate your letting me know which of these recent campaign-studies you think we should make sure to consider for review.

I have a few titles in mind, but feel free to add your own suggestions.


Mark Your Calendars

Next Tuesday (July 10) I will be speaking at the Richmond Civil War Roundtable.  The subject of my presentation will be William Mahone’s postwar career, specifically his entry into Virginia politics, and its effect on his military record.  Additional information can be found here


Allo Mes Amis

My wife and I have returned from a 5-day trip to Montreal for the Jazz festival.  We had an incredible time.  The weather was fairly sunny with temperatures averaging in the low-70s.  This was our first trip to Montreal and with the sound of French in the air we got just a sense of being further from the United States than we actually were.  We stayed at the Ritz Carlton on Rue Sherbrooke, which was in walking distance to most of the downtown sites.  Our mornings were spent in small cafes for breakfast and in the afternoon we walked through different neighborhoods and took in some of the more touristy sites.  On most days we ended up back in a small cafe where we ate croissant, drank coffee, talked, and read.  On Saturday we walked through an art museum and on Sunday we caught a wonderful parade in recognition of Canada Day.  The food was simply outrageous; there were way too many restaurants to choose from.  We had an excellent Italian meal at La Capannina where I discovered a delicious Pinot Grigio w/ Verduzzo by the name of Masi Masianco from Venice.  If you are looking for Indian may I suggest The Taj and for Lebanese there is a wonderful restaurant on Rue Sherbrooke.  The city itself is very relaxed and McGill University gives it a scholarly feel.  The people were extremely friendly.  I say this because a number of people went out of their way to warn me regarding the snootiness of the French Canadians.  Actually, we did not come across any rudeness or hostility, though it probably doesn’t hurt that my wife speaks French.  We had a number of very pleasant conversations with the locals.

Everything revolved around the jazz festival.  You can spend an entire day taking in free concerts on the many stages which take up roughly five city blocks.  These musicians don’t get nearly enough recognition nor financial reward.  The festival attracts people from all around the world, it is family friendly, and the security is present without being overly intrusive.  We arrived in Montreal with tickets for Keith Jarrett who performed on Sunday evening.  We were surprised to find that tickets were still available for most shows.  Before sharing who we saw I should say that although I’ve been listening to jazz since high school it’s only been in the last ten years that my understanding and appreciation of the form has grown and this is due in large part to my wife who is a classical and jazz-trained saxophonist.  Michaela is a talented musician in her own right, but she also knows how to share that passion with others both in terms of the history of jazz and its structure.

On Friday night we saw the Wayne Shorter Quartet which included Brian Blade (drums), John Patituci (bass), Danilo Perez (piano), and the Imani Winds.  We’ve seen Perez and Patituci before, but it was a real treat to see them play with Wayne Shorter whose musical compositions are anything but traditional.  On Saturday evening we saw guitar virtuoso Mike Stern, along with Perez, Patituci, and Dave Weckl (drums).  Stern puts on an entertaining show and really seems to enjoy himself on stage.  He has an incredible sense of rhythm and he is somehow able to combine jazz, rock, and fusion in a way that never seems contrived.  Again it was interesting to watch Perez and Patituci adapt to a very different style of play.  Last night we caught Mike Stern once again, but this time he was with Roy Hargrove (trumpet) and Richard Bona (bass) along with Weckl.  It was another solid show.  At one point Bona did a solo which shaded into a solo vocal performance of a west African folk song.  Bona looped and layered at least 10 harmonies that left the crowd in awe.  These musicians don’t get nearly enough recognition nor financial reward.

As I mentioned before we also saw Keith Jarrett along with his regular team of Jack DeJohnette (drums) and Gary Peacock (bass).  Jarrett’s ballads are beautifully crafted, however, I suspect that many people will remember his comments towards the end of the concert.  Announcements are made before every show reminding the audience not to take pictures.  At least two camera flashes could be seen within a few minutes of the concert; at the end a number of people took the liberty of snapping pictures and this apparently upset Jarrett.  When he came back out he announced sharply that the concert would end if the people did not “put their fucking cameras away.”  I was a bit stunned by the comment but Jarrett proceeded to predict what the “French newspapers” would have to say about all of this the next day.  Perhaps in trying to make-up for his choice words Jarrett ended the show with two encores.

I can’t think of a better way than to spend five days with my best friend.  Some photos of the trip can be found at my flickr.


Civil War Literature Blog

I don’t keep track of every Civil War related blog as it is simply impossible to do.  The list in my sidebar constitutes the sites that I regularly check out; on occasion I go beyond to additional linked sites to see what’s happening.  I prefer those blogs that force me to think critically about history and related subjects.  On that note I highly recommend Craig A. Warren’s new blog, Civil War Literature.  The first few posts are incredibly thoughtful and focus on Craig’s interest in how fiction captures the past and continues to shape our own perceptions.

Craig teaches at Penn State Erie and is the creator of the Ambrose Bierce Project.  The site also contains an e-Journal which he edits.  I am slated to contribute an essay for the next issue (December 2007) which will explore Ambrose Bierce and Civil War memory.  If you have time check out the journal as the essays are first-rate.