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. 


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9 comments… add one
  • Jackie Jul 28, 2007 @ 21:18

    I am a close friend of David (Kevin’s brother), and I am very proud of his choice to leave a lucrative culinary career in pursuit of a career in education. He is well-versed in his subject area, and he will no doubt make an excellent teacher and role model.

    I am a high school English teacher, and while I agree with many of David’s points, I feel compelled to refute his assertions and generalizations that your age is going to make you stand out in an applicant pool. I began teaching when I was 23 years old; I spent one year coaching college basketball, and then decided to make the switch into the classroom. I had never taught before in my life, nor had I ever managed a group of people. What I did have, however, was a passion for English and an ability to relate to kids. That is the key component to being a successful educator. You can be an absolute expert in your chosen area of study, but if you can’t relate to the kids, all of your knowledge will be wasted.

    Sure, a good teacher needs to possess solid classroom management skills, but being able to capture the attention and interest of a group of kids is the key to winning them over. You need a personality. There are plenty of teachers who I have come across who have had careers in law enforcement, business, law etc…who were successful in their previous careers, but they just didn’t have the personality to really figure out what makes a bunch of teenagers tick. Obviously, there are exceptions to this example, but I don’t think age becomes an issue in the classroom at all as long as you are confident, energetic, quick on your feet, and creative.

    I think that David’s generalizations about teachers who step into the classroom fresh out of college with no prior experience other than “delivering pizzas” is a tad rough, and a bit offensive. Some of the best and most successful teachers I work with started teaching right out of college. Moreover, both David’s father and my father were extremely effective teachers, and they began teaching right out of college. As I said, age doesn’t mean a thing. You could be 22, and really stink at being a teacher, or you could be 40 with previous career experience and be terrible too.

    My advice to anyone who is looking to pursue a career in teaching is to come across as energetic and creative in the interview process as you possibly can. Administrators want teachers who develop fresh ideas and lesson plans; who aren’t afraid to make classroom material relevant to kids’ lives. That’s the key to getting into education. It doesn’t matter what you did in your “past life.”

    I wish you the best of luck in your pursuit of a teaching job. And Dave, you have the whole package to be a great teacher! I know you will be amazing!

  • HankC Jul 12, 2007 @ 16:15

    Hello all,

    Sorry I did not check back in until now…

    Robert, you sound like a good fit for a mid-life career switch to teaching.

    Many/most/almost all people underestimate how difficult teaching is on a daily basis, and not just because of the intellectual challenges.

    Teachers are called upon not only to educate children, but also to nurture their curiosity and civic values, identify personal and family troubles and teach manners and rules.

    Teaching often shares one thing with abstract art: everyone thinks they can do it 😉

    Good luck,

  • David Levin Jul 9, 2007 @ 23:20

    Hello Hank
    I am Kevin’s brother. It has been my experience while going back to school, that what is disingenuous is 18-20 year old students deciding that they want to be history teachers because they like watching the history channel,or they are not very good at math, science or english and they look forward to what they feel will be an easy work week with summers off. I believe people between the ages of 30-40 are more sincere about a career in teaching because they have already been successful at a career in law,business, writing or computers. Some simply want to teach what they already know. They know how to be successful and they know what it means to be passionate about their career. I myself have already utilized my past career as a chef and taught classes at my local culinary school. I have also spent over 15 years managing, motivating, teaching, training,disciplining and discussing future careers with my staff. This doesnt make me an experienced teacher, but i have a better chance of making a positive impact in a school than someone 15 years younger who just graduated and spent thier summers delivering pizzas.

    dave levin

  • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2007 @ 9:03

    Thanks for writing Eric and good luck with your program.

  • Eric Jul 7, 2007 @ 8:47

    I’m in a similar boat. I’m 40 now and just retired from the Army after 21 years and plan on finishing my undergraduate degree in History / Secondary Ed in 2010. I’ve always wanted to teach History, but just never thought it would become reality. I ultimately desire to get my MA (or PhD) in History as well.

    It’s quite interesting going to class with kids 20 years younger than myself. I agree with everything David said regarding class and future potential. Luckily, my university is made up of about 30% non-traditional students and has a large veteran population as well. So I don’t feel quite so out-of-place. In one of my education classes I sat next to a 60 year old grandma who is going into special ed.

  • Robert Pomerenk Jul 6, 2007 @ 18:18

    Hank – I am the author of the original email. My contact with children is:

    -12 years as a Sunday School teacher – teaching various grades 3-12
    -4 years as Director of Education at my church

    It is not as much as some people have, but I think its a start. My mom is a teacher/educator in other roles. She has been for 40 years and I have heard every horror story you could possibly hear, but I still hear her love for it and that has been one of the biggest encouragements to me.

  • matthew mckeon Jul 6, 2007 @ 16:23

    I think HankC is saying that people sometimes have an unrealistic view of what teaching is. Why not, I have an unrealistic view of other professions. As far as coming to teaching late, in middle age, don’t waste a second worrying about it. The students don’t care for the very good reason that it doesn’t matter.
    If you want an unvarnished look at teaching at a public school, try Brendan Halpin’s “Losing My Faculties.” You too can while away a meeting playing “buzz word bingo,” listen as a facilitator reads powerpoint slides aloud to you and absolutely float home after a great class.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2007 @ 13:55

    Hi Hank,– I’m not sure I understand your point. Is wanting to become a teacher any more disingenuous than wanting to switch to a different career?

  • HankC Jul 6, 2007 @ 12:28

    The comment ‘Teaching is not a job, but a lifestyle’ is telling. One thing I’d ask teacher-to-be’s is what has been their interaction with children? Sports, Sunday-school, volunteering, community drama, other?

    I heard that the half-life of a teacher’s career is one year. Similar to infant mortality if you make it through the first twelve months, you’ll probably make it.

    It’s interesting, and somewhat disingenuous, to hear people say, ‘I want a career switch, I think I’ll become a teacher’…

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