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Confessions of a Career-Changer

Goodbye preaching, hello teaching.

By David Denny

Back to school day was always big in my churches. As minister, I would stand in the pulpit and salute the brave educators celebrating (dreading) the beginning of a new year. Holding my hands high in Mosaic fashion, I would call for all the hallowed teachers to stand, and I would sanctify them for another year of service to mankind.

Little did I know I would one day be one of the sacrificial lambs led to the—well, I won’t say slaughter, that sounds so permanent. So True Confession #1 is this: I never thought I would be a teacher. Never!

After nearly 25 years of standing in front of octogenarians in fashionable Sunday hats smiling up at me with southern gentility, I leapt from the sacred to the secular. One day I was parsing Greek verbs in Matthew 11:25 preparing for a sermon, and the next day I was sitting with a roomful of somewhat confused career-switchers in mid-leap. 

Let me be clear: I did not leave the ministry easily. But church politics can be wearying, and after decades of fish bowl living, I decided to risk a new challenge.

‘If you survive...’

I will never forget that first day at Old Dominion University, holding a thick packet of information under one arm, finding a seat in the lecture hall. I did not know anyone. A thousand doubts tore at me. Could I actually be a teacher? Did I really want to be? 

Nestled among pilots, lawyers, and nurses, I heard the old white-haired professor say: “It will take you five years to learn this craft. Some will make it. Some won’t.” I twitched. He continued. “If you survive, you will find teaching to be a fulfilling career.”

The teacher as ape

During my month-long career-switcher intensive course, I taught three lessons, each one to my fellow professionals pretending to be middle school students. No one asked to use the bathroom seven times. They politely raised their hands for questions.

Then it was over and I was a job seeker. I remember talking to a school administrator in Virginia Beach. Desperate to fill an English position, he hired me on the spot. The next day, I was standing in front of a class of eighth-graders. I was petrified.

I had spoken before hundreds of people every week for over 20 years, soothed grieving souls at hospital beds from Chicago to New Orleans, led tour groups through Europe. But that was all irrelevant, because now, I was locked inside a small room with 30 eighth-graders who stared at me as if I was a visiting ape from China in a D.C. zoo.

That first month nearly swamped me. Each night I pored over the thick curriculum guide, which was like a huge cookbook without an index or pretty pictures of steaming soups and chocolate cakes. The more I read, the more the recipes merged and morphed into Delphic formulas with keyless locks. I couldn’t figure it out! Panic swelled in my chest. The second night, I broke into a cold sweat, pacing back and forth at 3 a.m. Confession #2: I nearly quit.

Stirred imaginations

Since then, I have learned there are very few Mt. Everest moments in teaching. Educators thrive at the lower elevations where student smiles and thank yous abound. Little advances can be so gratifying. I have watched clumsy writers become adept at stringing nouns and verbs into miniature works of art, often amazing themselves. I have seen dull imaginations stirred in playful discussions of novels. I have ridden yellow buses with energetic students on field trips of discovery. Each little success is a step on the route to Everest.

Five hundred lives

Five years have passed since I first stood in that little room with two windows, a sink, and 30 kids waiting for me to say hello. I can honestly say now, I am a teacher. Maybe not the best or most talented, but I have touched about 500 lives. That’s a congregation! This week, one of the girls in my first class came back to visit. She told me I was her favorite teacher and that she wanted to be a writer like me. I didn’t let her see my tears. Final Confession: I love teaching.

David Denny teaches English at Lynnhaven Middle School in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Photo: D. Kevin Elliott

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