Switching careers: Following their passions in teaching

Michael PhaneufThe economy may be slowly climbing out of the sinkhole it was in for the past two years but that still has not translated into jobs. Unemployment remained a high 9.7% in January, and experts fear that those positions are gone forever. As a result, more and more Americans may be forced to reassess their career choices.

When considering a career switch, take the time to do a self inventory, recommends Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder of The French Culinary Institute and author of "Love What You Do: Building a Career in the Culinary Industry (iUniverse).

"We've always had people tell us who we are, and we have to listen to our inner selves and say, 'What is it I like to do? What am I good at doing? What is it I can see myself doing for the next five years at least? What is my responsibility in all this?'" Hamilton said. "You may want to become a trapeze artist, but you have a family, three children and a mortgage to pay. That's not going to happen."

Once you've figured out your options, see if you can marry your passion with the skills you already have. If you want to go in a totally different direction, do your research and talk to those in the field about how you can acquire the necessary skills. If going back to school, whether for a master's or a certification program, is part of the equation, interview the students and graduates. Visit the career placement officers.

"No one is here to go to school," says Hamilton. "Everyone is here to get a job. So you should look at job placement."

Michael Phaneuf took that into consideration when he left his corporate job to become a teacher. He and Tricia Williams, a chef who became a chef-nutritionist, share their stories of transformation.

Michael Phaneuf: taking the plunge

Like many people, Michael Phaneuf struggled through 2008. The economy was tanking and his dissatisfaction with his corporate job as a recruiter was growing deeper. However, it wasn't until the Christmas holidays, with the help of his spouse, that he decided to apply to the Boston Teacher Residency program.

"Teaching was always in the back of my mind but there is a stigma with teachers, of it being a thankless job, the burnout," says Phaneuf, who graduated from Babson College with a bachelor's degree in business. "But every two years, I would go to a teacher Web site and look but never make the leap. Finally my spouse said, 'What do you want to do? Don't think about the money, what it will cost. What do you want to do?' I said, 'Be a teacher.'"

Searching on the Internet over the holidays led him to BTR. He applied a month later because he liked that within about 13 months, he would obtain a master's in education, receive an $11,800 living stipend, and get hands-on teaching experience. He also liked the support it offered during and after graduation.

The only catch: he had to commit to teaching in the city's schools for three years. But for every year he teaches in a Boston Pubic School, the program forgives one-third of the $10,000 loan it gave him toward his master's degree.

To make the most of his experience, Phaneuf, now 34, opted to become a middle school math and science teacher with a special ed background, all areas of great need. He also called on his corporate background to network and get noticed. As a result, he landed a job at Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot School in April 2009.

"Every corporation has a culture. So does a school and a classroom," he says. "Understanding how it works is important."

"There is a level of professionalism that is crucial to being a teacher," Phaneuf said. "How do you handle yourself? Like being on time, working with colleagues, communicating, dealing with parents. Parents expect you to be professionals."

Phaneuf is enjoying the career change despite having to take out a loan to help pay for his mortgage. His advice for those seeking to make a similar change: consider your cost of living.

"Would it have been better to have more in the bank saved up? Yes," says Phaneuf. "You have to cover your mortgage, food, everything that comes with whatever stage of life you're in. There were people in the program with children. Do your research and ask those questions."

Tricia WilliamsTricia Williams: cooking up a life in food

After the birth of her son in 2005, Tricia Williams, a chef at Manhattan eateries like Home and The City Bakery, wanted to take a breather from her 80-hour work weeks. During her time off, she continued to cook, this time for her family. "I started thinking about food for him and it changed my perspective," she recalls. She decided to bone up on nutrition.

"I thought of a traditional registered dietitian degree but I didn't want to give out nutritional advice in a clinical setting and work with packaged foods," says Williams, now 38.

Instead, she crafted her own study, getting a holistic nutrition certification from Columbia's Teachers College, a food therapy certification from Annemarie Colbin at the Natural Gourmet Institute and certification from the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. The year-long quest, at a cost of about $30,000, prepared her to assist families in developing healthier approaches to food. "I really got into food therapy and its healing aspect, food as medicine."

She opened her doors in 2008 first to consult and counsel. But as her relationships with clients deepened, she tapped into her chef background, holding cooking classes and offering private chef services.

And she just launched an early childhood palate development program. Despite the recession, the company, Food Matters NYC, has grown to two full-time employees with lots of part-time help and has moved into a new 3,500-square foot work-and-living space.

"Have a passion for what you do and find a need for it," recommends Williams. "If you look at the state of the world, health and obese children, for me it was a no-brainer."
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