A surprise request for help with an after school science program led Kerri to a new and rewarding career as an early education teacher.
Tell me a little about you, your family, your life, education, and work experience before your Next Act?
After graduating from Indiana University (1986) with a degree in Child Psychology and plans to go into healthcare, I began to work for a high-end clothing store in Chicago. When I was asked to become a buyer, I ended up staying on. I loved the people I worked with and the creativity the job allowed.
With the birth of my first child, Steven, my company was not open to my wish to job share or work part time, so I quit to stay home with my son and really loved it. The decision was for the best as my husband, Stuart, was soon diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and I was able to be home to care for him as well. We survived a tough year and a half, but I am happy to say he is cancer free and doing well.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
Subsequently, we had two more children: David and Natalie. When my youngest, Natalie, was three years old, and I was 40, her preschool Director approached me about teaching a science enrichment class for 4-year-olds. My initial reaction was “Why me? I don’t know anything about teaching preschool!” The director told me she thought I was a great mom and very creative and that I’d be terrific for the job. She knew I had a college degree in Child Psychology, which qualified me to work in a preschool.
I had been considering going back to school for pediatric nursing and had started to look into programs. But it is really hard to get a Master’s in Nursing as a Part Time student and I wasn’t ready to commit to working or studying full time.
I went home and thought about it: I love children, I love being creative, I love to learn… Maybe this was a part-time job I could do and still be home with my kids. And it would be a good way for me to try teaching and see how I liked it.
The preschool parents who knew me were very supportive and excited for me. Those who didn’t…I do not know what their initial reactions were but, over time, I believe they were happy to have a teacher with a lot of enthusiasm and love for the kids.
I think teaching preschool and Kindergarten suits my personality well. I hope I can make preschool a happy place for children and that I can help instill a lifelong love of learning.
What is your Next Act? Tell us about what you are doing…
I am a preschool teacher. When I first started, I agreed to teach after school as long as I could shadow the current science teacher before she retired. I have always loved science and had taken a lot of science classes. I also did a lot of experiments with my boys at home, because they were interested too. I loved the preschool children and teaching them science was exciting and rewarding. I worked hard to find ways to explain tough science concepts to them in a hands-on and engaging way.
I was nervous and excited about my first class. I was super prepared, with a lot more than I needed! I felt like it went well, but that I probably should have gone into less detail. I learned over time to zero in on what message I really wanted them to take away after class. That helped me focus my lessons without too much extra information.
I hope I can make preschool a happy place for children and that I can help instill a lifelong love of learning.
The director, parents, and kids were enthusiastic about what the kids were learning. A lot of parents told me “this is my child’s favorite class!” That made me even more excited. I put a lot of research and time into planning my curriculum and was thrilled that it was received that way. Registration for the next session had a wait list!
With the success of my science class, I was asked to create after school classes for art, cooking, and math. As my children grew, so did the number of classes I taught. I love the relationships I have built with the children and their families. These relationships, and the kids’ excitement to learn, are what keep me motivated and what I find so rewarding. My own kids had a lot of ideas for me. They were great at being my “testers,” helping me see where I needed to tweak my lessons so younger kids would understand the concepts.
Eventually, at age 45, I felt like I really wanted more knowledge about Early Childhood education, so I decided to pursue a Master’s degree. I needed to take a few prerequisites like Statistics and exams (Basic Skills Test and Miller Analogy Test) to gain entrance to National Louis University (NLU) in Chicago. I chose it for its reputation as an excellent teacher’s college. You can get a master’s in 2 years full time or up to 6 years part time.
I love the relationships I have built with the children and their families. These relationships, and the kids’ excitement to learn, are what keep me motivated and what I find so rewarding.
For the last 4 years, I have taken one class a quarter. The last piece of the puzzle toward my degree is 10 weeks of student teaching, which I will do in March. I don’t know where I will be placed yet, but it will be a primary grade classroom. I am taking a leave of absence from my preschool teaching at that time, then hope to graduate in June! With my Master’s, I will be able to teach in a primary grade school, which I can’t do now. The degree also makes more more knowledgeable and credible.
What challenges have you encountered?
My family has been incredibly supportive of me going back to school. There have been some challenges along the way. A lot has changed since I was in college. The computer has been the biggest part of the challenge for me. My kids and husband have been very patient, teaching me how to make PowerPoint presentations, edit, post on the online website, etc. They are really proud that I am working towards an advanced degree and care about what I do so much that I want to gain more knowledge.
At first I felt a bit awkward about being an “older” student in my Master’s program. But the young students were really open minded and friendly towards me. My kids are not much younger than them and, in group discussions, I think they enjoyed hearing some of my teaching and parenting stories. We found some common ground: I was very supportive of them getting a Master’s early on and I think they looked to me for guidance, both personally and professionally. They also helped me with the computer stuff; that was the easy part for them! It has definitely been a two-way learning street…and a very positive one.
It is both rewarding and challenging to work in the same community where you live. Rewarding because I form awesome relationships with local families and I hope to be a good role model to young parents. Challenging because sometimes there can be awkward situations with parents wanting me to “get their kid in my class.” In those cases, I explain that there are procedures they need to follow and teacher child ratios we need to maintain. But I also encourage them to get on the wait list in case someone drops the class or the waitlist gets long enough that we are able to create another class. I just say I will do the best I can to help, but it is not my decision at the end of the day!
At a few points along the way, I honestly was going to quit. It is expensive and challenging to balance school, work, and family. My schedule is a bit crazy: I teach during the day and go downtown at night or take classes online. My family encouraged me to stick with it no matter how long it would take for me to get the degree. They said “some day you’ll be 50 anyway! With or without a degree-so you might as well continue!” I am eager to finish and am proud that I have stuck with it. I do think it has been good for my kids to see that I have persevered despite the bumps along the way.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
If you have a little voice inside of you that keeps drawing you to something, you should act on it. Why not? You have nothing to lose but a bit of time, and it may lead you on a wonderful journey.
For anyone looking to go back and teach, you need to decide what area of teaching you wish to go into. Special Education? Early Childhood? High School?
If you have a little voice inside of you that keeps drawing you to something, you should act on it.
Look online and do some research about what programs are offered, at what locations, at what times, and at what cost. The program has to fit into your life… NLU offers classes face-to-face as well as online. I prefer face to face classes, but sometimes the convenience of online is terrific. I have taken a blend of classes. NLU is a private school and a bit expensive, but there is financial aid available.
Work backwards: Think about your end goal and then see which programs fit that best. Talk to a guidance counselor at the schools to get a feel for fit. And talk to current students.
Find teachers to mentor you through your journey. Two of my kids’ teachers, Wendy and Marney, were hugely helpful to me. I loved their teaching style and they were really supportive and encouraging of my goals.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another Next Act in your future?
I am not exactly sure what I will do with my graduate degree. I love teaching where I’m teaching, but I may want to add a program that I take to inner city schools and help enrich their science and math curriculum. We will see; first I need to get that degree!
What resources do you recommend?
This Teaching Life by Wendy Wasserman