By Tyler Leeds

The Bulletin

Standing before her language arts students, Kyle Suenaga often thinks back on her time racing jet cars and flying smokejumpers into forest fires.

“It’s stressful standing up there in front of high school students, in one way. Their lives actually are in my hands,” said Suenaga, who is in her second year of teaching at Mountain View High School. “But given everything I’ve done before, I can say to myself, ‘Chill, nobody can die in here.’”

Suenaga, 42, is an example of what Carolyn Platt calls a mid-career changer. Platt, who is program lead of teacher education at Oregon State University-Cascades Campus, estimates that one-third to one-half of her secondary education students each year fit into the mid-career changer category. The university does not track the students or have a formal definition, but Platt said students who come to teaching after five or more years in another profession tend to have an advantage when they step into their own classroom.

“They bring a wealth of knowledge about their field into the classroom, and can talk to students about it, giving them the chance to wrestle with real life problems,” Platt said. “Whether it’s a scientist discussing their research or a business person economics, it grounds the lesson in an authentic context.”

For Suenaga, the application is less direct — pilot ratings don’t necessarily help one teach novels by Toni Morrison.

“It’s not just the physicist or the lawyer who can do this, as teaching is not only knowledge and pedagogical skill, but also the dispositional ability to connect with students,” Platt said. “Mid-career changers, coming in from whatever field, have a bit more self-confidence and self-awareness. Because of this, they can better adjust to students.”

After controlling hunks of metal moving at high speeds, Suenaga says she has overcome the shyness she was known for in her younger days.

“I wouldn’t have been able to teach without everything else that came before,” she said.

Platt emphasized that she was not trying to disparage students who arrive straight from an undergraduate program, though she did bring up a practical advantage mid-career changers have over their younger colleagues.

“When we have students come in directly, often they can be quite young-looking,” Platt said. “If you want a position in a high school, it can sometimes be hard for high schoolers to see you as an adult, which can pose problems.”

Making the switch

At an applicant interview day at the OSU-Cascades Graduate and Research Center, a range of mid-career changers explained their reasons for wanting to make the switch.

“An engineer can spend months tinkering endlessly on one widget, but you don’t get to branch out and see the big picture,” said Patrick McBrien, 31, a product designer and software engineer who hopes to become a science teacher. “Especially with high school and middle school, you get to teach such a broad range of topics, which is something I’m excited for.”

While McBrien plans to draw on his past career , he also admitted that knowing the material is hardly enough to guarantee success.

“I think it will almost be like being a performance actor,” McBrien said. “If you don’t keep kids’ attention, they’ll let you know, maybe not with boos, but definitely with yawns. That’s something I’m ready for but will have to work on too.”

James Wakefield, 50, a chemist who has taught on and off at colleges on the East Coast, said he has always felt the call to teach high school science.

“It’s really an existential question for me. Some people tend to love flying airplanes, and others love to teach,” he said. “In a way, I’m a third-generation teacher, and I just want to get back to that.”

With a doctorate in hand, Wakefield believes he will be able to bring a lot to ambitious students, though he also feels he will need to make many adjustments from his time in higher education.

“I’ve never really had to take anybody’s instructions on what to teach before,” he said. “More importantly, I’ve never had to listen to parents before, so that will be a big change. Before I was told explicitly to not talk to them, but now that will be part of the process.”

Jake Zywicke, 31, has similar motivations to Wakefield, though his background couldn’t be more different, having spent his life as a raft guide and on ski patrol teams. Now, he wants to teach science, with an emphasis on outdoor learning.

“The hedonist lifestyle is wonderful, but I wanted something more sustaining, and I’ve felt the call to be in the classroom,” Zywicke said. “In a way I’ve worn the teacher hat before — when you’re leading a tour you have to be authoritative but at the same time open and welcome to questions.”

The inner feeling

Suenaga admits she misses flying from time to time.

“It happens every once in a while, but it passes,” she said. “Some of my students wonder why I would have ever given up racing and flying, but what they don’t know is that there’s a lot of boredom, a lot of waiting and sitting. This is so different, every day is different and every year brings new students and there’s always a new way to teach. It feels right.”

Platt says this “inner feeling” is what often draws her mid-career changers to OSU-Cascades.

“We have people all the time come in and say they always thought about education, but resisted because they thought they wanted some other experience or to make more money,” Platt said. “But after going out and doing that, they find it not fulfilling and come to teaching to bring meaning to their life.”

Erika Strauser was a project engineer in Portland. Her most visible contribution to the cityscape was an adjustment to the columns supporting the long-term parking lot at the city’s airport.

“I had followed my dad and brother into that career, and I really loved math and science and thought it would be a good way to work in those fields, but that was before I found teaching.”

Strauser, 26, moved to Bend with her husband and spent a year trying to find a job as a project engineer.

“I was teaching Zumba on the side and couldn’t find much,” she said. “After a while I had the chance to volunteer with a youth group at my church, and I came back from the trip knowing that I was meant to be a teacher. All my engineering training was to prepare me to be a high school teacher.”

Strauser even sees providence in her ability to land a job at Summit High School.

“There’s really only one physics teacher at every high school, and the previous one had just retired,” she said. “It’s nothing short of a miracle, and I felt it confirmed that this is what I’m meant to be doing.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160,