Choosing the classroom

When John Compton '88, Avis Minger '75, and Hilary Sparks-Roberts '82 look back now, the decision to become a teacher seems to make so much sense. Each has talents, values, and interests that, in retrospect, pointed all along in the direction of teaching. Each, interestingly enough, comes from a family of teachers. And each talks about teaching, today, with such affection that it's easy to conclude that teaching must have been a first, an only, a natural choice.

It wasn't.

Hilary Sparks-Roberts was a political aide and a lawyer who had an epiphany.

Avis Minger was a bookseller, part-time musician, and volunteer animal trainer who needed a reality check.

And John Compton was in management in the insurance field when he heard a callor, more accurately, a reminder.

Few professions are as consuming as teaching. Even if you don't work summers (and quite often you do), you bring the job home, every night. You bring it home not only in the form of correcting papers and preparing classes but also in the awareness, which you can never quite shake, that the "material" you're working with is far more challenging than any court case, more vital than any insurance claim, more elusive than a lilting tune. You're taking responsibility for the education of children.

In leaving other careers to become teachers, these three alumni wrestled at times with fear and with a sense of inadequacy. None of them, however, has any regrets about making the change.

The golden handcuffs and the cartoonist's call

John Compton, in fact, had always been interested in teaching. His mother and sister teach elementary school, his father was the treasurer for the Centerburg, Ohio, schools, and the encouragement John got from some of his own teachers in Centerburg made him feel a responsibility to do something similar in his life.

In addition, he says, "I had done well in school. And there's the expression, `The A student becomes a teacher.' Also, I'm a bit of a performer at heart, and in school you have a captive audience."

When he graduated from Kenyon, though, an important priority was to stay close to his fiancée, Karyn Oltmann '90, who still had two years to go. Thus, while one of his seven job offers was for a teaching post at an independent (private) school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Compton chose to take his double major in anthropology-sociology and English just forty minutes down the road, to State Farm Insurance in Newark, Ohio.

He and Karyn got married three months after his graduation and moved into the carriage house that is now part of the Gambier House bed and breakfast. She walked to classes, and he commuted to State Farm in Newark.

"I told them, `I probably won't be here in five years,'" Compton recalls, "and their attitude was, `We've heard that before.' They pay well. One lady used the term `golden handcuffs.'"

Starting in 1988 as an underwriter, Compton was promoted to a supervisory position in which he directed the work of twenty women who microfilmed and typed documents. Some of them were old enough to be his mother, but others were fresh out of high school, and he found himself in a teaching-advising role, trying to impress on them the importance of basic work habits. "I'd have to take one aside sometimes and say, `You have to come to work, on time, every day, even if you had a fight with your boyfriend.'"

He taught more formally, too, in State Farm's "field university." He would travel around Ohio to conduct three-day training sessions in business writing. "I'd often teach about writing effective business letters," he says. "For example, I might have to talk about how to cancel someone's insurance policy in such a way that he'd still feel good about State Farm. Instead of saying,`We're canceling your policy,' you'd say, `We feel it's necessary to end our relationship.'

"It was teaching," he says, "but it didn't feel like I was changing the world."

Ultimately, Compton's supervisor recommended him for a post at State Farm's corporate training office in Illinois. The opportunity could have been a tempting one. At the time, he was managing a field maintenance crew, a group of tradesmen and laborers responsible for maintenance and repairs at thirty-eight claim centers. "I had to arrange to get the plumbing fixed at one office, or repair cracks in the parking lot at another. It could be challenging, but at the same time I felt, `I'm using my Kenyon degree to fix toilets.'"

By the time the corporate-training opportunity arose, however, Compton was already thinking seriously about graduate school leading to a career in either teaching or student affairs. The call that resonated with his own stirrings came at Karyn's graduation in 1990, when cartoonist Bill Watterson '80 returned to Gambier as the Commencement speaker.

Watterson talked about leaving a job he hated to pursue the dream that ultimately led him to "Calvin and Hobbes," his popular comic strip. "We all have different desires and needs," Watterson said, "but if we don't discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled."

Compton made his decision. "I told Karyn, that's it. I'm going to leave State Farm." The following fall, he started a two-year master's degree program in English at Ohio State University. He very much enjoyed the experience, both being a full-time student again and working as a teaching assistant in freshman English. He received his degree in 1993, and that summer he and Karyn moved to Oklahoma City, where he had found a job teaching eighth-grade English at Heritage Hall, an independent school, while also coaching baseball, basketball, and football.

The adjustment wasn't entirely easy. For one thing, he discovered that the independence of an independent school was scary as well as liberating. "I walked in, they gave me a key, and they said, `There's your room, go teach English.'"

He also found that his classroom experience with reasonably tractable students in freshman composition at Ohio State didn't fully prepare him for middle schoolers. "At first, I thought, I'll empower them; we'll talk together and set up the rules. It took a while to realize that they wanted me to be their teacher, not their friend.

"They pushed me, they tested the limits," he continues. "They were good kids, but fourteen-year-old boys are often more interested in fourteen-year-old girls than they are in your class. I had to learn to be more of an authority figure."

Perhaps the toughest adjustment was to a life without golden handcuffs. Compton was earning only $18,000, and Karyn was going to school again (studying occupational therapy). "We put a lot of her first year of school on the credit card," says Compton.

Still, he loved teaching. When he and Karyn decided to return to Ohio to be closer to both of their families, he found a job at the Columbus Academy, an independent school in Gahanna, just outside Columbus. After two years teaching seventh-grade social studies, in which he was able to use his Kenyon anthropology background, he switched to the eighth grade, teaching American government as well as a class on writing research papers.

Now in his eighth year of teaching, Compton feels quite settled. He appreciates the advantages of private over public schoolsmaller classes, more planning periods, and greater control over what he teaches. "I wouldn't trade the lifestyle," he adds, noting that, even though he teaches summer school, he has plenty of time during the summer to spend with Karyn, their three-year-old daughter, Amelia, and their newborn son, Hayden.

He's well aware of the financial sacrifice he made in leaving insurance, though. Only this year has his salary reached the point where it was when he left State Farm in 1991. He and Karyn are still paying off student loans. They hadn't owned a home until recently. And Compton feels the occasional pang when he reads about the golden business careers of his peers in the class notes section of the Bulletin.

But when his eighth graders, hearing that he used to work in business, ask him incredulously, "Why did you become a teacher?" he asks back, "Would you choose a job that you didn't like?"

"Using everything I knew"

Avis Minger '75 has four resumes, all quite full, all intriguing. There's one for bookstores, which sustained her for twenty years. Another documents her flirtation with a career in animal training. A third, which grew out of her talent with the violin, is filled with freelance gigs, festivals, and workshops devoted to traditional fiddle music. The newest one, and by no means the longest, is for teaching.

Like Compton, Minger comes from a teaching family: her father was a history professor at Loyola University of Chicago, and both her mother and grandmother had taught elementary school. But Minger says, "I didn't want to do what my parents did; I resisted that." After graduating with a degree in English, she starting looking for jobs and found that her love of reading propelled her to book stores.

Between 1976 and 1996, she worked for six different stores, first in Illinois, where her parents lived, then in California, where she had been born and where her mother returned after her father's death. She never made much moneyand there was always the temptation to take advantage of the employee discount and spend her money on booksbut she enjoyed being with book lovers and expanding her literary knowledge.

The stores ranged from a small independent shop that was taken over by the B. Dalton chain to a metaphysical shop stocked with books on astrology, Eastern religion, and New Age philosophy. Minger learned to do everything: run the cash register, field queries at the information desk, restock and organize shelves, handle telephone sales and special orders, and deal with publishing houses. A move from Los Angeles to the Bay Area led her to Cody's Books, a well-known store in Berkeley, where she coordinated the reading series and hosted author events. Over the years, she also cultivated a special interest in children's literature.

Two additional interests blossomed toward possible new careers. One was traditional fiddle music, including old-time American, English, Irish, and French Canadian styles, and mediaeval and renaissance music. While still in Los Angeles, she began performing at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire and playing with groups with names like the Merry Pryanksters, Pipe and Bowl Morris, and the Tutti-Frutti Commedia Company.

Meanwhile, a long-time love for and interest in animals prompted her to take a number of extension courses sponsored jointly by the University of California at Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Zoo. She also participated in the zoo's apprentice zookeeper program and, as a volunteer docent, swam with dolphins at Marineland of the Pacific in Palos Verdes.

In 1981, she enrolled in the exotic animal training and management program at Moorpark College. In addition to taking classes in animal behavior, animal care and handling, biology, and public relations, she got experience caring for birds of prey, lions, primates, wolves, and other animals. The hour-and-a-half commute was forcing her to wake up at 4:00 a.m., though. And then she ran out of money.

"Some realities came crashing in," Minger says. "I had to make a choice. I had discovered two loves, animal work and music, but I couldn't do both." She decided the animals would remain a hobby but not become a career. To be closer to a livelier music scene, she left Los Angeles for Berkeley.

In the Bay Area, she did continue to work with animals, most notably at Marine World Africa U.S.A. in Vallejo, where she was a research volunteer in Project Circe, which studied dolphin communication. She began to volunteer as a docent with the Oakland Zoo, too.

Performing with various musical groups, she fiddled for contra, Morris, and English country dances and made regular appearances at such venues as the Great Dickens Christmas Fair and the Old San Francisco Fair. To support herself, though, she relied on her job at Cody's Books. "My friends who were doing music for a living were living hand to mouth; in some cases, they didn't even have a place to live. The ones who were doing best were doing music on the side."

She loved Cody's, but it was clear that the retail book business, at least at her level, didn't offer a great deal of financial security. It was time for a reality-check. "I began to wonder how I was going to retire," Minger says.

All along, her mother had urged her to consider teaching. "She told me, `You play music and you're involved with animals, interests that would fit beautifully in a classroom; they're wonderful things to share with kids. You're a versatile person. That's something teaching requires.'"

In fact, Minger had started taking occasional education classes at San Francisco State University. "I thought I might need it someday; it would be a fallback." Now her mother's arguments seemed more compelling. While continuing to work, she pushed toward teaching certification, taking one class every spring semester, because the fall was too busy both at the book store and with fiddle gigs.

She received her certification in 1996, just when California embarked on an effort to reduce class sizes in the lower grades. "Suddenly, they needed more teachers," says Minger. "Instead of having to substitute for a few years while looking for a full-time job, everyone in my graduating class got hired."

She herself was hired by the Washington Primary School, in Berkeley, to teach kindergarten, the one grade in which she had absolutely no experience. "There was a terrible moment of panic. I was breaking off from music. People had told me, `Teaching will eat the rest of your life.' I was terrified.

"But I really felt it was time for a change," she continues. "I couldn't stay with the book store forever. So I took a leap of faith."

And she landed safely. "Teaching is emotionally fulfilling and intellectually stimulating," says Minger, who stayed with kindergarten for four years before switching to fourth grade this year. With no children of her own, she enjoys the role of surrogate mother, and she likes having her own classroom to fashion into a creative environment for her studentsa welcome change from "sitting behind a cash register bored out of my mind."

She did find that she had to back away from music and animals for a few months, but she continues to perform at fairs and festivals and remains a zoo docent. Moreover, she says, "My mother was right: I ended up using everything I knew." Her knowledge of children's literature has proven to be immensely valuable. And animals are a natural in primary school. Minger's class pets have included fish, rabbits, and rats, while animal visitors have ranged from dogs with special skills to a leopard from the Oakland Zoo's zoo-mobile. She has also had students visit her home to see her horse.

Although some people who come to teaching from other careers are all too aware of the financial sacrifice involved, Minger has a different perspective. "Compared to retail, a teacher's salary feels like riches," she laughs.

The rewards, of course, go beyond money. "With teaching, you don't realize what a great job it is unless you've worked in other things. I'm never bored. There's never a day that's the same. There's always something that will make me rise to a challenge."

An epiphany in juvenile court

If teachers always have to be on their toes, ready for anything, then Hilary Sparks-Roberts '82 got excellent preparation when she went to work for Ohio Governor Richard Celeste in 1983. An English major who had spent a year after graduation in Washington, D.C., teaching government workers how to use e-mail, Sparks-Roberts landed a job back in her home state as a "briefer" for the governor.

Basically, she had to prepare daily written briefings for Celeste on the next day's events. "There might be ten events or more," she says, "with subjects ranging from local toxic-waste sites to visiting Honda officials." There were also longer-range projects, preparing briefing materials for the governor's trips abroad or elsewhere in America.

"I was a researcher, writer, reporter, and detective," she says. "I could call anyone, anywhere, to get the information I needed. My liberal-arts education at Kenyon prepared me well for this. Celeste needed someone who was a fluent writer and who was comfortable with people."

It was an inspiring job, because Sparks-Roberts admired Celeste and loved working with his staff. "They were people who wanted to make a difference, social activists," she recalls. But the pressure rarely let up, and the days were long and exhausting, often running late into the evening. Sparks-Roberts was ready to move on after two years, longer than most briefers lasted.

Many of the staffers with whom she identified were lawyers, she'd noticed. If she wanted to fashion a career that would make a difference in society, it seemed logical that the next step should be law school. She enrolled in the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in 1985.

The logic didn't play out quite so easily. Law could be fascinating, but Sparks-Roberts was disappointed by the number of her fellow students who were interested primarily in corporate work. She was also put off by the competitive atmosphere. "At Kenyon, people were very ambitious, they could be driven, but never at the expense of anyone else. At Case Western Reserve, there was a tendency to hope that someone else would be put on the spot. That really turned me off."

By the time she graduated from Case Western Reserve in 1988, she was having second thoughts about law. Nevertheless, the law school experience was to prove decisive in her life. First, she met her husband there, Kevin Roberts, whom she has described as "a Renaissance man in the true Kenyon tradition." Second, law school led, in the spring and summer of 1989, to a clerkship with a judge in juvenile court in Cleveland.

"I loved kids and loved the idea of working with them," she recalls. "In court, I saw a parade of kids, and guardians, and prosecutors, all presenting cases to the judge. I saw how hamstrung most attorneys are; they can spend half an hour with these kids, or maybe, if they're lucky, an hour. And by the time the kids arrive in juvenile court, they're pretty damaged. The options that a lawyer can present to them are very limited."

That's when the epiphany happened.

"I thought, `Oh my God, I've been such a fool! I've always loved literature and language, and I love working with kids. I should be in education. Of course! That's what I'm supposed to be doing.'"

Teaching was hardly alien to her. Her father had taught English at Ohio Wesleyan University before becoming a lexicographer for Webster's New World Dictionary. Her mother was a librarian who also had teaching experience.

At the moment, however, Sparks-Roberts was about to become a mother herself. She and Kevin had a daughter, Quay, in July 1989; less than three years later, they had a son, Conor. Leaving legal work, she put career change on the back burner while making use of her writing background to get freelance writing and editing jobs, work that fit more readily into the time constraints of a stay-at-home parent.

By 1993, when Conor was one, she felt ready to begin exploring the education field. She taught preparatory courses for the verbal section of the SAT, working at both private and public high schools in the Cleveland area. She also had a wonderful experience teaching General Educational Development (GED) courses in English and social studies to adults who had never finished high school.

"It was phenomenal," she says. "The students' ages ranged from eighteen to sixty. They were from varied cultures and backgrounds. Some were immigrants. But they all shared this unmitigated excitement about learning. This was a chance for me to explore education with students who were incredibly motivated. It was as if everything clicked. After class I would just fly home. I felt rejuvenated. It was challenging, because there was such a wide range of abilities. But I was content."

In 1998, she was ready to pursue teaching certification, and she embarked on two years of full-time study at Cleveland State University. Many of her fellow students were adults who, like her, were changing careers. "The atmosphere in class was charged," she says. "As students, we demanded a lot."

Sparks-Roberts chose to become certified to teach English at the secondary level. "I'd been exposed to so many jobs that required an ability to communicate, and I'd seen how limitations in that ability can really stymie people," she says. "I wanted to be able to give students the tools to make it."

She felt some trepidation as she faced her practicum and her student teaching at James H. Rhodes High School, a public school in Cleveland. "I'd heard all the media hype and tales of woe about Cleveland public schools," she says. "I wondered whether the students might be more than I could manage."

All went well. In her practicum, in the fall of 1999, she taught a unit on Macbeth, rising to the challenge of eighty-minute periods by being as creative as possible. "We read aloud, read to each other, took roles and acted out scenes, heard recordings, and drew parallels between the play and their own lives and the modern world," says Sparks-Roberts. "I wanted them to enjoy and learn to appreciate the power of Shakespeare's language. I was just thrilled with the class I had."

As for discipline, she was helped by the fact that she was older than the typical student teacher. "Anything older than twenty-four is ancient," she laughs. "To them, I might as well have been ninety."

She did her student teaching in the spring, and by August she was preparing for her first full-time job in the classroom. She will be teaching tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-grade English at Lake Ridge Academy in North Ridgeville, Ohio, just west of Cleveland.

It's an exciting, hopeful time for her. "I feel almost apologetic to think I'll be getting paid to read novels and work with students on their writing," says Sparks-Roberts.

At the same time, she admits to being a little bit nervous. "My standards for myself are very high. I'm always aware of things I don't know. I'm always prodding myself to do more and learn more and read more. There's so much out there to absorb."

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