Career Switch to Teaching Special Needs Kids

As an undergraduate at Dartmouth, I had no idea what my career would be. I was a religion major, but I saw no future in the ministry. I loved my classes, but none of them prepared me for any line of work. Senior year, I had no job offers come my way. I did know one thing, though: I wanted to live in New York City. Two weeks after graduation, I joined three ‘89 friends in their Hell’s Kitchen apartment, paying $50 a month to live on their futon.  

Within days, I followed a help wanted ad I saw in the New York Times to DDB Needham Advertising, where I landed a job as a junior media planner. I’d always loved magazines. I read the Times each day. The idea of deciding where ads would run appealed to me. After a year, I switched sides to become an ad salesman at The New Yorker. Then, in 1996, after five years at The New Yorker, I joined the launch team of Maxim, a new men’s magazine, as their first Advertising Director. During my time at Maxim, I rose to become the Group Publisher, leading our ad sales and marketing team, and helping to grow our emerging branding and events businesses.

In 2008, with the global financial crisis crushing ad budgets and the internet siphoning ads away from print, I began to contemplate a career change. Would it be possible? Did I really have the strength to leave a business I’d invested two decades of my life in? What would I even do? 

After a good amount of soul searching, I decided to become a teacher. I enrolled at the Bank Street College teaching master’s program. I worked as an assistant teacher in a 3rd grade classroom. Eventually, I helped start a school. I now work as a middle school math teacher and faculty coach at The Shefa School in Manhattan, a grades 1-8 Jewish Day school serving students with diagnosed learning disabilities. For 13 years, this work has been my second career and also my passion. 

How did I make such an intense, and unpredictable, career change? More on that after I describe my typical day at work (note: this is my pre-Covid day. During Covid I taught my classes on zoom and coached our math teaching staff remotely like everyone else)…

6:00 AM Wake Up. I wake up pretty early (for me, at least). My morning starts with a cup of Joe coffee, a quick scan of the Times, and a walk in Central Park with my dog Nacho. A quick shower and dress at 6:45 and I’m on the B Line from 86th street down to Herald Square. I arrive at school by 7:30 sharp. 

Morning: In the morning I teach three of my five math classes, each one 45 minutes long. Between classes, I’ll spend a period or two preparing lessons, grading papers, and creating specialized math worksheets, games, and activities. 

Each Shefa student arrives at our school having attended a different school where they struggled with reading, writing, and math. Our school’s mission is to address their learning needs with a customized approach, one that depends on specialized curricula, specific teacher training, and smaller class sizes. Our students are very bright and fully able to learn. They simply require a different approach. 

I teach math to our middle school students, grades 6, 7, and 8. At our school, we don’t use a standard math textbook. Every lesson, every math worksheet, and every activity is custom-tailored to the small group I’m teaching (usually around 4 to 6 students). I also create individualized supports for specific children based on their math learning challenges and strengths. 

Our math pedagogy centers on multi-sensory experiences instead of rote memorization of number-based facts and symbols. I introduce each mathematical concept with building activities, game play, and extensive discussion. I work in lots of visual supports to help our students make sense of the mathematical concepts. For example, when introducing fractions, I use clay models and plastic knives to mold and cut the “whole” and to create and name the fractional units. 

Math was always a struggle for me. Taking Math 4 freshman year at Dartmouth nearly killed me. For many of my students, learning math is like learning Russian every day: not only is it a different language, but there’s an entirely different alphabet. Over time they get it. In the process, my students build their skills, their confidence, and their self-esteem.

Afternoon. I’ll teach two more math classes, then it’s time for faculty and math department meetings. Ugh! I love my colleagues, don’t get me wrong. My fellow teachers are some of the most dedicated, caring, and intelligent people I’ve known. But I hate the adult-only meetings. I’m in it for the kids! Part of why I got into teaching was to avoid meeting after meeting with adults. That said, there are always important things to discuss about our children’s development and achievement. 

4:00PM: I take the subway home to the Upper West Side. I’m usually pretty exhausted. On the train, I’ll take a stab at the Times crossword puzzle. Some afternoons after arriving at home, I’ll get out and take a run in Central Park. I’m training to run the NYC marathon again (I ran my first one in 2019). Often, however, I’ll ditch the run and just collapse onto the sofa for a much-needed nap.

Evening: I get some dinner and hang out with the family. Two of my kids are at college already, so I spend time with my 14 year old son, often helping him with his math homework.

Each night, I spend 60 to 90 minutes grading quizzes, honing my lessons for the next day, and writing comments on my student’s work papers. Whether it’s a quiz, a worksheet, or the morning “Do Now”, I make sure to write a positive note of encouragement with a smiley face. We inherit kids with crippled self-esteem, so this personalized note-making is part of what I do to help them rebuild. No kid enters our school as their first choice, it’s a place they land after a devastating experience at another school. At Shefa, our students turn themselves into successful learners, ready and able to return to their previous schools after 8th grade to complete high school. When they return, they’re often surprised to find themselves so successful. They shouldn’t be surprised.

* * *

So back to how I got here. You know, how I found myself teaching math to students with learning disabilities after a 20-year career in the high-flying publishing industry. 

The truth is my career change gestated for more than two years. Beyond the financial crisis and the volcanic changes in the advertising and media landscape, I was growing disenchanted with my work. Traveling all over the country (and the world) to meet with advertisers, which I loved at the beginning, had become pretty boring, rote stuff. I was beginning to feel all my creative impulses vaporize. All I wanted to do was get home. One night, as I sat alone in the Detroit Metro airport, a raging snow storm outside delaying my flight for another three hours, I decided it was over. Can I actually do something different? Yes. What do I really want to do? I want a career that makes a positive impact on other peoples’ lives, not just my own. 

Teaching was a family business, so this made it a natural fit. Both my parents and my grandmother were teachers. Every conversation around the dinner table revolved around students, faculty, and learning. I also, thank God, received positive support from my wife, in every way. This was my chance. I’ve never looked back.