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The City Journals

Why these successful professionals became teachers

Jan 30, 2019 10:59AM ● By Jet Burnham

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

What is an internationally successful businessman and bestselling author doing in a middle school? He’s a teacher.

Hiram Bertoch was reaching half a billion students around the world with his science education internet company. He was writing textbooks, training educators, advising government officials and significantly impacting the direction of science education worldwide. Bertoch said he “observed classrooms in the poorest parts of South America and the wealthiest parts of Europe.”

“I may have had a global impact on education, but I was not having any impact whatsoever on individual students,” Bertoch realized six years ago. “My heart ached to work with my own students. I began the process of selling my company and of rearranging my life so that I could spend the rest of my career as a middle school science teacher.”

Now a teacher at West Jordan Middle School, Bertoch doesn’t miss being a CEO, attending “boring meetings.” He believes science is naturally a fun subject—made even more engaging by his unconventional, throw-out-the-book teaching style.

“There’s no reason for me to be lecturing or to have the kids read out of textbooks,” he said. “The only thing I use my text book for is to level my pinewood derby track.”

Bertoch uses hands-on, experiential activities to teach concepts from the curriculum. Students get a visual and personal understanding of Newton’s Laws of Motion by witnessing the results of their cars in a pinewood derby race or the spectacular crashes of vehicles designed to protect an egg passenger in a demolition derby.  

“They score really well on tests because they’re not just trying to remember something they memorized,” he said. “They can build things and do things and learn how they work. And then they retain it.”

Bertoch doesn’t hold back when it comes to interactive lessons. His students might find a stream built in the middle of the classroom to explore erosion or an earthquake table to test structures they’ve built with a moving plate tectonics simulation.

“It’s a lot of work, but that’s why you’re in education,” he said. “You’re in education to make a difference with these kiddos. What I care about is that they are learning to be intelligent, that they're learning to think and they’re having confidence in themselves.”

He encourages his students to aim high. 

“It doesn’t matter if you were successful last year,” Bertoch said. “It doesn’t matter if your parents were successful or where you’re living, or what your race is—you can, right now, do as good as anybody else can.”

Bertoch, father of seven, is also the author of 15 books, including an educational series and two bestsellers.

Video games are welcome in this classroom

After 30 years working in the flight simulation industry as an engineering manager, directing more than 150 engineers and traveling to 28 countries, Stacy Pierce took a 75 percent pay-cut to become a teacher.

“I love teaching—I’m crazy about it,” said Pierce, who teaches freshman math at WJMS.

“These ninth-graders—they either believe they can do math or they don’t,” she said. “I think this is really the last opportunity to change a kid’s mind, to instill confidence that they have the capabilities to succeed in math. The biggest part of my job is making them believe that they can do it—and I have never yet met a kid who can’t.”

Pierce has found that students struggle to learn math when they think it doesn’t relate to their lives.

“You’re working with X, Y and Z, and you have no clue why,” she said.

Because of her real-world experience with math in military and commercial airlines simulations, she emphasizes real-life examples with her students.

“It's a lot more interesting to them if you can make the math related to something that they understand,” she said. “I try to relate as much as I possibly can to video games and to flight simulation because every single kid knows about video games.”

For example, she relates new terminology to gaming concepts: If a character turns around, that’s rotation; if they walk forward, that’s translation.

Pierce relates other concepts to students’ own experiences. She finds they are motivated to learn equations that will help them calculate the discount on a sale item and determine how many shirts they can afford on their budget.

Pierce wants students to understand that math creates opportunities for a variety of careers.

She tells them, “If you can do math, every door is open; if you can’t do math, 80 percent of the doors close on you, and you’re only 14. Do you really want to close 80 percent of the doors right now?”

Pierce was inspired to become a teacher by her father, who dedicated his life to Native American education.

“When he passed away, I just decided it was time to try to pay it forward,” she said. “I didn’t need to make the money that I used to make; I needed to help kids open the doors to their potential.” 

Worthwhile sacrifices

Jorge Chauca was on the front lines of cancer research while earning his degree in microbiology at BYU. After graduation, he started working for a large biotech company and was well on his way to a successful career when he realized he had lost his purpose.

“I realized I was not really contributing toward anything; I was just making some guy rich,” he said. “I wanted to do something that had an impact in the community and on society—something more meaningful.”

He moved back home to Peru where he started from scratch. He began tutoring students and then took a job as a teacher.

“I just loved it and realized I can do this for a living,” he said. He earned his master’s degree in teaching at Westminster College and now teaches integrated science and AP environmental science at WJMS.

“I have always believed that the students had to be hands-on but also minds-on with science,” he said. “Students have such a high capacity for learning. They have the chance to push their own brains to their full capacity—there are no limits for them.”

While many science teachers set up a lab for students with step-by-step instructions to achieve a desired result, Chauca challenges his students to develop their own experiments. His early experiences of creating his own procedures while researching antioxidants in cancer prevention inspired this style of instruction.

“I always start with inquiry-based activities and have students figure out, first, what is the thought process and then figure out what experiments they can run,” he said. “I can see them actually learning and not just regurgitating what I tell them.”

While he did take a pay-cut when he became a teacher, Chauca said the biggest sacrifices he’s made are in sleep, time and freedom. 

In addition to teaching, Chauca also volunteers extra time to run the chess club and soccer leagues after school. During science fair season (which lasts four months at WJMS), he spends three afternoons a week helping students with their projects. And as Latinos in Action adviser, he keeps busy with service projects and community involvement. He said it is rare that he finds a length of time free from responsibility long enough to visit his family in Peru.

Growing potential

As a wholesale perennial grower, Brett Milliken grew 1 million pots of plants each year. But when he realized he wasn’t growing professionally, he looked for a new field of opportunity.

Milliken, a self-proclaimed horticulture geek, wanted to have more interaction with others who could appreciate his excitement about a new plant species or a multifaceted landscape design.

“I didn’t have an outlet to pass on my passion and excitement,” he said.

When he found an opening for a horticulture teacher, he realized he could share his passion with young people and plant seeds of enthusiasm for the future of the industry at the same time.

Sharing his passion for horticulture with his students, Brett Milliken plant seeds for the future of the industry. (Photo courtesy Brett Milliken/JATC)

 Landscape architecture and horticulture, the two classes Milliken now teaches at Jordan District’s Academy for Technology and Careers, represent dwindling industries which are in need of a new generation of professionals. The problem is, according to Milliken, that many young people have misconceptions that these jobs are just mowing lawns and pulling weeds. Milliken utilizes his position to expand students’ understanding of the career options available. 

Many take his classes because they are already interested in the field, which gives Milliken his needed outlet.

“I can geek-out because the students are all plant geeks, too,” he said. 

The position he accepted four years ago was to grow the program at JATC South Campus. Starting with a 2-acre plot, students have been involved in the design of a demonstration garden. They’ve had hands-on design experience working with a professional landscape architect through every step of the process, from design to installation to maintenance.

“Having a teacher who has ‘walked the walk’ and has experience on the ground, out in the real world, brings a perspective to a classroom that a teacher that has just read about it can’t bring,” said Milliken. “I try to make things as close to a professional experience that they would have.” Students also grow plants in a 9,000-square-footgreenhouse and then learn to interact with customers when it is opened for sales to the public in the spring. 

The biggest adjustment Milliken has had to make since becoming a teacher is that his schedule has flipped. Summer is a slower time now, while as a grower, summer was his busy season.