Friday, February 04, 2011

These NYers left lucrative careers to teach city kids

A wonderful article about three people who became NYC teachers mid-career, thanks to the NYC Teaching Fellows program.  One of the three is my friend Jane Viau, who I call the Jaimita Escalante of NYC for the amazing results she's achieving with students at Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem (see: and

By the tender age of 35, Jane Viau was living the New York dream. After 16 years in finance, she was enjoying "interesting and intellectually challenging" work — and a cushy salary — as a vice president at Merrill Lynch.

But the events of 9/11 prompted an "early midlife crisis."

"I thought, if I'd perished that day, what would be my legacy?" says Viau, now 46. "What have I done that's of any use?"

After months of soul-searching, Viau decided that teaching math to underprivileged kids would be the perfect way to use her skills to make a difference. So when she learned about Teaching Fellows, "the timing was perfect," she says.

If leaving a plum job was daunting ("people looked at me like I was insane"), Viau found the apparent apathy of her students at Harlem's Frederick Douglass Academy downright shocking.

"I was always very driven, and used to being surrounded by people as ambitious as me," says Viau, an upstate native who attended SUNY Binghamton then earned an MBA from NYU's Stern School. "The lack of motivation was very foreign to me. I had to find creative ways to make the class engaging."

It helped to have a wealth of real-world math scenarios to liven up lesson plans.

"I can pull up millions of examples of how I used this exact concept we're talking about," she says. "The kids come out knowing not just the procedure, but why they should care."

Her time in finance prepped her in other ways: She says the industry's "fast-paced, ever-changing" environment is not unlike a classroom, where "students can change their behavior on a moment's notice."

Over time, Viau learned not to take students' misbehavior personally, and grew to understand the challenges many face. (In 2009, she and her husband even took in a former student who was living in a group home; their foster daughter now spends college breaks in their Stuyvesant Town apartment).

Even on her most challenging days, Viau says she never regrets her career shift. And on good days — when her students grasp a tough concept or show they're thinking independently — the reward is priceless.

"When the kids really get into it, you can't help but get excited with them," she says. "I don't think I could have said this about any other job — but this job is fun."

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