Coming to the Classroom Via Wall Street: A Conversation with Second-Career Teacher Dana Mohn

Dana Mohn, a second-career teacherTeaching was not an obvious career path for Dana Mohn. In high school, she completed a banking-oriented trade program, and after graduation, began a career in finance. Also, by her own admission, she “doesn’t like kids.”

“I was never a great babysitter. I’m not really super kid-friendly,” says Mohn. Yet Mohn discovered a hidden passion for teaching and is currently completing her 14th year as an educator.

“Teaching happened to me. I didn’t happen to teaching. I think I was meant to be a teacher, but I didn’t originally understand that,” says Mohn, a fifth-grade teacher at Augusta A. Mayo Elementary School in Compton, California. “When I started, I realized I loved doing it.”

We recently asked Mohn to reflect on her experiences as a second-career teacher.

Tell us about your path to teaching. At what point did you decide you wanted to be a teacher?

I was doing really, really well without a college degree. I started out as an executive assistant and worked my way up. I ended up working on the trading desk of some large investment firms, doing the nuts and bolts work of managing a whole bunch of money.

My last job in finance was with Wertheim Schroder, a London-based investment firm. I worked in their Beverly Hills office and routinely rode the elevators with people like Michael Jackson and David Geffen. I’d gotten a $10,000 bonus the year before – at age 25 – but was upset because my boss had gotten a $1 million bonus. And I started realizing that the focus was constantly on money and making more money. I started to see how you can lose yourself to that. So when my firm decided to pull out of Beverly Hills and transfer all staff to other offices, I decided to go back to school.

How did you get your teaching license?

I applied for every single grant I qualified for, lived as a student (even though I was in my 30s) and pursued a liberal arts degree at Cal State Long Beach because I still didn’t know what I wanted to be. I did some tutoring at the time. One of my professors asked me to tutor some of his other students, and I just kept getting asked to tutor. I also worked as a home teacher for a little boy with autism. I kept ending up in teaching positions, and it started to seem as if the next step on my path was teaching.

One of my professors talked to me about it and talked me into doing my credential. I earned my teaching credential after my bachelor’s degree.

What do you enjoy about teaching?

Teaching is the best job in the world. You get to be a part of a kid’s life in ways that are so far beyond teaching someone how to multiply decimals or how to read. I get to be a part of kids’ lives as they learn and grow. I get to high five them when they do something awesome and hold their hands when they cry.

What was the most difficult part about transitioning to teaching?

I came from a world that you did your very best and were rewarded for your best; that’s how you moved up the food chain. When I transitioned to education, it was like running into a brick wall because there are so many layers, so much bureaucracy.

The hardest thing, for me, has been trying to understand the educational bureaucracy.

Do you think your previous career experience has been an asset?

Absolutely. Because I come from the world of business, I have an outsider’s perspective that helps me understand what my students need to know. Do my fifth-graders really need to have the Latin and the Greek roots of words memorized? No, they don’t. I know that because I was a really successful person and nobody ever asked me about Latin and Greek roots. So I teach my students how to find that information, how to find information they need.

One of the things that has helped me become a better teacher is that I understand what education is needed for outside of the classroom.

If you could change one thing about the current educational system, what would it be?

I would train teachers better. I wouldn’t spend so much time teaching them how to teach math or language arts or reading. Teachers certainly need that information, but I would spend much more time preparing teachers to handle students’ social and emotional issues.

I didn’t even know the things I didn’t know when I started teaching. Nobody taught me what to say or do when a kindergartner stands before you and tells you his dad was shot in the head the day before.

Kids today have so many issues that we are ill-prepared to handle, and if we can’t handle their mental and emotional needs, it doesn’t matter how we teach math.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about teaching as a second career?

Go find a teacher and spend a couple days with him or her, to make sure teaching is something you really want to do. We have so many people now who think, “Teaching is a cool gig. I’m going to do this for a couple of years,” but being a teacher isn’t a couple-of-years job. You don’t get good at it until you have four or five years of experience. So unless you’re absolutely sure you want to be a teacher, don’t do it; you’re dealing with kids’ lives.

The decision to go into teaching shouldn’t be based on “I think I might want to do this,” but on “I feel really strongly about this. Teaching is where I should be.”

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.