Let’s just say you have a family you love and a highly successful, non-teaching career – like financial services. You’re happy in your life choices, but you’ve always harbored fantasies of stepping into a classroom, your chalk and attendance chart in hand, and making a difference in young people’s lives.
A: Wait until retirement to dust off your Dead Poets Society dreams.
B: Abandon your current life for unknown adventures with Teach for America.
C: Have it all! On your own time, right here in NYC.
Meet Steve Blum, the man who chose option C. A Yale alumnus, championship fencer and father of two grown children, Steve is a Managing Director at Burnham Securities. He found us last year at the Yale not-for-profit fair, where he confessed to a lifelong love for education, fond memories of bringing math to life for his own kids and, like many professionals in other fields, an interest in picking up teaching as a second career “someday.” When we told him we could place him in a classroom as a volunteer – for as many hours during the week as he might be able to give us – he jumped at the opportunity to stretch his teaching wings without chucking his current life. “That is really the moment I realized that there was a different path that is not full-time teaching but that would provide an outlet for those needs,” he says.
How much time would you like to devote to your new teaching adventure?
A: All week! I’m on a gardening leave and want to do something new and productive.
B: I can sneak away from work for a couple of hours once or twice a week.
C: Only on Saturdays, but I can help by tutoring needy students.
Steve chose option B, and we set him up with Jenny Tsang, 2nd grade teacher at P.S. 154. He counts himself lucky to have been in her classroom all these months because she’s passionate about teaching and clearly loves her kids. “Nothing matters more to her during the workday than them,” he says. “But she’s also disciplined. If her eyebrows turn into that upside-down V, they shut up right away. They know they’ve been too noisy; she doesn’t even have to say anything.”
Steve quickly became a favorite fixture in the classroom, known for his ever-present briefcase, sharp suit and tie and unparalleled ability to count money and tell time (check out a few of the thank-you notes). “Some of my responsibilities were truly behind the scenes – like cutting pieces of paper into the shape of feathers for Thanksgiving headdresses.” But he also spent time working with students individually, helping them with their writing and eventually teaching modules of reading comprehension and math to small groups. “The first time was really sort of terrifying,” he says, “because I felt a lot of responsibility.” He considers his progression from the back of the classroom to developing a teaching relationship with students who really needed the help to be one of the most eye-opening experiences he’s had. “It really made me realize the importance of keeping a positive attitude when working with kids who have dozens or hundreds of hours ahead of them before they can get to grade level.”
How would you most like to help?
A: Volunteering time in the classroom and becoming a role model for the kids.
B: Providing supplies to a desperately underfunded classroom.
C: Arranging cool cultural experiences that make the students excited about school.
Steve chose…all of the above!…not only purchasing several hundred dollars worth of classroom materials like calculators and art supplies, but also arranging for Yale a capella group Out of the Blue (where his kids Max and Rebecca were once student directors) to give a school-wide performance. If the photos coming out of the event – where Steve is immediately mobbed by adoring 2nd graders bearing crepe flowers – are any indication, we’d say the concert was a total success.
Being able to observe the effect that he has on students and classroom has been both rewarding and, as Steve says, “humbling,” particularly after receiving an armful of hand-colored thank-you letters in the wobbly print of seven- and eight-year-olds. “Reading through those letters was one of the great feelings I’ve ever had. On the one hand, it’s a feel-good thing; on the other, it’s humbling and sad because if it matters that much, it also means they’re probably not getting as much love in the rest of their lives as they should.”
And for those folks who are anxious about the unknowns of brushing off those teaching dreams? “What a great way to find out an awful lot about being in a classroom,” says Steve. “You will get a lot more than you can possibly give because the youngsters are lovely and loving people who are completely unsullied and joyful. Go with an open heart – nothing can go wrong.”