A nursing assistant, a lumberjack, a journalist, a marketing professional and a transportation logistics manager. They all have one thing in common: They decided to go back to school, not as students—but to teach.
Why would these five teachers decide to stick it out when daily we hear reports that teachers nationwide are quitting at an alarming rate? In the Lake Union, that rate has accelerated too.
Lake Union Education Director Ruth Horton points to a confluence of factors causing many teachers to change careers, and many potential teachers to forgo education altogether as a career choice. Among these factors are pandemic-related workload demands, teacher burnout, compensation concerns, fear of incurring unmanageable debt in pursuit of higher education, on-the-job safety concerns, byproducts of diminishing constituent embrace and support for Adventist education, and increasingly contentious social, cultural and political battles that often target educators.
Despite so many challenges, many Lake Union teachers keep showing up in their classrooms. And others are stepping up to fill vacancies—often leaving behind interesting and rewarding careers. The following profiles offer glimpses into what leads some professionals to choose—and remain in—Christian education.
Evelyn Hainey spoke to us on her car phone one evening at 8 p.m. It was a school day, and she was driving home from Walmart after picking up supplies for her seventh- through 10th-grade students at Thompsonville Christian Junior Academy. “They’re constructing a house in their Spanish class,” Hainey explains. “As they’re making the house, they’re learning the names of its rooms and furnishings. They’ll be able to share this new vocabulary with their families at our Winter Fest. The parents especially like to see the students’ projects.”
Hainey’s journey back into the classroom followed a path that was anything but direct. Since the age of 14, she worked in food service and had plans for a career in dietetics. She initially studied home economics and dietetics in college.
As a college student, Hainey often volunteered at the local elementary school. She enjoyed working with Pathfinders and the youth at church. Hainey eventually changed her major to journalism. After earning that degree, she worked for several newspapers, then transitioned to development work in an Adventist academy.
Hainey’s work experience has been punctuated by periods of full-time and substitute teaching. She came to the realization that while she enjoyed things about each of her varied careers, she kept feeling drawn back to teaching. “I realized I liked being in the classroom more than any office,” she admits. “And besides, what other job gives you recess?” she adds with a chuckle.
One day, in her first year of teaching junior high students full time, Hainey noticed a flyer announcing, “Teach Guitar in your classroom.” The flyer was advertising a particular music education program. This chance glance led to Hainey earning credentials to teach music at the junior high school level.
One of her fondest memories as a teacher involved unknowingly answering a student’s prayer. Hainey regularly visits a local pawn shop to look for instruments and spare parts needed in her own music program at school. One day, a salesperson handed Hainey a trombone. “We haven’t been able to sell this,” the vendor said. “It’s missing some parts. Maybe you can find a use for it.”
Haney repaired the instrument and decided to present it to one of her students at his baptism. Only then did she learn that this student had been praying for an instrument of his own. He fervently wished to attend Sunnydale Academy and then go on to study music but knew this would be impossible without his own instrument. Today, he works alongside Hainey as a colleague, directing the school’s string ensemble.
“The blessings continue,” Hainey explains. “On a return visit to the pawn shop, I got to chatting with one of the salespeople. I shared the story of their trombone and how it had been an answer to a student’s prayer. The salesperson couldn’t thank me enough. ‘I’ve had a horrible, horrible, horrible day,’ she said with tears in her eyes. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you. I needed to hear that today.’”
As Hainey looks back over her varied career path, she readily admits that every job she has done makes her a better teacher. She firmly believes, “Teaching is evangelism.” She advises anyone considering teaching, “If you enjoy kids like I do, I can’t think of anything better to do.”
Armando Camacho was an unlikely candidate for the Adventist classroom. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Camacho found himself far from both God and the church. “I made a lot of terrible choices,” he says.
Several years later, Camacho was ready for a change. He married his girlfriend, enrolled his children in the local Adventist school, and began attending church again. Unbeknownst to him, he was setting in motion a series of decisions through which God would eventually lead him to his true calling.
Camacho was working in transportation logistics. Because his workday didn’t begin until 3:30 p.m., he decided to pick up some substitute teaching jobs in the local public and Adventist schools. Depending on how many appointments he accepted, some weeks he found himself working 60 to 80 hours between his two jobs. Recognizing a passion and talent for working with young people, he also agreed to serve as Pathfinder leader for his local church.
Camacho began to sense that his work in the transportation industry was impacting his spiritual life. “The presence of God wasn’t there,” he concluded. “I didn’t want to leave the church again. I had to leave my job if I wanted to stay with my faith.”
As he began to investigate other career paths, Camacho’s landlord called him one day to tell him that a family member was returning to town and needed their apartment. Camacho and his wife looked everywhere for new housing, but their search was fruitless.
Three days after the landlord’s call, Camacho received another call. It was from the superintendent of education for the Indiana Conference. The superintendent was aware of Camacho’s invaluable work at his local Adventist school. Their discussions led to Camacho accepting employment at the Riverview Adventist Christian Academy in Evansville. The local pastor found accommodations for the Camachos in an apartment at an Adventist-owned retirement home where Camacho’s wife, a certified nursing assistant, found employment.
Camacho currently serves as principal and teaches math, science and social studies for grades 1-8. He knows that he is working far more than what he is getting paid to do as a teacher, especially in comparison to his previous salaried eight-hour-a-day position in transportation. Yet he is not looking back. He loves being with his students, teaching his largely non-Adventist audience about Christ, and being a father-figure to many. He loves being called upon to exhibit patience, love, kindness and mercy to students who so often have experienced otherwise. He loves hearing his students say they are praying for him.
“I didn’t think I’d ever have this opportunity,” Camacho says. “God gives second chances. Praise Him.” Camacho certainly could be successful elsewhere. He is quick to point out, however, that “teaching is the ultimate job I could ever have.” He believes that God has been training him for this ministry. When rough days happen, as they do for every teacher, Camacho looks back to his calling and reminds himself, “I know this is God’s will. I know that God is on my side and that He is leading.”
Enid Williams started college with the goal of earning a degree in early childhood education. It seemed a natural choice for someone who loved working with children. She began hearing discouraging comments from some around her about teachers’ salaries, however, and switched to studying marketing. She earned a degree in that field and enjoyed professional success as an office supplies re-buyer.
Today, however, Williams finds herself drawn back to what she describes as her “first love.” She teaches all the major subjects plus choir to the fifth- through eighth-grade students at Chicago Seventh-day Adventist School. “Here I am, doing what I started 30 years ago,” Williams observes. Williams says her desire to impart love, wisdom and encouragement to young people led her back into teaching.
Williams, who became a Seventh-day Adventist in adulthood, says that getting to know her students and their families has enabled her to help them both inside and outside of the classroom. She remembers encountering a grandmother who was sacrificing everything she had to provide Christian education for her grandchildren. Williams and her husband, who was a gym teacher, decided to partner with this family by providing transportation for the children to and from school. The families have stayed in touch over the years, and it has been very inspiring for Williams to see these young people overcome obstacles and become successful. “It is a privilege to show the love of Jesus to students and to live it before them and to be a part of their nurturing. You don’t always see the results immediately, but sometimes, years later, you can see the fruits of your labor,” Williams says.
In her current position, Williams enjoys exploring the Bible together with her students. “We were studying the Jonah story recently,” Williams recalls. “They all know the fish part, but I was able to help them see that the story is really about much more than that. It demonstrates God’s forgiveness, grace and mercy. And those are things we must extend to one another too.”
Williams is particularly grateful for the daily opportunities she receives to minister to so many different types of children. “They don’t come in one size,” she says. “They’re not from one cookie cutter. They are all different, with different needs. What you say or do can make or break a child—a word, a look, a demeanor. They’re so impressionable. As a teacher, you can make a difference. You can lay a foundation. That’s what I would want anyone considering this profession to know.”
“The verse ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me’ is always with me,” Williams says. “Time is of the essence. As a Christian teacher in a Christian school setting, you are able to partner the spiritual with the academic to help children navigate their way through this world. You can make a double impact.”
Dave Carter worked as a lumberjack, an analyst of electrocardiography (EKG) data, and in the electrical and construction fields before deciding to use his talents in Christian education. He currently teaches auto mechanics, science and welding at Great Lakes Adventist Academy. He has also taught judo, life skills and mathematics.
Carter explains that he didn’t really decide to become a teacher. “Rather,” he says, “the Lord brought us here so clearly.” Carter never intended to make education his career. He remembers finding the high school years easy and thought he would go to medical school. He had a wide range of interests and was eager to pursue as many of them as he could.
While in college, he took a year out to serve in Taiwan as a student missionary. His duties included teaching English and tutoring students in medical English. “This experience softened my attitudes toward teaching,” Carter discovered.
Carter enjoys the variety that teaching provides. He appreciates how much time he can spend with his students in a boarding school. “Your interaction isn’t confined to the classroom,” he observes. “Often, you are able to get to know your students and their families too.”
Carter has taught long enough to watch his students complete higher education and go on to build their own successful careers. “Many choose medical careers,” he recounts, “and teaching at all levels. One is a veterinarian. Whatever paths they have chosen, I am just happy to see them committed to using their talents and abilities to better themselves and their world.”
Part of his mission, as Carter understands it, is to help his students develop confidence in themselves. “Don’t quit. Don’t give up. These are two things I am constantly urging upon my students,” Carter says. “I also encourage them to get involved at church—now. If they do, it increases the likelihood that their involvement will carry over to their home churches.”
Carter likes to read from Proverbs at the start of his classes. He includes prayer and praise sessions as part of their worship and is always on the lookout for ways to weave spiritual lessons into the academic material. “I had a student teacher who was particularly gifted in this area,” Carter admits. “She was such an inspiration—both to the students and to me. I learned a great deal from her.”
To any young people or used-to-be-young people who may be considering a career in Christian education, Carter recommends it, “if you have a passion for it.” He warns, “It’s a lot more work than you think it’s going to be.” He acknowledges too that “the pay is not always monetary. You are rewarded in other ways.” He is very realistic when he says, “Christian schools are not the utopian settings we may wish. Teachers do encounter criticism and, sadly, lack of support. You have to be strong to be able to deal with these things.”
As he looks back over the range of work experiences he has enjoyed before becoming a teacher, Carter says, “The Lord taught me so many skills and provided opportunities to hone them in a variety of places. Nothing I have learned has been in vain. Everything I have learned is still useful to me—and to my students.”
Sometimes after school, Travis Dennis likes to sit down at home and work on a jigsaw puzzle. “I’m currently working on a 1,000-piece puzzle of the night sky,” he says. “It’s not an easy puzzle, that’s for sure,” Dennis admits, “but it helps me unwind at the end of a school day.” Dennis teaches all subjects for fifth and sixth graders at Milwaukee Seventh-day Adventist School.
Teaching hasn’t always been Dennis’s vocation, however. He worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) for eight years. His father was a pastor and teacher, and his mother was a school librarian. Dennis “grew up in schools” and remembers being with his mother in the school library when Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. “I was probably sitting under her desk at the time,” he adds.
Dennis sees his work as a CNA and a teacher as being very complementary. “I like helping people” he explains, “and that’s at the core of both of those professions.” Dennis credits his parents’ employment, at least in part, for his switch to teaching. “My parents were called to new teaching jobs, and their educational superintendent said to me, ‘I think you should consider teaching, too.’ He was right.”
One of the greatest rewards Dennis finds in teaching is “helping kids succeed.” He remembers one student, a particularly quiet pupil who wasn’t doing as well as he could have in school. This student eventually went on to earn a graduate degree in chemical engineering. “You do what you can for each student, and leave the rest to Jesus,” Dennis says. “You never know what you do or say that might ignite a spark with a student. You don’t always see the results during your brief time together, but you do your best to help them develop a foundation that they can build upon.”
Dennis admits to seeing changes in students now, compared with when he first began teaching. “Kids grow up faster now,” he observes. “I try to help them preserve some of their childhood. I think that’s so important.”
Dennis is teaching 24 students this year, his largest group. He has an aide who assists in the classroom three days a week with grading and tutoring. “She’s invaluable,” Dennis says.
For those who may be considering teaching, either as a first career or a change of career, Dennis advises, “You must have patience. That is essential. School always came easy for me, but for many students it doesn’t. You have to work with the students wherever they are.”
Emily Gibbs and Beverly Matiko
Freelance writer Emily Gibbs is a teacher at Great Lakes Adventist Academy. Beverly Matiko, newly retired English and Communication professor, is especially grateful for the opportunity to co-author this article with her former student, Emily Gibbs. Emily chose Beverly as her faculty mentor for her creative writing honors thesis. They both cherish memories of the time they spent together wrestling with words and ideas during Emily’s undergraduate years at Andrews University.