Once Bored by Science, WGU Graduate Now Teaches It

Scarcely surviving a forest fire in Utah’s Uintah Mountains as an 18-year-old Scout Camp leader was an exciting start to an unforeseen career in leadership for James. Along with three other leaders, he successfully helped a group of young men escape a fast-moving fire. He was promoted almost immediately and asked to help with more camps.

The fire experience sparked James interest in the medical field and he enrolled at Salt Lake Community College where he earned his EMT certification. However, a brief hiatus to serve a volunteer church mission put an end to his medical career. James returned to community college after his mission but had also begun a full-time job at a car dealership delivering parts. He worked on general education classes for several years, but he never actually completed a degree.

Promotions and a $50K-plus salary without a college degree kept James at the car dealership. He continued to take classes at the community college, but working 40-60 hours a week was tough and James grew frustrated that completing an associate’s degree would take so long – so he quit after a few semesters.   A lack of degree hadn’t prevented him from moving up the corporate ladder so an advanced degree didn’t seem worth it at the time. But after five years with the dealership, good pay just wasn’t enough to keep James working in an industry he wasn’t passionate about.

James stayed with the dealership mainly to support his wife through school, but he quit once she earned her teaching degree and began her first year of teaching. He began looking into new careers where he could make a difference in the lives of others. His wife had worked for a non-profit drug recovery organization in Salt Lake City while in school and really enjoyed it, so she recommended he look into jobs there.

There was a job opening and James was hired to support youth with addiction problems that were in state custody. The job was rewarding and there was plenty of room to grow within the organization. He later moved to a different facility working with parents who were trying to re-gain custody of their children. After six months he was promoted in large part because of his passion about improving the lives and relationships of the families he worked closely with. James taught parents skills like how to get their kids to bed at reasonable hours, table manners, healthy meal planning, and ensuring that they got up in the night to feed their baby when they began crying.

After working his way up into management, James made the tough decision to end his career with the drug treatment facility when the organization no longer held non-profit status.

Outside of work, James was spending his free time volunteering at his wife’s school and tagging along for field trips. He got to know the principal, other teachers, and was soon hired as a full-time para-professional. “No one taught me how to be a para-professional, it was something I had never done before,” James said. “I told the principal my plan for the new role and he let me run with it.” The principal and other teachers were thrilled with James’ impact on the kids and many encouraged him to become a teacher.  

“I swore to myself that I would never go back to school,” James explained. “Even though co-workers I looked up to were encouraging me to become a teacher, I really didn’t want to go back because I worried about the time commitment and I thought 30 was too old. When I learned that several of my co-workers had become teachers in their 40s and 50s, I knew it wasn’t too late for a career change.”

With two special needs children at home, James didn’t feel right about leaving his wife to care for the boys while he attended night classes. He enrolled at WGU where his wife earned her English Language Learning Endorsement.

Science had never been a favorite subject growing up, but James worked in several science classes as a para-professional and found himself eager to learn more. “Science class in middle school was really boring for me so I never really liked the subject after that,” he said. “I decided to become a science teacher because I wanted to help kids actually remember their middle school science classes and hopefully spark their interest in pursuing related career fields.” He enrolled in the B.A. Science (5-9) degree program at WGU in February 2015 with 25 transfer credits from the community college allowing him to complete his degree and earn his teaching license in 14 months.

“One of the reasons I believe I was successful at WGU was because I was an older student coming in with life experience,” he said. “I had grit, motivation, and a lot of life experience in solving problems. Because WGU’s programs are competency based and I had to prove that I really knew the subject matter, I graduated confident in my ability to be an effective teacher.”

James completed his degree in April and was hired a month later at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education – where he completed his student teaching.

“On a personal level, earning my degree is an accomplishment in itself because I never thought I would,” James said. “I am now working on the M.A. Science Education (5-9) degree program with WGU. Utah doesn’t require a master’s degree to teach middle school science, but I want to be completely competent in the subject and not settle for a minimum.”

Earning a master’s will also give James the option of teaching at a community college if he decides to venture down that road in the future.

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