When I first ventured into acting, I was 42 years old. I had practiced law, headed an agency of state government, taught high school history for seven years and served as an assistant principal for one.
Which is to say, I understood something of the “real world”.
To be sure, I’d never started business, or created any jobs. In fact, as a government official, I’d uncreated two jobs which had been budgeted for my agency – by upgrading our office technology.
But that’s beside the point, which is that I chose acting over going back into public education. I hadn’t given up on teaching, not completely. But my plan had been to become an administrator. After seven delightful years at Midlothian High School, I’d gone back to UVA to earn an M.Ed. and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership.
What I learned, in three years of grad school and one as assistant principal, was that my experience at Midlothian had been a fluke. The work of school administrators was becoming, increasingly, about everything but teaching kids.
In other words, after four years of seriously studying school administration, I’d reached the conclusion that it was a thankless job, and I wanted no part of it.
So the choice, after all that study, was between returning to the classroom – or exploring my newly discovered joy in acting. I figured I could always teach, so I gave acting a try.
Since acting was a new field, I read several books of advice for the young actor. True, I wasn’t all that young, but I was new. So I did my homework.
There was a lot of advice of a purely practical nature. What your headshot should look like. What to include in your resume. How to choose an audition monologue. That sort of thing.
But the professional actors who wrote books and articles offering advice to young actors all seemed to agree on one main thing: Unless acting is the only thing you can imagine doing, do something else.
Put another way: If there’s any other career that would make you happy, choose that career.
As a man with some experience of the world, I saw the wisdom in that. But I was 42, twenty years older than most beginning actors. I had tried my hand at three “real world” professions. I had skills, and some savings. I decided to give myself three years to achieve something on the stage.
As things turned out, I got my first major gig in a bit less time – a contract to play Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady at an Equity dinner theatre in Boca Raton, Florida. The contract was for sixteen weeks of performances, eight shows a week, at union pay, with housing provided.
Now, that one wonderful experience did not turn out to be the beginning of a triumphant career on the stage. I had a good run for several years, but as I approached 50, I started thinking about things like retirement and the rising cost of health insurance, and I did the prudent thing.
I headed back to the classroom, and spent the next four years trying to figure out why teaching wasn’t as satisfying as it had been.
I came up with some answers too, but none that persuaded me to give up the steady paycheck and decent benefits.
Until SOLs, that is.
When federal and state politicians decided to drop the pretense that they regarded teachers as professionals – by making them responsible for getting the least motivated kids to pass bubble tests – I realized that the politics and bureaucracy which had discouraged me from being an administrator were now oozing into the classroom.
And so, after trying one year of teaching to the tests, and experiencing constant friction with administrators over paperwork and “pacing guides,” I decided I’d had enough.
Our public schools are not what they used to be. So long as we continue trying to “teacher-proof” the curriculum, instead of hiring professionals and treating them as such, they never will be.
Here’s my point: In the years after I left Midlothian, I heard from at least three students who had become high school history teachers, and credited my class with their choice of careers. At the time, I felt very proud of this. Today, I feel more than a little regret.
Today, if a young person were to ask me for advice about a career in teaching, I’d tell them what old pros tell young actors.
If you can be happy doing anything else, do that.
I’d also tell them this: At some point in your college years, get fluent in a second language.
Because once you realize what the politicians and administrators have made of our public schools, you might decide you’d be better off teaching in a country which takes education seriously, and treats teachers like honored professionals.