Professional journey leads Birch back to class

by Sara Woelfel

As his two daughters packed for college last fall, Jim Birch experienced his own back-to-school jitters right along with them.

“I was apprehensive because I had been away so long,” said Birch, who enrolled in Stritch’s Master of Arts in Teaching program last fall to pursue his PreK-6 teaching certification.

He admitted feeling a bit anxious about attending classes, taking notes and writing papers since he hadn’t taken a college class in more than two decades. Yet he felt emboldened with the confidence that this new career move made good sense.

“I feel like it was certainly the right move, and I keep getting reinforcement that it was,” Birch said. “But it’s a challenge with a family, and two kids in college.”

Birch’s mid-life foray into teaching evolved from experience accumulated in his two previous careers – first working at a software technology company specializing in meteorology and later in sales for a custom home builder.

At Weather Central in Madison, Birch found an outlet for his lifelong fascination with the weather. Even as a young boy, he listened intently to his weather radio, read forecasts in the newspaper, and took a keen interest in the clouds and pending storms. This eventually led him to enroll in the atmospheric science program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he graduated with a degree in meteorology and geography.

Right out of college, Birch accepted a job offer from Weather Central, which creates software that provides TV meteorologists with data and displays for their broadcasts. He started out in consulting, and worked in customer service, as a project and product manager, and eventually as operations manager during his 13 years with the company. As his responsibilities increased, the strain of frequent travel and, eventually, of being on call 24 hours a day took their toll.

“If a meteorologist has severe weather right at their door, but they are looking at a radar that is not up to date or something’s wrong with it, it’s a big problem. So it got really stressful.”

Birch and his wife, Hope, decided to move home to Milwaukee, and there he pursued his first career shift. Having two home-building experiences as a homeowner and possessing a real estate license, he joined the sales staff at Lemel Homes in Glendale, Wis.

“That was my first leap,” Birch said. “This came after much discussion in our family.”

Unfortunately, the timing of this leap coincided with a declining economy.

“I got in real estate when the economy, and especially the housing market, started heading in the wrong direction,” Birch said. “So it was a challenge. I really worked hard at it, learned a lot and did really well but not as well as I hoped to.”

He reflected again on his career and recalled how much he enjoyed the opportunities he had to teach at both of his jobs.

“When my kids were in elementary school, I would visit their school a lot to talk about the weather. I really enjoyed that setting, the kids’ eagerness and passing on information to them. Plus, my time traveling the country and training others on the Weather Central software, I enjoyed teaching people new things. The seed was planted way back then.”

Birch decided to enroll in a two-credit college course while working as a substitute teacher to test his aptitude and gauge whether teaching felt right.

“I guess you could call it due diligence. So I went through the course and substitute taught for six months, and everything clicked.”

He discovered Stritch’s Master of Arts in Teaching program, which is geared toward second-career adults.

“I wanted something quick, intensive and accredited, and Stritch just seems to be a fit,” said Birch, who will earn his initial certification through the program with the option to take additional credits to complete his master’s degree.

Last fall, Birch also started working at Marcy Elementary School in Menomonee Falls, Wis., as a paraprofessional. This part-time position allowed him to work with students in reading, math and writing as needed. He appreciated the opportunity to take concepts he learned at Stritch and apply them to his work at Marcy.

Birch admits the part-time gig put a strain on finances, which weighed heavily on his wife, a coordinator at a local health care clinic. But they are taking it in stride, certain that today’s sacrifices are an investment into their family’s future.

“You need to have a support system, both personally and financially,” Birch said. “My wife is doing a lot. I try to help out around the house wherever and whenever, but I’m so focused on this program that it has taken me away from a lot of that, and she’s kept it together.”

Birch looks forward to returning to Marcy in fall as a student teacher for fifth grade, the level he hopes to teach long term. Following this semester-long assignment, he will be fully qualified to lead his own classroom, a challenge he eagerly anticipates. Birch expects his job prospects to be fair, and hopes his maturity, life experiences, favorable references, and passion will help him stand out during his search. Also, he finds himself in the minority as a male teacher in the elementary-school setting and thinks that, too, may work in his favor.

In looking back on his career and the bumps and turns in the road, Birch said every part of that journey helped him gain skills and confidence and ultimately led him where he is today. He wouldn’t be surprised if some of those past experiences help in classroom lessons – using his knowledge of weather, meteorology and astronomy to enhance the science curriculum or his home-building experiences to challenge students in math.

“To teach the content, you want to present it in a way that is engaging and will be retained for most kids. That’s why it’s important to incorporate those real-life portions into the presentation of the content.”

As he looks ahead to finishing his program in just a few months, Birch acknowledges that more career reflection is likely in his household soon.

“My wife has been a huge support for me personally. So when I do finally get out of this program, we’re going to focus on her and make sure she is as fulfilled in her work as I will be.”