KINGSPORT - For years, Debra Mallinak earned a good paycheck working as an industrial engineer in Kingsport.
But something was missing.
"It was just a lack of satisfaction. At the end of the day, you ask yourself, ‘What have I done and how do I feel about it?' I really wanted to do something that I could feel good about," said Mallinak.
In July 2005, the mother of three quit her job to pursue a new career. This summer, she'll complete a master's degree in education through Milligan College, and at 43 years old, officially enter the job market for a teaching position in the region.
For many school systems, mid-career professionals willing to leave the corporate world for the classroom represent a solution to a shortage of teachers expected in the next few years due to upcoming retirements.
According to the National Education Association, more than 1 million veteran teachers are nearing retirement just when student enrollment is rising across the country. Experts predict that more than 2 million new teachers will be needed over the next decade.
Tennessee has implemented some programs in hopes of attracting prospective teachers into the classroom. One of those programs is called Teach Tennessee, which challenges mid-career professionals, retirees and others to teach. The program is designed for those who already have a bachelor's degree and 24 semester college hours in a particular field, and who would like to teach that same content area for grades 7 through 12.
Another program is Transition to Teaching, a federally funded plan designed to attract mid-career professionals and recent college graduates to fill vacancies in critical shortage areas in high-need schools.
Then there's Troops to Teachers, another federally funded program designed to assist eligible military personnel to transition to a new career as public school teachers.
For Mallinak, the transition to teaching fulfilled a lifelong dream.
Mallinak grew up in rural Alabama, the daughter of farmers who never graduated high school.
She was valedictorian of her senior class and a national merit scholar. She wanted to enter the teaching profession, but her own teacher advised against it.
"My teacher is, ‘No, you're too smart. You need to go do more, something better, something bigger,'" Mallinak recalled. "Engineering was the hot field at the time. It was something I could do, and I knew there would be a job market and a good salary. So I went into engineering."
She attended Auburn University where she met her husband, who was studying to become a chemical engineer. They moved to Kingsport in 1985 and both went to work at Eastman Chemical Co.
Over the next 20 years, Mallinak worked as an industrial engineer at Eastman, with the exception of a hiatus to stay at home for a time with her three young children. When her youngest son was in first grade, she returned to Eastman and stayed with the company for another four years before following the call to teach.
She quit her job at age 41, and enrolled in Milligan College in a master's program for people who already have a bachelor's degree in something other than education. The program can be completed in 15 months, but Mallinak, with three boys at home, choose to extend that timeframe to two years.
As part of the program, she worked last semester as a student teacher at Robinson Middle School. This semester, she's working at Dobyns-Bennett High School. She'll complete her degree this summer and be licensed to teach math in grades 7 through 12.
She's now submitting applications to area school systems. "Hopefully before too long I'll hear some word and get some interviews," she said.
For those thinking about making the transition to education, Mallinak gave some advice.
"You've got to have patience, a good sense of humor, be very flexible and creative, and you definitely need to have a love to do it, because you're not doing it for the money."
A teacher's salary is a big factor that discourages some folks from entering the educational field. According to the National Education Association, teaching pays less than professions that require comparable education and skills.
"Teachers still are not valued and respected to the extent of their actual contributions to society," according to the NEA.
And salary is one reason why 20 percent of all new teachers leave the classroom within three years, the NEA reports.
Indeed, those entering teaching from the corporate world may find their salaries cut in half.
"That can be a real factor, because even in the best school systems with the most money, you're maybe making half of what you made before," Mallinak said.
For Tab Vestal, success doesn't equate with the size of one's paycheck. The 46-year-old father of two took "quite a reduction in salary" to become a teacher.
"A lot of folks view success with how much money you make. I certainly looked at that when I was going to college. But as I've gotten older, I've looked at more - like how am I going to be happiest, and what's important to society," said Vestal. "It's about what's important. And is it absolutely how much money I can make? No."
After graduating from North Carolina State University, Vestal worked in engineering for 18 years with several firms, including Raytheon and Bechtel. Then he owned and operated his own information technology company.
But his career path changed when he attended a seminar where the speaker talked about a shortage of qualified math and science teachers in America.
"He talked about China and India, and how they're training lots of people who are willing to work for a lot less (than Americans). And unless we have plenty of good math and science teachers, we're in trouble in the technology world," Vestal said.
At the time, Vestal was teaching retirees how to use computers, so he started thinking about entering the educational field full-time.
"I thought, there's a shortage, and I think I could do a good job. I think I could have an impact on kids and on our future," Vestal said.
He looked at a variety of colleges in the region, and opted to go with King College, where he could attend night courses to earn his teaching license while working full time as a teacher.
Vestal taught at Sullivan South High School in his first year of teaching. He then transferred to Dobyns-Bennett and has taught chemistry and environmental science for the last two years.
He'll receive his full teaching license at the end of this semester.
Vestal said teaching is "a lot like engineering."
"You're constantly looking at how to do something better the next time," he said. "Teaching is a lot of fun. It's exciting when you have a student that has turned themselves off to education, and then you can reach them and you see that light bulb go off. That's real exciting."
Vestal said he would encourage others to enter the profession. "Because if we don't have people who give up what they're doing to go teach, then we don't have much of a future in this high-tech world," he said.
Randy Elam worked in engineering in the corporate world for 28 years before retiring at age 47.
Then he started searching for a new career.
"I always knew I wanted to teach since I was about 15 years old, but I wasn't quite sure what area," said Elam, now 50.
With a degree in engineering technology, Elam decided to pursue a master's degree in early childhood education from East Tennessee State University.
While attending school, he worked as an instructional assistant at Lake Ridge Elementary in Johnson City and also worked as a substitute teacher in the Kingsport City School System.
Then he got a job teaching pre-engineering courses at Dobyns-Bennett High School.
Elam will complete his master's degree in education this summer, and receive certification to teach pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. He'll be applying for elementary level positions in the Kingsport area.
"I think there isn't anything that would be more honorable to do, to give back to the community, than to share what you know with young people," Elam said.
He said one of the biggest challenges he's found in the classroom is being able to keep up his energy to keep up with the kids.
And respect is a big issue in the classroom. Elam said he likes to start building respect from day one by showing respect to his students.
He also works to highlight students' positives. Student artwork hangs on walls in his classroom at DB to recognize talents and creativity.
And although he earns much less by teaching than he did in the corporate world, he says he's satisfied.
"I just can't think of anything else I'd rather do," Elam said.
"Life is very short, and to live it to the fullest, you must be willing to go out and sometimes to risk a little. Most people want to do the practical thing - to build their retirement and to be comfortable financially. But there's more to life than those kinds of things."