Student Spotlight: Meet Spencer Alexander

October 24, 2021 | Michelle Dzisiak

Spencer did not grow up dreaming about becoming a teacher. Rather, he pursued a career in ecology and was passionate about environmental restoration. After a whirlwind experience that brought him to Japan, Spencer found himself teaching English as a second language, igniting a newfound passion for teaching he didn’t realize he had. 

As an experienced ESL teacher, Spencer’s decision to find out how to become a state-certified teacher and pursue his American teaching license stemmed from a desire to expand his career and offer more to his students. 

This desire, combined with a need to maintain his full-time job, brought Spencer to Teach Away’s Teacher Certification Program.

Teaching is a job I told myself I would never do. That’s why I studied to be an ecologist. But here I am, a passionate teacher, hoping to create a better tomorrow by teaching today.

Let’s dive in to hear about Spencer’s experience with Teach Away’s Teacher Certification Program and how it helped him unlock a wealth of knowledge he didn’t know he was missing.

What drew you to pursue a career in teaching? Was this a lifelong dream or a new interest?

I graduated from The Evergreen State College with a BA and a focus in ecology. I spent my first year after college working at EarthCorps, a branch of AmeriCorps, based in Seattle. They bring in people from all around the world to create global leaders through local environmental restoration.

At the time, I burned with a passion to save the environment through restoration due to my many years of study at Evergreen. But there I met a woman, Mai. She came to EarthCorps as a part of their international training program. We worked together in the same crew from July until December.

She decided to continue her stay in Seattle by interning at EarthCorps for a few months. But she made it abundantly clear from day 1, that she was here for training so that she could return to Japan and help the organization she worked at to take their work to the next level. 

For me, this was a choice between continuing a career in restoration in America or moving to Japan. I still remember the moment I decided on one warm winter afternoon.

After that, I started looking for jobs in Japan. Unfortunately for me, I had never planned on moving to Japan. I didn’t speak any Japanese. And that barred me from most jobs, environmental or otherwise.

Fortunately, Japan has a thriving market for English as a second language. Finally, I was lucky enough to land a job with a company called Amity. I was very hesitant because I had never wanted to teach. But I had decided that I wanted to be with Mai. So, to Japan I went.

Seven years later, I found myself a master of my classroom. I was working for ECC (another ESL company), and I was teaching everyone from toddlers to professionals ESL. It was amazing. I loved all my students. Seeing their progress and growth every year was a miracle.

But I wanted more.

I wanted to earn more, and I wanted to do more for my students. So I decided to enroll in Teach Away’s Teacher Certification Program.

Why did you decide to take an alternative route to become a licensed teacher instead of the traditional education path? 

I had been teaching for seven years and married for four. Although Mai and I had accumulated a small nest egg, we weren’t in a position for me to not be working for a couple of years while I pursued the path to get a license the traditional route by going back to school.

Teach Away offered the best program. It was affordable for our budget and manageable.

I could work on my assignments in the morning and evenings when I wasn’t working, and still make time for Mai on the days we had off together. 

Has your alternate route to certification been manageable while juggling your other responsibilities? 

I have to say that it was a commitment. There were times when I felt that it was too much, but this was the path I had chosen.

In hindsight, I realize that all the material they had me cover was extremely important.

Condensing what should be a two-year program down to 6 months is a feat worthy of the highest accolades. But it definitely toed the line of what I could manage.

What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned so far? 

I can’t point to any one thing. But Teach Away created a solid foundation for me to improve my teaching skills.

Having taught for seven years without formal training and now coming back and learning all this is like having built a large jug and then filling it with knowledge.

I had no idea about how much I was missing out on until I actually participated. 

Was there a teacher in your life who inspired you? What impact did they have on you? 

I’ve had many teachers who inspired me. These days I often find myself thinking of my high school teachers at Wayland Academy.

Coach Craig Hill, who taught me Chemistry and football. I’ll always remember he showed me the power of note-taking in helping me to pay attention.

Mr. Graham taught English. I can’t remember how many of my papers he assigned and had to give back to me because I just couldn’t write something without making a story out of it. His patience and guidance have always helped me.

Mr. Walters was my history teacher. I’ll always remember his British history class, not because I remember the content, but because I remember his passion for it. 

My time at Wayland Academy saved me. And it is because of Wayland that I decided to teach high school. 

I also remember my professors at The Evergreen State College:  Dylan Fischer who taught me forestry, Alison Styring who taught me ornithology, and Bret Weinstein who taught me evolutionary biology. Their passion for the miracles in the natural world created my passion for the natural world. Which is why I teach science. 

Are you currently working in a teaching capacity? If so, could you tell us a little bit about your experience teaching so far? 

Yes, I am. I’m currently working as a Biology teacher at James Campbell High School. Working here has been amazing. All the faculty have been so helpful and welcoming. I’ve never felt so much like a part of a family at work. 

As for the actual experience of teaching, it’s been so fulfilling. Finally being able to put what I learned at Teach Away to use.

And more importantly, to combine what I learned with the craft I honed to create something better. Planning lessons, day to day, week by week, is stressful and challenging.

I’m always struggling to stay on top of everything, but the kids make it all worthwhile. 

What is your favorite thing about working with students and what do you look forward to most when you step inside your classroom?

My favorite thing about working with students is seeing them succeed.

My wife’s favorite phrase is “to ignite their passion.” And I think that is my goal as well. I really want to see them succeed, but more than that, I want to share my passion for the natural world with them. 

I also really love getting to know them. They are all so unique. They are always surprising me with what they can do.

One student who, at the beginning of the year, was being loud and eager for attention is now leading his small group in research about the ecology of mammals living in tropical rainforests. 

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about getting certified to teach? 

Teaching isn’t for everyone. One of the schools I applied to had a turnover rate of 20 teachers every year. Turnover rates like this are due to a combination of reasons, but one of one them is people fancying teaching and finding out that it’s not for them. 

I don’t say this to discourage those who dream of teaching or those considering it. I say it to help you recognize that teaching requires patience, passion, and perseverance over almost everything.

Whatever your reason for teaching, please give these three. It will create a miracle. 

Inspiring future generations

Teaching is a job I told myself I would never do. That’s why I studied to be an ecologist. But here I am, a passionate teacher, hoping to create a better tomorrow by teaching today. 

Wondering how to become a state-certified teacher while switching careers? It’s easier than you think.

Start your teaching career and find teaching jobs with Klassroom. Learn more about our online teacher certification program and become a teacher in as few as 9 months!

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