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Trading a courtroom for a classroom

by Dawn Fuller

The idea of becoming a teacher just kept beckoning.

Lisa Ellis spent 15 years practicing law in the areas of bankruptcy, real estate, probate and creditors' rights, but despite a successful career, she wasn't happy. "I didn't like the person I had to be to practice law," she says.

UC alumna Ellis, JD '91, had previously thought about leaving the profession to go into teaching, but she let her former husband talk her out of it, she says.

Every day that she was practicing law, however, the longing to be a teacher grew stronger. After all, she had read Shakespeare to kick back and relax while in law school and was proud of her full-size Oxford English dictionary. She wanted to spread and share her love of English and literature with high-school students.

Then, she found an opening. After receiving a small inheritance from her grandmother, she entered the teacher-education master's and licensure program at the UC College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services (CECH). Her first day in class was on her 40th birthday in 2006. She achieved her licensure in June 2008.

But soon, the economy tanked. Schools struggled even harder to balance budgets and provide quality education, and the job market for teachers was shrinking.

"The economy just blew up in 2008, and I never in my life expected to defend teaching more than being a lawyer. But when I was looking for a job to teach English, they were hard to come by."

Her dream took another turn that year when she landed a teaching job in the alternative program for at-risk students at CEC South, operated by the Educational Service Center of Clermont County. The student population in the alternative program consists of students who faced suspension or expulsion from their "home" school district. Teachers in the alternative program work to build the students' skills in education, as well as the social and emotional skills to prepare them for re-entry back into their home schools.

Ellis teaches seventh- through 12th- grade English and social studies. "I am teaching students who, for whatever reason, don't function in a traditional school setting," she says.

"I loved school and was very good in school, so at first, this was hard for me. For them, reading a book is as strange as why I think anyone would want to tweet.

"Almost all of my students need extra help. They've had hard lives, but they're very resilient."

One of Ellis' former UC professors, Chet Laine, says this discovery is becoming more common among his current senior candidates in English and education. "We've seen these seniors think very seriously about going into special education; a degree of intensity is possible when teaching children who have developmental needs.

"In terms of Lisa's writing and knowledge of literature, her ability to communicate her ideas was quite extraordinary," Laine says. "In terms of teaching, the new challenge in building on that talent is making the material accessible for all students."


Ellis says that when she can connect the students with her love of literature, the connection is even more meaningful. She recalls giving her students a reading assignment on "Cruise Control," a Terry Trueman book about a developmentally disabled teen.

"I really didn't think one of the students was paying attention. He was back in class the next year, but when that assignment came up again, he shared the entire story and theme of the book with another student," Ellis says.

"I am a lot happier, even though this job was not exactly what I was looking for. I was thinking that I was going to be an English teacher, and we would sit around and drink tea," she says with a laugh.

Instead, Ellis' days are both trying and, at times, tragic. While her class was studying J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," one of her students who was particularly fond of the book committed suicide. "It broke my heart," she says.

"There's more stress in teaching, but it's a different kind of stress," Ellis says. "When you're a lawyer, you're worried about making money for the firm -- saving and not losing your clients' money, worrying all the time about money. At least in education, you don't have to go home worrying about money or at least someone else's money."

She's also adapting to teaching today's tech-savvy student. Cell phones and iPods didn't exist when she was in high school. "We're going to have to move forward and somehow integrate cell phones into education. Students aren't supposed to have them, but they're students' watches and security blankets.

"I once had students pretend they were texting, but instead they wrote a story using 140 characters. Cell phones are something teachers are going to have to deal with, because parents expect their children to be able to contact them."

No regrets, Ellis says, about leaving her law career. Plus, she found that older students can get tax breaks as they continue their lifelong learning and pursue their lifelong dreams.

"It's never too late -- never too late," Ellis says. "At my age, running around the campus was harder than anything else, and I don't regret this at all. I'm glad I went to law school, but life is too short to be miserable.
"I didn't think this was where I was going to end up, but I'm much happier than I was as a lawyer. When you help a child with special needs, you are really doing something for the world."

Ellis continues to earn her master's degree from CECH and expects to finish this year. Inspired by her students, she is also pursing licensure online as a mild-to-moderate intervention specialist, so that she can also teach in special education, a new turn on her pathway to achieving her dream.

UC's College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services