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After 24 years of successful practice, the last 15 happily self-employed primarily in the design of home renovations, Milwaukee architect Calli Spheeris now has a pressing redesign project of her own: career change at age 56. The economic downturn has had a direct effect on her profession. Homeowners are thinking twice about renovations, architecture firms shedding staff at unprecedented levels. Even with her many long-term relationships with contractors in the area, and having won several awards in the field - most recently Milwaukee Homes' Gold Award for Best Kitchen in 2008, Best Remodel in 2006, and one for a design called "Ranch Redux" from M Magazine in Oct 2005 - there is simply not enough consulting work for a consistent income.

When the economic hits keep coming and uncertainty is the only sure thing, a person has choices: contract in fear or use the adversity to build psychological muscle, focus on the injustices behind this financial mess or find the strength to barrel through it. Calli chose to move in an entirely new direction toward work that combines her passions for learning, art, creative challenge, and children. Even better, she chose what the U.S. Dept. of Labor Statistics reports is one of the most recession-proof professions, a career in education.

"I have wanted to make a change for over 10 years, but I didn't have time," reports this working mother of 2 teenage sons and a 24-year old stepson, "so this economic crisis has turned into a great opportunity for me. I still work on architectural projects, but now I have the time to substitute teach, update my very old teaching certification, read up on the education field, check out the schools, and decide which grade levels I am best suited to teach. Eventually, I would like a full time teaching position." Conventional thinking turns many people to the notion that doing work we love is a luxury, that being practical and profitable often means sacrificing purpose. And as the economy tightens, and the media fans the flames of fearful thinking, we can easily lose hope that our work life can be consistent with our inner life. But as Calli's real life example demonstrates, now might be the best time to take what we love and turn it into action, an attitude that can completely change the flavor and the meaning of this crisis.

"My husband and I were watching the movie Dan in Real Life," Calli recalls. "It's not a very good movie, but I was inspired by something one character said: "love is not a feeling, it is an ability."

Making a transition to an entirely different field as an older person has its creative challenges, but Calli reminds us that many elements of work in one discipline translate into skills needed in another. Substitute teaching calls for the ability to deal with the unexpected and unfamiliar and still gets things done, to quickly absorb the nuances of different environments and adapt to change with very little notice. “I feel prepared for these aspects of the teaching role,” she explains, “because in architecture, it is constant problem solving, creative thinking on one’s feet, integrating diverse elements, presenting designs to clients and flexibility.”
Calli experiences the classroom as a universe of personalities, learning, and possibilities, which the arts bring out in rich and fascinating ways. Teaching Donizetti’s opera Elixir of Love to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders, she asks “what do you think opera is?” and one child breaks out into song, accompanied by dramatic hand gestures. The subject of a “lovesick cowboy” in the story brings out groans and funny faces from the boys. Teaching art in the upper grades “bring out the social interactions as well as inner worlds of kids. On the darker side, depression is more obvious to see. One very quiet and sad looking boy threw his painting away, so I picked it out of the garbage and told him ‘it’s not bad, simply unfinished.’ He did finish it, with some encouragement, and hung it on the wall to dry.”
She reports that her biggest challenge is discipline, but her passion for the work is abundantly supported by the maturity and self-knowledge she has gained over years of her own struggle and growth. “One 8th grader constantly disrupted class, but was at the same time full of personality and very quick witted. I walked over to him, put both hands on his desk, and leaned right into his face. I think he thought I was going to admonish him. I said “James (not his real name) you are a true performer and should be on stage.” He gave me a huge smile and told me about his passion for the violin and how he’s played for years.” Later she learned from other teachers that he is an extremely talented musician, although somewhat of a troublemaker, but this interaction took the edge off his role as “the disruptor.”
“As an older person, I simply understand myself better now, and this is critical to everything, especially teaching where one is in constant communication with children. Kids are so honest, have an amazing radar, and there are thousands of interactions in a day. It is most important to know yourself. “Age can bring a greater sense of confidence and integration of those things that make you who you are,” Calli reflects. “When I hear stories about people changing careers, they are fantastic at it because they bring in freshness, a range of knowledge and connections to diverse areas of life.”
The role change has also brought a greater awareness of what was missing in her work. “Architecture is very creative,” she states, “however, as I get older, inanimate objects (even beautiful ones) hold less meaning for me. I have a tremendous sense of mission with these kids.”


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