After 20-Year Legal Career, Curry School Grad Called to the Classroom

May 12, 2009 — Rebecca Ellis was born into a community of teachers. But when it came time for her to choose a career, her parents and their colleagues urged her to go to law school instead.

"They were demoralized by being treated as test-taking instructors/automatons instead of as the professionals they are," Ellis recalled. "They wanted something more for me.

"I listened to them, as I have been listening my entire life. I went to law school. I did really well in law school, and I had an enormously successful legal career. 

"And for almost 20 years, I went to work every day with the knowledge that my job was intellectually challenging and rewarding, but that there was an element missing. There were moments when I felt I was doing something meaningful, but those moments were few and far between."

Over time, events began to suggest a different calling.

When her law firm brought in consultants to profile the personalities of its partners as a team-building exercise, the consultant in charge made a special point of informing her that she scored off the charts for empathy, caretaking and community – qualities not typically seen in successful attorneys.

One summer, she took a sabbatical from her job as general counsel of a large association to work with children from the local juvenile justice system in Northern Virginia. She designed and helped run a program where the kids worked at an area animal shelter, training animals to make them more adoptable. 

Ellis said working that summer was "one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. Those kids changed my life."

Finally, after bickering over what to her seemed to be the most absurd details in a contract, she realized that her highest calling was not to spend days arguing over arcane contractual provisions dealing with the amount of nakedness required of booth attendants at a Las Vegas trade show.

"At that moment," she explained, "I put my pen down, and I looked out the window. On the street below, a school bus was unloading a bunch of young kids on a field trip. That was when I finally knew." 

And so, after a nearly 20-year detour, she decided to go back to school and become a teacher, landing at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.

Ellis credits the people in her life for their support and influence in this decision. Her husband's first reaction was not how much they would miss her income, but, "OK, it's your dream. How fast can we make this happen?"

She said part of the reason she made the switch is simple genetics: Both of her parents were career public school educators; their friends and her role models were teachers and administrators. "I have a border collie, and she's absolutely going to herd things, no matter what. It's just what she was born to do," Ellis said. "I'm a human version of that. In my family, our tradition is education."

Studying to become an English teacher has been just as fulfilling as she had anticipated. During her studies, Ellis was a tutor with the AVID program, which she describes as "a program for students who have what it takes to succeed in college but could benefit from a little extra help and encouragement to get there." Three days a week, she tutors at Western Albemarle High School.

"I've had the opportunity to work with a great group of kids for two consecutive years and watch them achieve their goals," she said. "I've also met and learned from several unbelievably talented and educated teachers and administrators. I've actually gotten far more out of it than I deserve." 

Through her student-teaching experience working with ninth- and 11th-graders at Charlottesville High and her research project analyzing the potential impact of summer reading programs for middle and high school students in closing the achievement gap, she has realized the value and impact of her decision to leave her legal practice and become a teacher. 

"Teaching is a calling. It just took me a heck of a lot longer than most folks to pick up the phone," she said. "I'm really not doing anything brave or gutsy. I'm just finally doing something meaningful – something I was born to do."

— By Rebecca Arrington