It was the day of his ex-business partner’s funeral, and Cliff Stevenson found a flier stuck in his door advertising a teaching degree at a nearby college. It struck a nerve, reminding him of his first career choice, which he had bypassed decades earlier.
Just two weeks before the funeral in 1996, Stevenson’s 51-year-old, dying partner had asked: “So what are you going to do with your life, Stevo? You said you weren’t going to do this mortgage thing forever.”
We all have losses in life. For Stevenson, 52, that early death, combined with the sudden death of his brother at age 43 not long before, was a life-changing event. “You never know what’s going to happen in life,” he says. “I knew it was the right time to do something different.”
The result: Seven years ago, he chucked his 20-year career to follow his heart. For the past four years, Stevenson has been teaching social studies to eighth graders and high school students in the Hampton Township School District in Allison Park, Pa., outside Pittsburgh. His salary: about one sixth of what he made in his best years as a mortgage banker. “I didn’t want to get to 75 and turn around and ask: What did I do with my life? I financed and sold real estate,” says Stevenson. “I want to give back, to have an effect on somebody.”
Downsizing. Self-confident and disciplined, Stevenson also benefited from the full support of his wife, Diane, who earns a solid income as a regional merchandise manager for Macy’s. The couple have no children. They sold their century-old Victorian home outside Pittsburgh for twice what they paid, downsizing to a smaller townhouse on up-and-coming Washington’s Landing, an island in the Allegheny River, within spitting distance of Pittsburgh’s downtown Golden Triangle. Now they don’t have a mortgage.
Next, Stevenson went back to school. For two years before he resigned from his firm, he took night courses to get a master’s degree in education at Duquesne University. Since he had an undergraduate degree in history, all he needed were seven additional courses in education to be certified as a social studies teacher in Pennsylvania.
That said, he still had to wait for a job to open. His first year was spent working a $5,000-stipend internship at a local school district, followed by another two years as a substitute teacher. Then in 2002, he was hired at Hampton.
In many ways, it’s those 20 years of corporate deal-making that gives Stevenson an edge. He’s teaching his students things they need for life-how to write effectively, speak confidently in public, and solve problems under pressure.
Surprisingly, he works many more hours than he did in his old career, arriving at school by 7 a.m. and wrapping up the official workday around 6:30, when the crew team he coaches finishes practice. He goes home, cooks dinner, and heads upstairs to his office for a couple of hours of grading papers and preparing for the next day’s classes.
The payback: a passion for his work, a better night’s sleep, and improved health. Importantly, Stevenson is intellectually stimulated by teaching timely topics, such as U.S. foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and the future of Social Security and Medicare. And, of course, the feedback he gets from his pupils can’t be measured: “I’m always amazed when a student, who barely spoke in class, E-mails me from college thanking me for pushing them to do their best. You never know when you’ve touched someone.”
This story appears in the September 11, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.