Valerie Pelak was a journalist before becoming a history teacher. David Pierini/Staff Photographer

Which is the tougher job, being a firefighter or teaching high school students? How about teaching compared to being a news reporter, or an environmental engineer?

It’s probably an unfair question. But which do they prefer? Many instructors at Oak Park and River Forest High School can answer that one because the high school is filled with faculty members who had other careers.

Like OPRF English teacher and head football coach John Hoerster, who worked three years as a Chicago firefighter and was also an assistant football and track coach with Loyola Academy. Hoerster was 20 years old when he started at the fire department. It was an adventure for young guys like himself, Hoerster recalled.

“It was exhilarating. It was an exciting job for someone in their 20s,” he said. “It’s always a kid’s dream to jump on a fire truck to help people and save lives.”

Hoerster, whose uncle was a firefighter, performed searches and rescues on Truck 35 at the North Avenue and Pulaski station on the West Side. He now coaches and teaches full time.

A football player and education major at the University of Dayton before leaving school as sophomore to join the fire department, he returned to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in English literature at the University of Wisconsin Madison, then earned his teaching degree from Dominican University.

Hoerster’s second career began at Mount Carmel High School in 2002, where he taught English and also served as assistant varsity football coach. He was hired as OPRF’s head football coach last year, but still taught at Mount Carmel. This is his first year teaching English at OPRF.

Fighting fires is definitely exciting. Crunching numbers while sitting in a cubicle, not so much. That’s what led OPRF teacher Christine Mondragon to switch from environmental engineer. That was 13 years ago. An engineer for eight years prior to teaching, she studied, among other things, air population. Mondragon liked, and was good at, math since her high school days in southwest suburban Frankfort. A high school counselor encouraged her to become an engineer.

But working long hours for a Chicago firm wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

“I was a project manager, but I was basically limited to doing calculations. Sitting in a cubicle most of the day doing calculations was not very exciting,” recalled Mondragon, who teaches math at OPRF.

Becoming a teacher was a natural fit. Both of her parents were teachers in Chicago. But neither was enthused about their daughter’s decision to switch careers.

“They warned me not to become a teacher; that I was not going to be as respected as a teacher,” Mondragon said. “They worked at [Chicago Public Schools] and they knew how tough it was.”

But Mondragon said she enjoyed teaching, and it’s more exciting than sitting in her old cubicle.

Valerie Pelak experienced more excitement in her former career as a radio journalist. The first-year OPRF instructor worked for two years in Iowa City with an affiliate of National Public Radio. Pelak, who has been teaching for five years, said she did everything while working in Iowa City — writing, producing and on-air reporting. A native of Bensenville, she studied journalism at the University of Iowa. With degree in hand, she landed a job with NPR. A death in the family resulted in moving back to the Chicago area to be close to relatives, but there were no jobs in journalism at the time.

A chance meeting with a former high school teacher led Pelak to her new career.

“I literally just bumped into her at the store,” Pelak recalled. “She said she was surprised I didn’t become a teacher because I was so good with people. She said I should try subbing, and I did.”

Pelak became a substitute teacher at Fenton High School in Bensenville. She stuck with it, getting her teaching certificate at Northern Illinois University. But journalism was still in her blood. She wrote a story, her last one in fact, for the campus newspaper. Pelak worked at three other schools before coming to OPRF, where she teaches AP and intro to psychology.

“I don’t have a degree in psychology, but I had to take a certain number of classes in college,” she said.

It’s not unusual for teachers to bring their previous careers into the classroom. Pelak draws on her journalism skills when discussing current events with her students and as she teaches writing skills. Mondragon transfers not only her knowledge but her love of math to her classroom kids. Hoerster says even his background as a firefighter helps in the classroom.

“As a firefighter, you learn how to fight through challenges and adversity,” he said.. “These skills carry over very well in any occupation, but especially teaching,”

First acts

I began my professional career as a dental hygienist. After practicing for a few years, I obtained my B.S. in education and taught dental and dental hygiene students at Northwestern University Dental School for three years. Went on to work as the director of professional education for several companies, Butler and Oral-B, where I oversaw a team of educators. After attaining a wide range of experiences in the corporate workplace and after some soulful reflection, I realized that what I enjoyed most was teaching and communicating ideas, which led me to my final professional endeavor here at OPRF.

Cindy Milojevic

I never even considered being a teacher while I was in college. I studied communications at U of I with a minor in Spanish. I wanted to be an executive in an advertising agency and create exciting ad campaigns. As much as I liked being creative, I started to dream about doing something that didn’t involve sitting at a computer all day or catering to a client’s every need. About that time, I started to look online at a website called Dave’s ESL Café. I found a job teaching English in Santiago, Chile at a school called Sam Marsalli. That’s when I finally got my first taste of teaching and I fell in love. After that, there was no going back to working at an office job. After 10 years of teaching, I have never looked back.

Dana Tolomeo

I worked in applied physics in Silicon Valley for over 12 years before I decided to move back to the Chicago area, where I’m from originally. I worked in the field of optical and electron-beam microscopy with the largest computer chip companies in the world. The work was challenging, but toward the end I wanted something more meaningful. Around the same time, my father lost a five-year battle with cancer. During those last years, he lived the way he wanted, spending his time doing those things that were most meaningful to him. The hard lesson to me was that life is sometimes much shorter than we expect, so we should spend it on those things that are most meaningful. For me, the choice was pretty clear since I wanted to teach prior to getting hooked on a high-tech career. So far, I’m absolutely certain that it was the right decision and that dad’s lesson was a good one.

Ben Cain

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