CLEARWATER — "How many of you have had three careers already?"
When Jill Brown asked the question, dozens of hands flew into the air.
"Tonight," she said, "You open the door to a new career."
More than 85 people filed into an auditorium at St. Petersburg College's Clearwater campus Tuesday evening. They were there to gather information, to decide if they wanted to enroll in a one-year program to become certified to teach school in Florida.
They all had bachelor's degrees, if not master's and doctorates. They were from Pasco and Pinellas and Sarasota. They were stay-at-home moms, former businessmen, salespeople, retirees bored of whittling the days away playing golf.
And they were all ready for a change.
"I'm going to be 66 years old in March," said Tom Johnston from South Pasadena, who owned a computer business for 25 years but now wants to teach technology. "I don't want to sit around."
SPC already hosts frequent information sessions on the programs it offers, helping people find a good education fit. But organizers are planning on ramping the meetings up to once a month since the turnout has been so steadily high.
"We have had low attendance in the past, but with the economy, attendance has been 70 to 80 at each one," said Tracy Garrett, who does marketing for programs at the college. "The community really appreciates getting that information."
Hard times, they say, equal re-evaluation, reflection and action — even when jobs and kids and obligations make a new career seem impossible.
"It's up to you to figure out, how can I fit it into my life?" Brown, coordinator of the Educator Preparation Institute, told the room. "How can I make it work?"
SPC has certified 193 teachers through the program since 2005. After a year of intense night classes and two 60-hour chunks of time working in schools, students emerge with credentials and experience to teach everything from elementary school to special-needs kids to high school math and biology.
"When I was little, I always played teacher," said Danielle Morris from Largo. But when she got older, she majored in psychology instead of education. Work with the Boys & Girls Club of America tutoring kids, some with disabilities, brought back the itch.
"It gives a sense of gratification like no other," said Morris, 26.
For Diane Cotsirilos, change is coming at age 50, after earning degrees in anthropology and American studies, after giving birth to five children.
She wants to teach elementary school.
"I've gone through a lot of things," said Cotsirilos, who lives in Zephyrhills and has endured a long line of careers.
There was the job at her family's car sales lot. There was the data collection work in school. There were the night shifts as a security guard.
"But this," she said, "is what I want to do."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.