Matthew Miller, EdM ’11.

(Photo courtesy of Matthew Miller, EdM ’11)

Forging resilience: GSE alumni reflect on navigating teaching careers in uncertain times

Advice from Great Recession graduates

BY BRIAN HAYDEN

Matthew Miller, EdM ’11, thought he had it all figured out. The Buffalo native was majoring in economics at Syracuse University and preparing for a career in finance when he interned at an investment bank in London in 2006. It was there that he began to learn about the bank’s mortgage lending practices that, two years later, would be a leading cause of the Great Recession. Miller knew the banks’ handling of mortgage derivatives was unethical. He also knew he needed a different career. 

As he explored his options, he believed teaching would be a more rewarding career, and he decided to visit UB’s GSE. The social studies program director spent an impromptu hour with Miller talking about the profession. This influenced his decision to apply, and he enrolled just as the recession set in. Miller—now a high school social studies teacher in the suburban Kenmore-Tonawanda School District—credits his graduate school experience with teaching him the flexibility and adaptability he needed to thrive.

I think that completing grad school during a time of uncertainty was extremely relevant for how the world really is. It’s unpredictable and will throw extra challenges at you, but will prepare you for when life does the same.”

Miller was far from alone in pursuing additional education during a time of economic downturn. As students sought to further their education during a time when jobs were scarce, graduate-school enrollment nationwide spiked—from a pre-recession 2.57 million in 2006 to 2.93 million in 2010, according to the National Center of Education Statistics.

A decade later, the pivot to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic created a new set of uncertainties for aspiring teachers. It’s difficult to imagine how a career might shift five to 10 years from now as the world continues to change. While the challenging circumstances surrounding the pandemic are new and uncharted, today’s graduate students are not the first to navigate uncertainty.

Alumni who graduated during the Great Recession of 2008-09 had some advice for current students about how to succeed as a teacher in an unpredictable world. Miller and others say they believe they built a foundation in graduate school that enabled them to thrive with resilience, hard work and ambition.

Miller’s path wasn’t easy at first. When he landed a part-time position in 2010 at the Ken-Ton School District, he was teaching two classes a day and subbing in the afternoon. By year’s end, his job was eliminated because of budget cuts. Friends encouraged him to move South to find work, but Miller was sure he’d find something closer to home. He decided to stay.

“I stuck with it and said, ‘No, I’m going to make it work,’” Miller said. “If it’s something you want to do, you’ll find a way to get a job. There will always be a need for teachers.”

The next several years were challenging. Miller worked as a substitute teacher, transitioning between short and long-term positions in suburban Buffalo districts. In 2015, he finally secured a long-term substitute teacher position in Ken-Ton. In 2018, it led to a full-time teaching position. Last year, he became tenured in the district’s program for at-risk students.

Miller credits GSE for instilling in him a passion for teaching that has carried him through his career. The past decade’s twists and turns revealed that life is full of change. Pivoting, he said, is necessary for success.

“I think that’s a really important lesson for teaching—sometimes circumstances change and you have to adjust on the fly,” Miller said. “Sometimes a pandemic hits and shuts down society, and now you’re teaching online. Nothing ever goes perfectly according to plan, and that’s OK. That’s where a lot of real-world learning can happen, and that’s the stuff the kids will really remember.”

Kelly Hudock.

Kelly Hudock

Miller wasn’t the only GSE alum whose persistence during the Great Recession paid off. Kelly Hudock, EdM ’09, was confident in her GSE education, the perseverance that was required to graduate and believed that “if you wanted something, you worked hard.” Her days were 18 hours long as she balanced her master’s degree with two different jobs.

“At that point, I was a little grumpy about it,” she said, “but now it gives me the work ethic that I need to be a great teacher.”

Hudock said her graduate school experiences helped keep her motivated to find a good teaching job during an economic recession. She now works as a fourth-grade teacher in the Vestal School District.

“Grad school is where you really got in there. You got to see yourself as a teacher… That’s where you got to shine,” she said. “I finally got a sense of pride that, ‘This is why I worked so hard, and that I actually am capable of what I thought I could do.’”

 Justin Skrzynski.

 Justin Skrzynski

For Justin Skrzynski, EdM ’14, the recession motivated him to excel in graduate school and find success in an extremely competitive job market. Enrolling at GSE gave him an edge and the digital literacy and technology skills he needed to find work and start his career. He now works as a social studies teacher in the Wellsville Central School district.

“GSE had the foresight to see where education was heading and what it was going to look like in the future and prepared us for it,” he said. “If I’m going to make it in a recession, I’m going to stand out from everyone else… You have to be a trend setter. You have to be a risk-taker.”