This Orange County teacher found her dream job after a mid-life career change


ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – If you’ve ever contemplated making a mid-life career change this week’s Getting Results Award winner has a message for you.

Catherine Terrell says do what’s in your heart.

When Terrell could no longer work in retail she went back to school, got her degree, and started teaching.

Now she calls it her dream job and we found she has lessons that go beyond the classroom.

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Terrell is starting her first year at Tildenville Elementary in West Orange County. We were there as she prepared her kindergarten classroom to welcome a group of new students.

The start of any school year can be seen as a time for new beginnings and fresh starts. It’s a process Terrell has learned to embrace.

“I’m resilient,” she said. “I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles. I’ve had to start over many times.”

Classroom 135 was a blank slate. The walls were bare and Terrell stood in the center of the room surrounded by storage boxes stacked waist high.

“This is my Care Bear collection,” she said, pulling away the clear packing tape that held one of the lids. “It was something that I started with my kids two years ago. Whenever they are having a bad day, missing their mom or sister, I let them take one off the shelf to give them comfort.”

As Terrell went through boxes filled with decorations and learning aids, all collected over the last few years, it’s easy to imagine they bring her a bit of comfort too.

“I want stuff on the walls. I want it to be inviting,” she said. “The way I look at it, kids are going to learn if you make it fun.”

Teaching is Terrell’s second career. Her first was cut short in 2004 when she was in a car crash.

“I shattered my ankle and broke both bones in my leg,” she said.

A few years later she developed a bone infection that required an amputation. She spent 30 days in the hospital and eleven months in a wheelchair.

“I was used to running a store and I couldn’t do that anymore,” she said.

Terrell started working as a substitute teacher because it gave her the flexibility to work when her health allowed it.

“I met a teacher and she said why don’t you go to school to become a teacher,” Terrell recalled. “She said, you’re good at this. The kids love you, the parents love you.”

She realized she needed a new career and when her son graduated high school she joined him at Lake-Sumter State College.

“He was going to college and I said, well, let’s do this together,” Terrell remembered.

Her son went on to the University of Florida and Terrell began classes at UCF where she earned her degree in Elementary Education.

“I just love it,” she said. “I want to be able to help kids succeed. Help them to the next steps in life.”

Terrell said it usually doesn’t take long before her prosthetic leg becomes a point of interest for her students.

“They say, you have a robot leg,” she said with a laugh, pulling up her pant leg to reveal the prosthetic device. It has a rainbow print and puppy dog graphics. “One of my students from two years ago picked out this pattern.”

Terrell said she turns classroom curiosity into a learning opportunity. “I want the kids to be comfortable so if they are in public they’re not staring at someone who might be different.”

She also has advice for adults looking for a mid-life change.

“People who are contemplating a career change, I say do it. If it’s in your heart do it,” she continued. “It took me a while to find this, don’t get me wrong, but I love it. I say go for it. You’ll only be successful if you want to be successful.”

As Terrell opens box after box, she contemplates the amount of work ahead.

“So much stuff to go through,” she said, pulling out a restaurant straw dispenser she fills with pencils.

“This is only about half of what I have,” she said. “But the word ‘can’t’ is not in my classroom vocabulary. It’s not I can’t, it’s I can’t do it now. But eventually, I will be able to.”

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