Most of Jerry Wuchte’s students don’t know about the bullet lodged in his hip or the other in his knee, the artifacts from the life he had before teaching the Civil War and Jimmy Carter to high schoolers.
He doesn’t give his story away because in his Lucy C. Laney High School history room, Wuchte said, his life isn’t what’s important.
What matters are his students, whom Wuchte already knows more about than they ever need to tell him. For 20 years, Wuchte patrolled the streets around Laney-Walker Boulevard as a Richmond County sheriff’s deputy.
“When these kids leave here, I know the neighborhoods they’re going home to, I know what they’re dealing with, but they are the best kids. They are great kids and I love being around them,” Wuchte said.
After two decades of police work, Wuchte, 43, changed careers this year to teaching, a field he calls a different kind of public service. About two-thirds of Richmond County teachers are career-changers, who often use skills from previous jobs to bring a specialized perspective to school subjects.
“It’s really benefited us,” said Norman Hill, the district’s chief human resources officer. “Career-changers bring some seasoning and maturity with them that I think is useful. They’ve had a wealth of experiences, and they’re able to bring a degree of focus to their work.”
According to The New Teacher Project, a national program that assists people transitioning into teaching, 63 percent of the 30 teaching fellows in Augusta are career-changers. Nationally, a little more than half of the teaching fellows come from different fields.
For Wuchte, the drive to teach was always in him but materialized only after years on the police force.
For the past 13 years, Wuchte worked the graveyard shift patrolling neighborhoods from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
He began his career in 1990 in narcotics for the Augusta Police Department.
The night two bullets hit his body in 1992, Wuchte and his partner were following a stolen car at Hopkins and King streets driven by a man whom Wuchte had locked up two weeks earlier.
The driver pulled over in front of a vacant house and started firing.
Wuchte recovered quickly and continued on the police force.
The things he saw in the next 20 years didn’t discourage him from his profession, but it made him want something different.
“The thing about police work is you’re dealing with people on the worst day of their life,” Wuchte said. “You’re never dealing with a happy person. These kids are happy.”
Wuchte said he thought teaching would give him that sense of fulfillment he was looking for.
AFTER GRADUATING from Butler High School in 1986, Wuchte skipped college like the rest of his family to go straight to work. His father was a factory worker, and “if that kind of life was good enough for him, I thought it would be good enough for me,” Wuchte said.
But as Wuchte’s teenagers grew up and he encouraged them to pursue college, he realized he also had decades of opportunity ahead of him.
In 2007, Wuchte started courses for his associate’s degree at Georgia Military College and continued at Augusta State University to receive his education degree.
Wuchte is making less money teaching U.S. and world history to high schoolers than he did chasing drug dealers, but he said he is happier than ever.
IN GENERAL, most people who change careers into teaching are looking for a way to give back to their community, said Falicia Harvey, the coordinator of alternative certification for the South Carolina Department of Education.
The department’s alternative certification program, PACE, has seen a drop in applicants as the number of teaching jobs in South Carolina has decreased. However, the percentage of the new teachers hired as career-changers has stayed steady at almost 10 percent, Harvey said.
“We still have people who quit perfectly good jobs and pursue teaching because it’s what they always wanted to do,” she said.
Looking back, Wuchte said he used to live off making people feel safe but now thrives from his students’ feelings of accomplishment. He says he gets respect in class by working the same way he did when he carried a gun – by showing he cares.
“I’m not lovey-dovey, but they know I’m here for them,” Wuchte said. “When I have 25 heads looking up and they’re there and they’re engaged, it feels good.”