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FINANCE TEACHER : Ellen Hales

Photo of Ellen Hales
How would you describe your job?
Currently I teach personal finance to seniors in a New York City public high school. They learn about checking and savings accounts, stocks and investing, credit, insurance, and taxes. We visit Wall Street firms and banks and learn about the world of finance. I know a lot about this area because for 12 years I was a stock trader on Wall Street. When someone wants to buy or sell stock, he or she calls a broker. The broker doesn't have stock, so the broker puts an order in with a trader. The trader buys and sells stock from his or her own inventory. I had to make many decisions every day, sometimes thousands of them, and sometimes with very little information. Decisions had to be made quickly. That really is the same thing I do as a teacher. I have to make many decisions every day, and usually very quickly. How can I help a student understand who is confused? How can I help a student stop this behavior? How can I group students so they will be successful on this project? You need to be able to recognize quickly when things are working and when they aren't. The difference is that, as a trader, it was easy to measure how I was doing -- it was measured in money. Teaching is harder to measure, but can be even more rewarding.

Describe how you got to where you are today. What was your smartest move? What would you do differently if you had the chance?
I earned my BA degree in economics from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and my MBA in finance from New York University, before working on Wall Street. While I was there I earned my certification as a certified financial planner. That training helped in both my careers. A lot of people ask me how I could go from making so much money to not making very much at all as a teacher. I tell them that it is hard to understand when you haven't made any money, but there is more to life than money. Eventually, just making money wasn't enough for me, and I wanted to do something more worthwhile and feel like I was contributing to the world. If I could give any advice to a young person today -- and I do all the time -- it would be: try to do something you love. Study what gives you pleasure, what you are passionate about. If you are happy in your work, it will be more important than how much money you make. You should also try to give yourself options, so if you decide to change careers you aren't stuck.

What personal characteristics are required for someone to be succesful in your job?
The kind of person who is successful trading is someone who can stomach risk. I don't mean the kind of person who can handle scary roller coasters or will drive without wearing a seat belt, but someone who can handle losing money or being wrong, and still be able to make more decisions and move on. Another trait is being able to handle many pieces of information coming at you all at once and being able to analyze it easily and quickly. Being a good teacher requires similar traits. You have to be able to be flexible and adapt quickly. You have to be able to plan a strategy, but modify the plan if challenges occur. As a teacher, on the other hand, you have to be a bit of a performer. It is possible, as a trader, to sit all day in front of a computer and not talk to anyone. There, the two differ.

What other job could you do with the skills you have gained in this field?
A trader develops skills as an analyst. A trader may also develop skills as a financial advisor. A teacher develops skills in different areas. Many companies hire former teachers to educate their clients about their products, to sell them, or to help them use them. They are very much in demand.

What are the biggest challenges in your job?
The biggest challenge to a trader is managing the stress of having money on the line all the time. A trader is constantly being evaluated by how much money she makes or loses, and that constant feedback can be very stressful. A teacher's biggest challenge is helping struggling students. Not everyone learns the same way, and getting everyone in a class to learn can also be very stressful.

Are there many opportunities in your field? What should people do to get started?
If someone wants to be a trader, it is a good idea to learn some accounting and economics, and to be good at math. Visiting Wall Street firms and doing informational interviews would also be beneficial. It is not easy to break into trading. Most big firms recruit only at Ivy League schools or the top business schools. Smaller firms are a better place to start out if you don't attend the top schools. To be a teacher, one has to have a college degree and either go through a certification process, which means taking some exams in your content area and reading comprehension, and some education courses, or go through an alternate certification path. There are many more jobs in teaching, although personal finance courses are taught mainly by social studies teachers in economics courses; some do it through math departments, like me; and some do it through business departments. My best advice: go spend some time in a school, and see different teachers and different grade levels at different schools, talk to teachers, and see if it's what you think it is like.

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