Act II: Teaching. Liebhart makes transition from business to education

‘I just needed a change of pace,’ Liebhart says, happy she changed paths

Kelly Liebhart’s dream was a corporate job in the big city where she could flash some of her excellent Spanish with clients from Spain and the Americas.

A blind date at college changed all that and led to a career she didn’t see coming — in the classroom instead of the boardroom.

Liebhart is a Spanish teacher at La Salle-Peru High School and has had a different career trajectory than most: She is an “Act II” teacher who left the business world in search of more gratification.

“I just needed a change of pace,” said Liebhart, who had earned an online education degree while at her last business job. “So I decided to take that route and I thoroughly enjoy everything I do.”

When she finally did make it to the classroom, “I knew that my career was the right choice immediately.”

L-P’s administration thinks so, too. Superintendent Steve Wrobleski said Liebhart works equally well with beginners and near-proficient speakers as well as those who come in with little or no English.

Wrobleski said 20 faculty members (15%) at L-P took up education as a second career, though half of them teach vocational programs where it’s “fairly typical” to get a teaching license based upon prior work experience.

“I believe it would be nearly unanimous among our ACT II’ers,” Wrobleski said, “that they transitioned to education either because they were missing a high level of professional satisfaction in their prior careers or felt that they would make a bigger difference working with young people.”

Liebhart never dreamed of becoming a teacher, though it may well be in her blood. Her father was an English teacher and then principal at St. Matthew’s School in her native Champaign, where she graduated from Centennial High School.

Liebhart was double-majoring in Spanish and marketing at Illinois State University when life threw her a curveball. She was set up on a blind date with an Ottawa native named Dan Liebhart, now owner Liebhart Construction. After settling in Ottawa, she worked at a local bank and then Clover Technologies while they started a family.

Monica Dankenbring-Zimmerlein, now vice president of sales operations for Clover, was Liebhart’s boss in those days. She remembers Liebhart as a go-getter — “Kelly loved a good challenge” — but also deduced she itched for a change of pace.

“It came as no surprise to me that Kelly wanted to be a teacher,” Dankenbring-Zimmerlein said. “She may not have had the title of teacher at Clover but she was a very strong leader and was always ‘teaching’ her fellow colleagues.”

If Liebhart needed additional encouragement, she got it at home. Husband Dan was “very supportive” of her decision to switch careers.

“At that time in our lives, we had two children younger than 6 so life was very busy,” Liebhart said. “He supported me financially in addition to taking on extra responsibilities at home.”

Liebhart earned her master’s in education online through the University of Phoenix. But what to teach? The logical choice was Spanish. She’d spent a semester in Madrid — “That was amazing” — and honed her tongue on trips to Mexico and Puerto Rico.

“I have always enjoyed language and grammar, and I find cultures of Spanish-speaking countries very interesting,” she said. “Most importantly, I understand the importance of knowing the Spanish language and being able to communicate with others. I enjoy sharing that love with others.”

She did her student teaching at Ottawa High School and then took a job at Henry-Senachwine High School before moving for good to La Salle-Peru. Wrobleski hired Liebhart and, when checking references, took note of how unhappy Henry-Senachwine’s superintendent was to lose her.

Liebhart quickly impressed her new peers at L-P.

“She came in with a confidence that made her stand out,” said Gladys Ramey, who chairs the school’s Fine Arts and Languages Division. “I believe Kelly would have been just as successful had she started right out of college.”

L-P teacher Christine Theisinger is a “hall buddy” who recalled that from day one Liebhart kept her classroom tidy and laid down firm expectations — “She runs a tight ship” — but also greeted everyone with a smile.

“I always say that I wish I could be as relaxed as Kelly is,” Theisinger said. “She goes with the flow and is never bothered if plans change.

“There is definitely a difference between teachers who start after college and those who choose it later in life. Those who come to teaching later are more relaxed and able to manage the stress of teaching much better.”

Liebhart was in her mid-30s when she started at L-P — later than most peers — but she quickly found the age gap held some advantages.

“I feel sometimes for teachers who come in right out of college and have only four or five years’ difference in age with their students,” Liebhart said. “I think that can be very challenging.

“I think teaching is a great field. I think it’s a great career. It’s a fulfilling career, that’s for certain.”