For more than two decades Chuck Trader enjoyed a highly successful career in corporate finance, a six-figure salary, and all the perks that went with his position. But success exacted a price. Chuck and his wife of 29 years, Peggy, barely had time to hang new curtains and fluff the pillows on the sofa before receiving a new assignment in another city or state. Friends learned to use pencil instead of ink when jotting down the Traders’ latest address.
Always an overachiever with a head for numbers and a personality for people, Chuck let his career goals guide him for years. But eventually he began to feel the strain. As the banking industry underwent a wave of mergers and acquisitions, Chuck’s work was taking him to city after city throughout the Midwest where he would close and consolidate branches, handing out pink slips to long-time employees and fielding tough questions from nervous customers.
After twenty years in the corporate world, Chuck recognized that he had stopped enjoying his work. Making matters worse, a new crop of MBA-toting graduates were entering the field, solving management problems by crunching numbers rather than by building and nurturing relationships. With two young children, Chuck and Peggy realized that they were missing out on milestones and together time. They yearned to find a place to call their “forever home”—a place where they could become part of a community and watch their kids grow up in a stable environment. “It was time for a change,” he says.
In 2001, Chuck, then 45, called it quits.
Today, he is a middle school math teacher in St. Marys, Georgia, a sleepy little coastal town at the southeastern-most tip of Georgia. The job pays just a little more than $40,000 per year. Chuck is also a city councilman and president of the St. Marys Middle School Parent Teacher Student Organization. The couple that moved 12 times in the first 20 years of marriage has now held on to the same zip code for a decade—and they couldn’t be happier.
And, to cap it all off, Chuck was recently named St. Marys Middle School “Teacher of the Year.”
Clearly this was the right move for Chuck and his family, but finding the perfect place to plant the family’s roots took some time. The search for their “forever home” began in early 2000 when Chuck and Peggy took the kids on a six-week road trip in a rented motor home along the East Coast. Using statistics and a personal wish-list as their guide, they stopped in 12 towns that met their exacting criteria: good schools, low crime, proximity to major metropolitan areas, coastal location, low cost of living, friendly feel, and other must-haves. St. Marys satisfied everything on their list. After spending the day in town talking to the mayor and other locals and seeing the sights, they were sold on this small waterfront community of approximately 14,000.
“We said, ‘Is this real?’ We went away for a few days and came back, just to be sure. And it felt good to be back,” Chuck says.
The long trip was the beginning of a new era, one in which family time trumped work time. By 2001, the Traders had settled in St. Marys for good, throwing themselves into community life and rehabbing a pre-Civil War-era home. Chuck initially worked for the city of St. Marys as finance director and interim city manager, and he became deeply involved in his children’s school.
It was while becoming active in his children’s school that Chuck realized he had found his true calling: teaching. After earning a provisional certificate by passing a slew of tests, he was hired as a middle school mathematics instructor. Within a year, he enrolled in online courses at Grand Canyon University to earn his Masters in Secondary Education and professional certification. “It was quite grueling,” recalls Chuck, who worked full time while finishing the two-year program in 14 months. But the payoff was well worth the sacrifice. “There is no other profession where you have the opportunity to favorably affect the outcomes and impact the lives of so many young adults,” says Chuck. “Teaching truly is an opportunity to invest in the future of our society.”
Chuck’s life today bears little resemblance to his former corporate existence. He quickly rattles off an eclectic list of the differences: more family time, reduced expenses, deeper relationships, increased understanding of the challenges faced by lower socioeconomic families, shorter lunches, and longer time on his feet, to name only a few.
In the classroom Chuck is able to make lesson plans real by drawing upon his experience in business. And he captivates students by sharing jaw-dropping stories from his past—such as tales of $100 million deals he helped close. “When you’re working with a kid who is struggling and working very hard, it’s very fulfilling to see the smile and satisfaction when they suddenly ‘get it.’ It’s what makes teaching great,” says Chuck.
The former businessman has “a knack for reaching students others deem unreachable,” says Michael Wooden, St. Marys Middle School principal. “Each time I visited Mr. Trader’s classroom, all of his students were engaged in his lesson. Not only is he an extremely knowledgeable mathematics teacher, he is equally skilled at reaching students at whatever academic level they come to him.”
Chuck’s students scored a 96 percent pass rate on the mathematics portion of the most recent statewide student assessment. “That is a very difficult achievement for any teacher,” notes Wooden. “Not to mention one who has a large group of students who are considered ‘at risk.’”
Chuck and Peggy Trader have much to be thankful for these days as they live their version of the American Dream. Their children, plucked from private school when the family moved to St. Marys, have grown up in a more diverse public school environment and learned to do more with less as their parents scaled back. Yet, they are thriving. Evan, 19, is a sophomore at Georgia Tech, majoring in aeronautical engineering and economics. Hannah, 16, is on her school’s gymnastics team and a member of the National Beta Club, an organization that promotes academic achievement, character, service, and leadership among elementary and secondary school students.
“Moving here was at my insistence,” Peggy says. “It was an effort to focus on the family and not let the corporate job rule our lives anymore. We’ve refocused our priorities on having a more stable family life.”
Chuck Trader today is a walking Chamber of Commerce for St. Marys, extolling its coastal location, beautiful landscape, friendly folks, and strong educational system. He looks back on his corporate past without regret. There is pride in all that he achieved, but he well understands that teaching is what he was truly meant to do. “My days are long and can be challenging, but I feel a deep sense of accomplishment as I see students grow and develop into young adults,” he says. “Each and every day I make a difference in the life of a child. And that has tremendous value beyond the income provided.”