This photo in the April 26, 1989 edition of The Chronicle shows late Creswell resident, Vange Bigham, who left her job at the post office to pursue a career in teaching. Chronicle Archives
To some people, it sounds more like having a nightmare than following your dream. But it all depends on your point of view.
”The headline should read, '43-year-old woman quits secure, well-paying job for stressful, non existent job.'” That's how Creswell resident Vange Bigham light-heartedly describes her career change.
After 20 years as a postal worker, Bigham decided to go back to school, get her degree and become a teacher, her lifelong dream. Reaction from friends and coworkers has been mixed, Bigham said.
”A lot of people thought that was a crazy option. They said, 'Do something that will make you money.' I'm not looking for money or security. I wanted something that was fulfilling to me personally.”
The idea that her perfect life - a good job, supportive husband, two kids - was no longer satisfying first occurred to Begham when she spent eight weeks at home recovering from major surgery.
”I'd always been real busy,” Bigham said. ”Then I couldn't work, travel or even do housework. I had to sit and be quiet. It gave me time to think. It was a time of reflection and reassessment. I made a vow that I would return to school and finish my degree. It really bothered me that I hadn't completed it. It was time to quit whining about it and get my life organized.”
Initially, the plan was just to complete her degree - Bigham had quit school after just two years when she joined the post office. She asked the post office for a study leave, but it wasn't granted. So, she pursued the next option, finding a part-time position in the post office that would allow her to go back to school.
”I don't think they really heard me say that I'm going to quit,” Bigham said. ”They thought I was only getting my degree. It didn't look real scary - I'd still have my fingers in the pot. When they started to hear that it was my goal to quit, that's when I really started feeling the negative vibes. People said things like, 'Oh, she's having a mid-life crisis,' or 'what are you doing - at your age?'”
Before the turning point in her life, Bigham had risen to the ”big time” in the postal service. Locally, Bigham served two years off-and-on as the officer-in-charge at the Creswell Post Office. As manager of sales programs in Eugene, she worked with million-dollar mailers like Emporium and University of Oregon.
”It was a self-controlled position,” Bigham said. ”I could manage my own time, as long as I met my goals. And I had varied experiences.” This was a no turn-the-bolt factory job. ”I'd think, my God, all I did today was chase somebody's Express mail. And I still had 15 years to retirement.”
Bigham began working for the Creswell Post Office back in 1966, the year her first daughter was born. Daughter, Chris, is now 22. Bigham also has a son, Rick, who is 20. Her husband, Richard, installs floors. All have been supportive of her career change, Bigham said.
”I told my husband, 'Rick, I am so bored with my job. I need to go back to school and become a teacher – or start having affairs.' He said I should start having affairs – it's cheaper. We laughed about that,” Bigham said.
”My son said, 'Mom, what are you doing? Kids that age are still decided what they want to do. Their concerns are good pay, benefits, vacations and promotional opportunities. Maybe you want a job that is more fulfilling, but you don't think about that at 20 or 22. They accept it, but they're still puzzled.”
Her kids - used to having ”mom's unlimited time” - have learned to deal with her new schedule, even though Bigham admits to being ”tired and grumpy” at the end of a long day. Bigham began working at the University Station post office on campus so job and school would be close.
University of Oregon students are, on average, 26 years old, according to Bigham, and many of her classmates were teachers back for their second endorsement, so she didn't feel too out of place.
”They weren't a bunch of fresh-faced kids,” Bigham said. ”But my son said, 'Mom, I hope you're not a wrinkled freshman.' That's someone with a bouffant hairdo who wears polyester, sits in front of the class, has read everything and knows all the answers.”
There are some problems with being an older student, Bigham admitted. While frantically searching for a paper that was due, I think, 'wow, I'm 43-years-old, I can't have lost my homework!'”
Bigham also met a kindred spirit, a department store manager who supervised 40 people but also wasn't satisfied with managing adults. ”She said she wanted to teach, to have a job that gives something back. Finally! OK, I'm not weird - somebody else feels that way. A lot of people don't understand.”
Bigham is the first to admit that there are plenty of drawbacks to becoming a teacher. ”We used to admire teachers and set them up on a pedestal,” she said. ”Now, teaching is seen as a low-paying position. Also, teachers lack the status and respect they once had. And teaching jobs are hard to come by these days.” But Bighma isn't discouraged by these negative attitudes.
”I see teaching as really creative,” she said. ”You're bonding and connecting with people. Imagine a painter with a canvas that fluctuates - one day you hit, the next day you don't. You have to be flexible and entertaining. You have to like it.”
If there's something that bothers Bigham about teaching is the way that teaching is taught.
”My pet peeve: they talk theory in the classrooms about how kids will react. Why isn't the education in a real classroom? I need to see this to learn. I need to work with kids and experience it.”
The trend is moving toward less theory and more actual work experience for teachers, Bigham thinks. Today's kids are different.
”I think they've changed an awful lot,” Bigham said. ”In the classroom, it's noisy. They're not sitting at their desks with their hands folded. You don't automatically get their respect - you have to earn it. It makes it more difficult for the teacher. The kids are making value judgements about their teachers. They're more vocal, more apt to question things.”
During her teaching career, Bigham hopes to work with high school sophomores. ”There's still an openness there. Some of the naivety of freshmen. They're open to new philosophies. The seniors are cynical - they're starting to make the transition into the adult world.”
The ”real world” is fast approaching for Bigham, who completes her degree this June. Right now, she's a student teacher with three classes at Sheldon High School. ”Then I'll start floundering around, trying to find a job. It's been a long time since I've hunted for a job.”
She admits to being ”nervous” about job-hunting and finding her first teacher job.
”I think about walking into that classroom. For 22 years, I had a job where I knew exactly what to do everyday. I'm worried about the little things - like taking attendance and tardy policies. I really see myself as a substitute teacher for three to five years. It depends on what the market situation is. I haven't gotten past the student mentality - I'm still in high school.”
Bigham now knows she isn't alone in her quest for a career change. Her fellow postal workers traditionally throw ”promotion parties” for employees moving up in the business world. ”They had a 'demotion party' for me,” Bigham said. ”The attitude was, 'Wow, someone is going to do what they want to do.' We shared idealistic things they wanted to do. One wanted to become a country western singer. Some wanted to start their own businesses or go into real estate.”
For those considering making their own drastic career changes, Bigham offers some knowledgeable advice. ”Have strong support from your family and friends - financially and emotionally. No, they can't borrow Richard, he's busy supporting someone else.”
To succeed with a major change in life, you need lots of ”willpower and mental initiative,” Bigham said. ”I hope that they have the same opportunity I did. It's like a breath of fresh air after 20 years of punching the time clock, just to stop what you're doing. I think everybody needs that, even if they don't change careers. Take a personal sabbatical, get out of the rat race routine. They can go back to school or take time out to travel. It's worth it.”
Bigham admits that making the transition isn't a picnic.
”Eighty-five percent of it is very fulfilling. The other 15 percent is very scary,” Bigham said. ”But it just feels good. It really makes me proud. It's something I always wanted to do, and I did it!”
Editor's note: Bigham passed away on Dec. 31, 2018 - a long-standing pillar in the Creswell community.
After this article was printed in 1989, according to her obituary, Bigham did earn her teaching degree, as well as a masters in English, was graduated from the University of Oregon in 1991, Summa Cum Laude. She then taught honors English and journalism at Springfield High School, and was also on the Creswell School Board.
She retired from teaching in 2003 and focused her energy on becoming an active community volunteer. She spent many years assisting Creswell High School seniors apply for college, and volunteered on the Creswell Education Foundation.