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Sean Bui | “I left law and became a teacher”

For the majority of my life, I was convinced that my road ended with me becoming an attorney. My family set the value that attorney was the route to go, and I thought I was pretty good at public speaking and reading, so I went down that road. 

I graduated from Santa Clara University with a law degree. And then I passed the California bar, the hardest test I’ve ever taken in my entire life. And then I got the job that I wanted — I remember that moment, sitting in an office with a nice leather chair. I had my own administrative assistant and floor-to-ceiling windows. And I realized that I liked it, but I didn’t love it. 

I kept transferring jobs as a lawyer, which should have been a sign in and of itself. The one job that I got a lot of joy out of was helping people proceed through their own lawsuits — walking them through how to do it themselves. I was teaching them. It was the weirdest feeling, because when I was doing that, I was happy making photocopies. Who’s happy making photocopies? And then to see the look on their face when the lightbulb went on… it made me really, really happy. So I realized I needed to switch careers. 

I went back to school at San Jose State and got my credential in teaching. I eventually ended up here at Cupertino High School. And I never want to look back. I tell everyone. I want to hold on to this job with two hands and never, ever let go.

I am a people person. Always in my heart, I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. For the most part, I saw being a lawyer as being a people person. And a lawyer is a leader in his firm or the courtroom. But I feel like some of the best teachers I know are leaders, too. 

Teachers are leaders in the classroom, and students look to them for inspiration or guidance. Before my career change, I’d never thought about it that way. There are overlaps between teaching and practicing law that helped me be drawn toward a law career but also helped me succeed and be drawn toward a teaching career. I use the same skills differently: reading, writing, establishing processes, etc. 

I started with personal injury law. Then I did employment law. And the law I ended on was family law. I did a lot of custody and visitation support, which is emotionally draining. As a lawyer, I didn’t see people at their greatest moments. They were going through angry and conflict-filled situations. And now as a teacher, I see students at some of their lowest moments, but other days are a lot happier; I get to see the joy and the humor in kids.

My wife, to her credit, has always been my best friend and my supporter. She said, ‘I want you to be 100% happy. So let’s switch.’ That moment has always sat with me as a reminder that I’m with someone who has my back 1000% and is interested in my happiness and our happiness together. Because when we got married, the deal was, ‘I’m going to be living the lawyer life. We’re going to have that amount of income.’ But she said, ‘Let’s switch.’

It was hard to reveal the news to my family because I knew I would get questions like, ‘Why are you walking away from something that has the potential to make way more money?’ There was a long time when I wasn’t sure how to tell my dad, because I never want to disappoint my dad. I wasn’t sure how to tell my grandparents because they came here from Vietnam with virtually nothing and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. After dinner, my grandpa would cut apples for me and hand me the slices and proudly say, ‘Here you go, Mr. Lawyer.’

I wondered, ‘Should I keep going down this path, to keep my family happy?’ 

One of the first people I told was my grandfather. And he said, ‘I’m so happy for you.’ I found out that he was a teacher himself before he came to the United States. He was super supportive. My mom was super supportive. My dad — I love him — was eventually supportive. That was the hard part.

My wife, who is a teacher with the best classroom management strategies I’ve ever seen in my entire life, said, ‘Okay, now that you’ve switched, I want to make sure you want to do this. How about you go watch my father, who teaches high school? How about you go do a private tutoring job and try all this stuff out?’ So I paid my dues, in a way. I shadowed my father-in-law in San Jose, and I did one-on-one tutoring. I substitute taught over and over again. And then for the longest time, the economy was slow, and I couldn’t find a teaching job. I went to the Santa Clara County Office of Education, and there were hundreds of teachers in a small room, and we each had one minute to sell ourselves and say what we could do. 

I remember standing in line, and a stranger said to me, ‘Hey, did you know that Fremont Union School District is also interviewing?’ I didn’t know that. I went over there and applied. I eventually got called back for a second and a third interview, and I’ve never looked back since. 

The universe kind of works itself out. If it wasn’t for that one stranger, I wouldn’t have thought to apply here. And once I applied, I found out there was another educator at Cupertino High School who had switched from being a lawyer to being a teacher: the assistant principal. 

I’ve seen the grass on the other side of teaching, and it’s not always greener in other professions. I understand what I have right now and how lucky I am. I learn things from the kids that I wouldn’t know about unless I interacted with teenagers. They teach me about technology that scares me and we walk through questions about laws that affect them. I constantly have to look things up. Just to see the passion in teenagers… that makes me happy.

There’s this quote that says, ‘Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of being.’ That’s one of my mantras in the classroom.

Teenagers can be passionate, if we help them find something they’re passionate about. Teenagers can be leaders, if we treat them like the leaders that we know they’re going to be.

I’m very lucky to work at Fremont Union High School District because four out of five schools here have law classes, and that’s not something every high school has. We want kids to be able to explore different pathways, and we have an intro to business class, too.

The law class I teach is a year-long course offered to 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. Any kid can take it as an elective, and I tell them, ‘If you want to become a better reader, writer, thinker, public speaker, and learner, then you should take law.’ 

My students run the gamut from ‘I want to be a lawyer’ to ‘I want to be on the Supreme Court’ to ‘I just want to know my rights.’ Some just want to yell, ‘Objection!’ 

Every year, I do a Fourth Amendment lecture on their rights in a classroom vs. their rights in public vs. their rights at home. And I love it. Because my lesson plan goes out the window, and that 90-minute period is filled with 60 minutes of the kids asking me questions. To feel the energy in that room… it’s amazing. These kids I teach who usually just sit there taking notes are raising their hand and asking, ‘Okay, if I was going to get boba, and they wanted to search my backpack, what can I respectfully say to them?’ Or, ‘If I am having a party and the police knock on my door, what can I do?’ The kids are so into it. 

If I could bottle that energy up and sell it, I would be a billionaire.

A former student of mine — a member of our Mock Trial team family —came back after going through college and said, ‘I’d like to help you coach the team.’ Her name is Jessica Choi. We coached the team together, and then after the final tournament was over, we formed a big circle with the kids to talk about what each of us was grateful for. I do that every year, and the kids usually thank each other. But last year, a few of them stood up and said, ‘I would like to thank Coach Choi because she pushes me. She is a warm demander. She supports us but she also challenges me.’ 

At the time, Jessica was thinking about a teaching career. She was wavering a little bit. But after that meeting was over, she stayed back and said, ‘Now I know why you love teaching so much.’ 

That’s the secret sauce. That’s what I told her. When kids connect with you and you feel like you’re making a difference in their lives — there’s nothing like it. It’s not about summers off and all of that stuff. It’s layer upon layer, making an impact on her so she can make an impact on them. She chose to go into this profession, and now she’s impacting more kids.

For the kids to reinforce that for her without me saying, ‘Let’s all clap for Coach Choi’… It was amazing. They gave her that moment to remember when she’s worn out and tired.

That was a defining moment in my career. But I’ve had so many, and I’m very, very blessed.

The category of teacher is an umbrella. The best teachers that I know are coaches, counselors, cheerleaders, therapists… parents, motivators, public speakers… I’m running out of fingers to count on. 

I think the perception that teachers are lesson planners, graders, and lecturers is a generalization that is dangerous and doesn’t encompass how hard it is to be a teacher. It doesn’t account for how much of a difference we can make in students’ lives, because some students just need us to distill information, but others have struggles where they need a trusted adult. I watch the school play to cheerlead students because they need to know someone is out there. Students come to me distraught, and we sit on that red bench out there and I ask, ‘What’s going on? Can I listen? Do you need to process anything?’ Some of them need problem solvers.

I’ll quote a movie we watch in law class, A Few Good Men. Jack Nicholson looks at one of the other characters and says, ‘We’re in the business of saving lives.’ I think teachers are in the business of making an impact on lives.

I’m a big Marvel fan, and what’s been coming to the forefront is the multiverse. An event with different possible outcomes gives rise to different universes, and one decision switches everything another way. I hope people out there imagine a teacher who had an impact on their life and wonder, ‘If they weren’t there, would I be a different person? Would it be a different multiverse?’ Because I think that’s the case. If I didn’t have a teacher to impact me, I would go a different route. What a different life it would be.

There have been moments when a teacher close to me said, ‘I feel so overwhelmed. I feel emotionally drained, because I’m feeling for these kids. I don’t feel like I’m making a difference.’ And all I can do is sit with them. 

I remind them of the difference they’re making, and how they’re in the business of saving lives and the business of making an impact. If they weren’t there, their impact wouldn’t be felt. 

Not all students vibe with me. But maybe they vibe with this teacher, who is thinking about leaving the profession. And think about the multiverse variant that will be created — hopefully, another teacher will step up if this one leaves. But the acknowledgment that they’re making an impact makes a difference. And it’s okay to have feelings of exhaustion. Maybe teachers just need more support. Maybe we just need time… maybe we need a listening ear. Maybe we need to create a boundary. I don’t know. But I have these conversations, and they gather themselves, and they go back into the classroom. 

Teenagers, even though they seem apathetic or jaded, are listening to every single word that we say. It lands and impacts them. Even just a positive, ‘Hi, good morning. How are you doing?’ Or, ‘Oh, my gosh, you did really well in class today. Thanks for raising your hand and saying that’ — or ‘thanks for just sitting there quietly and writing something out, because I know that’s the way you process information.’ That makes a difference on campus. And those teachers who want to leave are making that difference, even though they don’t feel it… I almost guarantee that they are making a difference.

My grandparents had a big impact on my life. I’m half Vietnamese, half Filipino, and my Filipino grandmother was a high school teacher in the Philippines. My Vietnamese grandfather taught at the Naval Postgraduate School. So I think teaching, whether I knew it or not, always ran in my blood. They would always look at me and say, ‘You have a good teaching voice. Never hold back from using your teaching voice.’ 

My dad always said, ‘Sean, someone can take away your house, they can take away your car, but the one thing they can never take away is your education.’ He sacrificed to put my brother and me in different schools. That emphasis on education stayed with me, and I try to instill the same in my students. 

When I first joined Cupertino High School, I was assigned to teach English language development in addition to ninth grade English. I didn’t know much about ELD. But I remember this one moment when I was raring to go, reading all the curriculum, and a teacher I work with said, ‘This is a population where if you do right by them, if you support them, and if you care for them, they will be on your side.’ And that has been true from day one. The ELD population is near and dear to my heart. I eventually became the coordinator of that program, and it’s a population that I’m very protective of; I always imagine what it must feel like to be a teenager who doesn’t speak the language in a new place. I get very protective of how scary could that be. The ELD population are some of the bravest and most resilient kids that I know. On top of that, they speak multiple languages, and that blows me away. 

Being an English language development teacher makes my teaching skills stronger in general. All the stuff that I learned to help my ELD population, I use in my English class and my law class: think-pair-shares, processing time, more visuals… ELD strategies are good strategies, period. 

You become a better teacher because you’re teaching a population that needs you to exercise your teaching tools to the fullest extent. It’s been a blessing.

One of my favorite teaching strategies is think-pair-shares. When I ask a question, I don’t cold call. I say, ‘Okay, here’s the question,’ and I post it on the whiteboard for the visual learners. Then I repeat it for the auditory learners. I say, ‘Okay, that’s your elbow partner right there.’ And I do a silly elbow thing where I kind of look like a flailing chicken, and they laugh at that. But then they turn to their elbow partners and they get to talk with each other. In English language development, a noisy classroom is a good classroom. 

I give them a minute to talk with their partner, and then I ask for volunteers, and they can share what they said or what their elbow partner said. They’re propping up the other person because that person feels acknowledged and heard. So that’s an awesome tool. I give them sentence frames and sentence starters to help them say, ‘When I heard you say _____, I agreed with you because ____.’ 

Then a few months down the road, I say, ‘Okay, go ahead and talk with your partner,’ and I don’t provide the sentence frames anymore. And lo and behold, they’re able to do it without that. It’s all scaffolding, like putting scaffolds on a building. 

Once you take the scaffolding away, the building still stands if you’ve built it right.

I went to a retirement party for my Aunt Leslie Anido, a respected teacher in our county and someone I look up to as a teacher. I walked in, and there were tables upon tables of all the stuff that she gathered that kids made for her. It was amazing. There were thank you cards, pictures… all the trinkets filled the tables. She knew the secret sauce of teaching. I looked at that, and I thought, ‘I want to be that one day. I want to make that type of impact on kids.’ 

I have what I call a willpower box. I’m a big DC Comics fan, and Green Lantern is all about willpower. I take all the stuff that the kids give me — thank you cards, letters — and I have a giant box of those things. I have three-page letters from kids thanking me for the impact I had on their lives. I have small thank you cards. I have a drawing of me as a turtle. 

I hope every teacher makes time to make their own willpower box because, yeah, we don’t get paid billions of dollars like quarterbacks in the NFL or runningbacks or wide receivers. But we get paid in different ways. And I think that’s what sustains me. 

Teenagers don’t need to make stuff for us. So when they actually take the time to make something or write us a note, that means that we’re making an impact on their lives. And again, I think we are in the business of making an impact on kids’ lives… and I’m hoping that teachers can continue to make that a booming business model.

–Sean Bui
Teacher at Cupertino High School
Cupertino, California