Matthew Wohlfarth maintains a light mood among his students at the beginning of class. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
Matthew Wohlfarth maintains a light mood among his students at the beginning of class. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
One first-year teacher at Trimble County High School may not be familiar with teaching teenagers, but it's not his first time trying to make a difference in the lives of others.

Matthew Wohlfarth decided to take a job as a high school history teacher after working as a pastor for several years. Even though the two career paths seem quite different, serving as a pastor and teaching have several commonalities, he said.

"I was kind of known as a teacher," Wohlfarth said of his years as a pastor. "I've always been teaching-oriented."

Wohlfarth even had teaching experience in the classroom - just at a different level. He taught part-time at various colleges for the past 17 years while serving as a pastor throughout the southern portion of the United States and in Kentucky.

Wohlfarth considered looking for a full-time academic position at a college after leaving the ministry because of divorce, but the economic decline took its toll on colleges just as it has in other businesses.

Most colleges aren't looking for full-time professors, Wohlfarth said. Instead, most new hires at the collegiate level are adjunct faculty or part-time positions.

"College jobs are almost impossible to find," he said.

He also wanted to stay within the area of his three children. So he began the process of applying for other openings in the education field in July 2012 - a late start when looking for a job in education, he said. Trimble County Schools hired him about a month later to teach world history, and he began teaching two weeks after the start of the school year after a background check through the Kentucky Department of Education.

"I never really dreamed I'd end up (teaching) in high school," he said. "It's really taught me a lot about myself."

Wohlfarth earned an undergraduate degree in history and public communications plus two master's degrees - one in divinity and one in history - as well as a doctoral degree in church history, which is enough credentials to teach at any school at the collegiate level.

But his many degrees seemed to hinder his search for a job before his interview at Trimble County. Most school districts thought he was overqualified for a high school position, he said.

Wohlfarth's resume fit well with Trimble County Schools though. Because of his experience teaching at the collegiate level, Wohlfarth helped to bring a new dual-credit class to Trimble County High School: A Western Civilizations class where students might earn college credits through Western Kentucky University.

But even though Wohlfarth taught before, he still needed additional certification to teach at the high school level in Kentucky. He's currently working on his third master's degree - a Master of Arts in teaching - to become an "alt-certified" teacher.

Another degree isn't the only thing Wohlfarth had to accomplish while transitioning to the high school level. He also had to learn the dynamics of a public education system.

"I wasn't going to be behind on the subject matter," he said. "Other than that, I was flying by the seat of my pants."

Wohlfarth had to learn how to serve as a disciplinarian in the classroom and balance the workload for classes. Most students choose to take classes at the collegiate level to earn their degree while students must take classes in a public school system in order to graduate, so he also had to learn how to engage each student - whether they wanted to participate in class or not.

There's also much less time for teachers to prepare in a high school setting than for college classes. Whereas he would teach up to three classes - often only one or two - per semester for colleges, Wohlfarth teaches nearly double that amount of classes per day at the high school.

"There's much less time to converse (with co-workers)," he said. "And that's a shame."

In the collegiate setting, professors often exchange ideas for presenting material or working with students during office hours or faculty meetings. That isn't as prevalent at the high school level either.

"There's a lot of junior teachers that could benefit from senior teachers," Wohlfarth said.

Yet there are other advantages to teaching high school that Wohlfarth hadn't really considered before.

"My high school history teachers changed my life," Wohlfarth said. "In this setting, I have a greater opportunity to change lives."

As much as he enjoys history and hopes each student remembers each major date and battle in the world's history, he understands that's probably not going to happen for many students. Instead, he helps to instill life lessons that will help students outside of the classroom for years to come.

"What I try to communicate with kids is to break the cycle," he said.

Each day - whether it be in class or in life - he encourages students to succeed beyond the normal. If that means earning a "C" on a test by working as much as possible, that's okay. But if a student earns a "C" without any effort, that's not okay, he said.

"Don't just be satisfied with mediocrity," he said.