Two years ago, after a decade in law enforcement, Caleb Christine took a leap of faith and enrolled at the University of Northern Iowa in pursuit of his dream to be the first in his family to graduate from college and become a teacher.
Christine, now 40, graduated last month with a double major in middle-level education and technology and engineering education and was chosen to be a "student speaker" at the commencement ceremony while his wife Stacey and their three sons looked on with pride.
During his speech, Christine had a message for his fellow graduates: Never stop learning. Never stop teaching. And, don’t ever quit.
“If you have goals or a dream, you chase it,” he told his fellow graduates at commencement. “Set your sights on that dream and lean into it. Don’t quit when you stumble. Don’t quit when you take longer than you think you should have. Don’t quit when people make fun of you. You find your pack, you find your way and you don’t ever quit.”
“Thank you, Caleb,” President Mark A. Nook said following Christine’s commencement speech. “You are a remarkable representation of your classmates, this university. Thank you so much for your service to the country and your service to this university and our community. We wish you the very, very best.”
On January 4, Christine took the next step toward living his dream, when he started as an industrial arts teacher at Melcher-Dallas High School - an hour-drive each way from his home and the high school his sons attend.
In his new position, Christine said he will be teaching classes in drafting, woodworking, building trades, automotive skills and working with metals. One of the things he has focused on in his first weeks as a teacher is paying special attention to those students who may be struggling to learn or have behavioral issues.
"When I was a police officer, I dealt with a lot of kids that we might refer to as 'troubled,'" Christine said. "Now, as a teacher, when I see kids who are struggling to learn or maybe they are showing signs of some behavioral issues, I try to give them some extra attention because it's important they know they are good kids and that someone is in their corner."
“Maybe I can help them avoid problems that police deal with,” he added. “Maybe I can help point them in the right direction before they go down a path they can’t come back from.”
A few years ago, Christine said, he never would have imagined how different his life would look now.
“I loved being a cop and I was good at it,” he said.
But, while leading a police K-9 unit was a great gig, Christine and his wife still struggled to make ends meet. In fact, Christine had to balance his full-time job as a police officer with two part-time jobs, just to help cover the costs of living in the Seattle area.
Christine said the family had talked before about moving back to Iowa – Christine’s native state – to be closer to his family in Seymour – a town of 800 in central Iowa.
“We had often talked about being near my family and living in a smaller community with smaller schools,” Christine said of he and his wife, Stacey.
Roughly four years ago, the couple and their three sons - Peyton, now 16; Mathew (cq), now 15, and Isaac, now 11 – decided to take a chance and made the move. The boys initially balked, Christine said, but now they have no thought of leaving.
“We have a goat, chickens and a couple cows,” he said. “We’ve named the goat Chadwick. They play with him (the goat) and bottle-feed the calves.”
And over the next four years, Christine found work at a lumber yard and offered construction tips to high-school students on a Habitat-for-Humanity project before working up the courage to finally chase that dream and apply to UNI.
“I tell my kids: ‘Don’t ever give up on something you want,’” Christine said. “If it’s something you feel in your bones is right for you, just do it. If you can justify the dream to yourself, you can find a way to do it.’”
Ultimately, Christine said he plans to return to UNI to earn a masters in science education or education leadership. He has already submitted his application to start in spring 2022, he said.
"My goal is to teach future teachers - to be like Dr. Gilson," he said.
Dr. Tim Gilson, Ed.D., graduated from UNI in 2006 and is now an associate professor of Educational Psychology, Foundations and Leadership Studies at UNI. He was also Christine's middle school principal. Christine said he also draws inspiration from former Seymour High School social studies teacher and basketball coach, Nick Pace, Ed.D., (UNI, 1992, BA in sociology), who is now professor and chair of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Educational Administration. (Fun fact: Pace stands 6’10 and Christine is 6’4.)
"If I grow to be half the educators they are I will consider my career wildly successful," he said.
“One of the lessons that I’ve learned was to believe in myself — that I could do it,” Christine said of his success at UNI. “I wondered, ‘Am I smart or good enough, am I dedicated enough to do what is needed?’ I learned that you need to trust in yourself."
Chris Christine speaking at commencement