story by Lisa Frank
Stephen Fusco was a successful corporate lawyer for 12 years, working long hours but making a good salary. But something was terribly wrong.
“I never felt I was making a difference in the world,” he admits. “I was just helping large companies make more money.”
He reached a tipping point while working overtime on unfulfilling projects that offered little intellectual satisfaction. Simultaneously, he started coaching children with special needs at Georgia’s Special Olympics. “Everything converged, and I realized I wanted to have a more positive impact by helping people.”
At age 37, he could either stay miserable or find happiness in a career he loved. He was willing “to do the hard work it takes to switch careers,” says a man with a 4.04 grade point average. Fusco recently graduated from the College of Education & Human Development with a master’s degree in behavioral and learning disabilities and began his Ph.D. in the college this fall.
After making ends meet working at Lululemon and Trader Joe’s, Fusco followed the advice of his Georgia State counselor and began teaching at Hillside Conant School as a special education instructor in 2014.
“Within days, I fell in love with it,” he says. “I immediately knew this was the right place for me.” Two years later, he’s the special education lead teacher and is teaching high school math.
“People have low expectations for those with disabilities,” Fusco says. Yet his students rose to the occasion when he pushed them to achieve more. Teaching children with disabilities requires instructors to adopt new approaches, repackage content and solve complex problems — similar to presenting information to a jury of 12 people, each with a different perspective. He was applying his legal skills but in more meaningful ways.
Teaching has a lot of administrative responsibilities, especially with this population of students where extra paperwork and data collection are required. But that’s easy for the former attorney accustomed to even more complex contracts and administrative detail.
Regrets? “Not a single one,” Fusco says emphatically. Seeing his students shine is a powerful reward. “They’re incredible testaments to what it takes to work through hardships,” he says.
Fusco experimented with yoga and meditation in the classroom and in daily group therapy sessions required at Hillside. Fascinated by the topic, Fusco has indicated his Ph.D. dissertation may test using meditation to overcome high anxiety often experienced around math testing.
His dream job is developing new policies for teachers and administrators working with students with special needs.
“Though I may not teach every day, I could be a fabulous coach to teachers. Helping these kids makes me want to get up every day,” he says.