From the newsroom to the classroom: New U.S. History teacher discusses unique career changes

September 11, 2019 — by Manasi Garg and Anouk Yeh

U.S. History teacher Michael Betz, who recently started teaching at Saratoga High after two decades at Los Gatos High, never expected that he would interview Jimmy Carter, the President of the United States at the time. He recalled how in his freshman year of college, the professor of his introductory journalism course told the entire class he had interviewed five presidents and that he expected that one of his students would also interview a president. 

“Back then I felt like, wow, that will never happen,” Betz said. “But now I feel a huge sense of accomplishment that I was the one student in his class that had fulfilled his prediction. And as a college student, that’s not something you would ever predict.” 

In high school, Betz was on his newspaper’s staff for all four years and served as its editor-in-chief. However, it wasn’t until he went to college, where he received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and also served as the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, that he discovered his passion for journalism and realized he wanted to pursue it as a career.  

After graduating, Betz worked as a journalist for 10 years. He worked for the Peninsula Times Tribune, which was owned by the Tribune Company in Chicago. Throughout his working years, he interviewed many important cultural and political figures, including Academy Award winner George Burns, former secretary of transportation Norm Mineta and actress Debbie Reynolds. 

One of his favorite interviews was with renowned trombone player Warren Covington, who gave him a pass to one of his concerts after his interview. In the middle of his performance, Covington asked for Betz to stand up from his seat. Covington had all the stage spotlights focus on Betz and announced to the packed-house of the Flint Center that Betz’s interview with him was the single best one he had in his entire life. 

Betz did not just write profiles. He covered multiple stories under a variety of different sections for the paper, working as a sports reporter, reporting on murder trials and writing extensively on local issues in the Bay Area. He remembers attending a meeting regarding the creation of Highway 85 that went until 1:30 a.m., just a few hours before the story had to be printed. 

“You have to be able to write really fast,” Betz said. “It’s a lot of pressure.” 

After his decade as a reporter, Betz decided that it was time for a career change. The extensive mental and physical exertion that came with the job, including late nights spent covering breaking news and tight deadlines, contributed to Betz’s decision to move into another field. 

“I was just tired of being a journalist,” Betz said. “A lot of people think it’s a very glamorous job, and it can be. I had access to so many people I wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for my job. But it was a lot of work.” 

While reporting, Betz had taught two classes part time at West Valley College: news writing and a class on how journalism affects history. Teaching seemed like an “obvious choice” for Betz, whose father and siblings also pursued careers in education. After a few semesters at West Valley, he switched to teaching high school students. 

Before coming to SHS, Betz taught 18 years of American History and five years of English 12 at Los Gatos. He moved to Saratoga High to teach after his leg was amputated as the result of a health condition and he began to use a wheelchair, which made Los Gatos High School’s hilly campus and multiple story buildings inaccessible, whereas Saratoga’s flat campus was much more accommodating. 

He said that despite this setback, he was determined to keep teaching and adapt. 

“The nice thing about going back to teach is you’re a living example of how to overcome adversity,” Betz said. “All of your students can look at you and see you overcame the adversity of losing your leg, that no matter what happens you can overcome it.” 

He also said so far, he has found the staff and students of Saratoga to be very supportive.

Betz said his experience in journalism has helped him teach history with more clarity, exploring connections and similarities between the past and the present. 

“As a journalist, you really need to be logical and rational if you’re going to project something into the future, and it’s the same with history,” Betz said. “History is not all about the past. If you study history, you see patterns that may recur in the future.”

Betz said he has used criminal cases and court proceedings he covered as a reporter as examples in class. He recalls covering a criminal case where ultimately “it came down to whether or not the [accused] had been given their Miranda rights,” and said he integrated his observations of the proceedings in his U.S. history classes when teaching about rights. 

From his many years of teaching, Betz has developed a simple philosophy. He said that he believes it’s the instructor’s duty to make the students care about their classes and future education. 

Betz added that he aims to support students not only educationally but also emotionally. 

“Some teachers say, ‘Hey, I teach a subject, you want to [talk about personal issues], go see a counselor,’ but I was never that way,” Betz said. “People want to talk to people they know, not strangers. It behooves any instructor to make the student fully successful for college.”

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