VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Some schools in the area are starting the school year without enough teachers to fill classrooms. Now, one program is working to help fill those gaps.

Regent University’s Career Switcher Program has been around for several years.

One recent graduate, John Pienkowski, is a former naval officer who went through the program in 2015.

Pienkowski now teaches Technology Education at Brandon Middle School in Virginia Beach City Public Schools.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools started the school year 29 teachers short and “Career Switcher” is one of the programs looking to help fill those gaps.

“It was always the question of what am I going to do when I grow up, when I get out of the military,” said John Pienkowski. “I felt the calling and I knew that this is what I wanted to do.”

After spending 20 years as a surface warfare officer and ending his career as the commanding officer of the USS Mesa Verde, John Pienkowski decided it was time to make the switch from instructing sailors to teaching middle school science.

“Mentoring young sailors and marines, that’s what really propelled me into the direction of education,” said Pienkowski.

Pienkowski says he felt the calling to go into education when he saw that many schools were struggling to fill teaching positions, so he enrolled in Regent University’s Career Switcher Program.

He studied engineering at the naval academy and says the switch felt natural.

“I had a lot of science background and I’ve always been fascinated with any STEM field and so all of that and the inquisitiveness all transferred over to wanting to become a science teacher,” said Pienkowski.

“Our goal is to prepare them for the classroom as quickly as possible because we want to fill the shortages,” said Chair of the Career Switcher program, Dr. Mervyn Wighting.

Dr. Wighting says the program works with people who already have bachelor’s degrees in another field and want to become teachers.

“They do not have to have a degree in math in order to be a math teacher, they just have to have a bachelor’s degree,” said Dr. Wighting.

Dr. Wighting says people from all walks of life enroll in the program, from stay-at-home moms, to business owners, to retired military officers, like John.

The future educators take a test for whichever particular subject they’d like to teach, then they’re prepared on how to teach that subject.

They’re also paired with a mentor from the university to help them through their first year of teaching.

“They answer questions, work with them on lesson plans, work with them on grading techniques to make the whole year more smooth because trust me the first year of teaching is very stressful for any teacher,” said Dr. Wighting.

Dr. Wighting says career switchers bring an extra dimension into the classroom: real-world experience.

“The career switcher can give concrete examples from the real world based on his or her experience and that is really meaningful to children,” said Dr. Wighting. “It resonates with them and gives them the rationale for learning that particular subject.”

For the past few years, John has been teaching technology education at Brandon Middle School.

He’s been teaching students about robots, 3-D printing, and even spending time in the wood shop.

He says seeing students’ projects come to life right in front of his eyes is more rewarding than any accolades achieved in the military.

“To see them hold up whatever project, ‘look what I did with my own hands,’ ‘I made this,'” said Pienkowski. “I am just always so proud of them.”

“We need to build and influence and model and mold for our younger generation and I just felt like teaching is the way to do it,” said Pienkowski. “We are creating our own future by educating the younger generations by building them up and giving them the confidence for decision making and critical thinking and just being positive citizens in the greater world.”

Regent’s Career Switcher Program is fully online, so they have students from all over the state.

“They don’t just live around Hampton Roads,” said Dr. Wighting. “Our students who become teachers live in Northern Virginia, Central Virginia, Danville in Western Virginia, all over the state.”

Dr. Wighting says Pienkowski was awarded the 2018 National New Educator of the Year Award. He says he enjoys watching the career switchers grow into their new roles as well.

“People don’t realize what a great gift they have that they can impart to children,” said Dr. Wighting.

Learn more about the program HERE.