From Art Director to Art Teacher

by Mark Gleason

Volunteering for the PTA led Gina Plaitakis down the path to a new career.

Gina Plaitakis didn’t set out looking for a new career. It found her, as her life evolved through motherhood. Today the former art director is on the threshold of becoming an art teacher.

If you ever watch television, you’ve almost certainly seen Plaitakis’ work. Back in 2001, while working at advertising agency Bozell New York, she and a colleague created the Verizon Wireless “Test Man” campaign, including casting the still-ubiquitous “Can you hear me now?” character.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="249"]Become an art teacher Gina Plaitakis at Seth Boyden School[/caption]

“When I got into advertising, people told me, ‘All you need is one great campaign, and you’ll be set,’” Plaitakis recalls. But advertising had proved to be anything but set. The business was in constant motion, with mergers and consolidations and executive departures making creative departments feel nearly as transient as train stations. Plaitakis enjoyed the notoriety of the Test Man campaign at first, but at the same time she had grown tired of switching agencies every few years because of mergers or new creative directors coming on board and wanting to bring in their own people. After Bozell was merged into another agency, she left in 2002. Then she gave birth to a daughter, and she and husband Niko moved from Brooklyn to South Orange, NJ, a suburb sufficiently urban in its feel that locals sometimes call it West Brooklyn. Plaitakis kept her hand in the ad business at first, doing free-lance work for a couple of years. But eventually she decided to stay home while her daughter was young. To give herself an outlet, she taught some classes at a meditation center in nearby Maplewood.

Volunteering in the Art Room

Then in fall 2008, her daughter began attending a local elementary school. Plaitakis began spending time at the school and started volunteering there in the library and art room. By the winter of 2009, she had taken on the responsibility of teaching an after-school art class sponsored by the PTA. (The PTA provides her a small stipend.) The school’s lead art teacher observed her and the class, and one day she asked Plaitakis if she had thought about getting a substitute teaching certificate, since she clearly had a knack and a passion for working with young children.

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Plaitakis hadn’t, but soon after she applied and received one. After doing some substitute work, she began to ponder the possibility of going back to work.

“It never occurred to me that I wanted to be an art teacher,” she says of her prospective new career. “In fact, that would have been unappealing. That and moving to the suburbs … for a city girl, it would have been too much. But it turns out the kids give me a real charge. I like their energy. I realized that I was really enjoying teaching them and looking forward to my classes.”

Plaitakis began to research what it would take to become an art teacher. It turned out that with her undergraduate degree from The Cooper Union in fine arts, she didn’t need more formal education. She could take the New Jersey state certification test, called the Praxis, and if she passed, she would be eligible for a teaching certificate. She decided to go for it, spending three months studying for the test (many fail on their first try) and then taking it in March 2009. She’s still waiting for the results.

“I certainly didn’t start out on this path,” Plaitakis says. “I found myself on it, first by volunteering at the school, and then by one step leading to another.”

Thinking back on it, Plaitakis can see that finding herself on a new trail is nothing new. The opportunity to create the Verizon campaign found her, too. “I didn’t work on the Verizon account,” she recalls. The agency was about to lose Verizon. “They called in all of the creative teams, about 15 teams from all different accounts and said we needed to drop everything. We needed a breakthrough campaign, and fast. Verizon was the agency’s biggest account. They said something to the effect of ‘If someone doesn’t come up with a winner, look around because there’ll be a lot fewer of us in this room.’” Of course, the campaign Plaitakis and her partner created saved the day. (But not the agency: Bozell was absorbed into sister agency Lowe about a year later.)

What next? Plaitakis is eager to learn how she did on the Praxis, but she’s not feeling stress about looking for a job. Her daughter is still young, and her husband’s digital-media agency is doing well. She plans to let life keep evolving, from one step to the next. As Test Man now likes to say in the still-running Verizon campaign, “we’re good.”

by Mark Gleason | Thursday, April 2, 2009 | Career Change, Education Careers

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