Life After Teaching Interview: Meg Olson, Social Justice Advocate

Leaving teaching doesn’t mean you have to give up on helping others. In fact, most former teachers in a recent survey said they were able to make as much or more of a difference in their new careers as they did in the classroom.

Need more convincing?megolson

Meet Meg Olson.

After eight years as an English teacher in Chicago, she continues to make a positive impact as a social justice advocate in St. Louis.

Meg generously agreed to share her story with me, including how her volunteer work on urban farms — and love for singing — led her to her current job. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

When did you leave teaching?

The 2009-2010 school year was my last year of teaching. By then, I’d been in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for five years, and then at the University of Chicago Laboratory School for three years.

What was ironic was that I’d been at a struggling school for four years, and then I moved four blocks north onto the campus of the University of Chicago, where you could still see my old school from the third floor of the Lab School.

Was the Lab School one of those dream schools?

Yeah — the high school always gets ranked in the top 10 schools that send kids to Harvard, and the year that I started teaching there, Barack Obama’s kids were in the Lower School. And I had parents who were campaign directors and campaign finance directors, so it was a really interesting year to start there.

What made you leave teaching?

Even though I had gone from a struggling school to an English department that had a secretary who made copies*, I realized I wasn’t happy teaching.

Most of the kids I really loved teaching, but the grading load was out of control. I’ll always remember when the husband of a friend asked me, “How many hours a month do you think you’re grading papers?” for his research at Penn State.

After taking note over two months, I realized I was grading 40 to 50 hours a month. I remember thinking, “I’m spending my whole life doing this and I have lots of other interests.”

Parents were another issue, and I think we all know this in elite schools. It was particularly daunting at the Lab School, where about 60 percent of the parents were professors at the University of Chicago.

I had a freshman parent who was in the University of Chicago’s English department asking me why I wasn’t teaching “trope” to ninth graders at the first open house. I just thought, “I can’t believe you’re asking me this.”

And there was such pressure for our kids to be awesome at everything. For her first paper, I had a freshman crying about a B+, about ‘How am I going to get into Yale?’

I didn’t want be a part of this system anymore that’s stressing out our children so much. It made me really sad. I also started my teacher certification the year No Child Left Behind became a policy, so I felt like the whole climate was getting worse for teachers.

*Ed. note: I’m still wrapping my brain around this.

What did you do when you left?

Honestly, it’s crazy that at 31 I decided to do this.

After I finished my master’s in English, I worked on an urban farm in Pittsburgh that offered room and board and did my job search from there.

And because my resume was all education-based, combined with the national dialogue of, “Are teachers capable of doing anything?,” I then took a position with Americorps at an urban farm in St. Louis. I knew I’d be living at the poverty level, but I had some savings.

You’re a brave person!

Well, even though this was mostly a volunteer position, I knew I’d be gaining real skills on my resume that showed I was doing policy work and event planning. I did that for a year and really enjoyed it.

And then, I realized the wage was unlivable and it made me really think about the kids at CPS that I had taught. For the first time, I understood what it meant when they said that 90 percent of the students were living below the poverty level.

But the job in St. Louis led me to the one I have now. I’d grown to really like the city. It only has about 325,000 people and the social service and advocacy community is really close-knit, so there’s a lot of opportunity. It’s also a city that’s fallen on some tough times, but there’ve been major efforts to rebuild it. It’s an exciting place to be.

What do you do now?

I work at Catholic Charities in St. Louis as a Parish and Community Outreach Manager in the Advocacy Department.

My job is to build relationships with Catholics in the pews, and educate them on how policies made at the state and federal level impact the poor and vulnerable, and the working poor. I’ll do workshops on expanding Medicaid, or on the importance of raising the minimum wage. I also train parishioners to have in-district meetings with their legislators or to even go to the capital (Jefferson City) and participate in advocacy days.

While I’m not a lobbyist, during Missouri’s legislative session I’m at the capitol building about two days a week. I try and build relationships with legislators on both sides of the aisle so that they are aware of Catholic Charities and the people we serve.

On the national level, I work a lot on immigration issues and the Farm Bill. I also organize Catholics to work on those issues as well.

In addition to my position in the Advocacy Department, I’m also the director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

In this role, I work in partnership with the office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in D.C. to fund low-income community organizing groups and economic development projects in the poorest areas of the St. Louis region. In recent months, CCHD has been at the table up in Ferguson, supporting efforts to end racial disparities.

How did you get the job at Catholic Charities?

Well, I was a member of the church down the street from my house and I sang in the choir. Everyone there knew I was looking for a job, and everyone wanted me to stay in St. Louis. One day a woman from my church connected me to the Senior Director of Policy at Catholic Charities. He had just received a grant to hire a new staff person, and he hired me.

But I had to persuade him first. A few weeks before I applied to the job, I sat down and talked to him. I remember him saying, “How am I supposed to convince my president to hire you for this job?” Here’s pretty much what I said:

I’m a great writer and researcher; I’m not scared of speaking to large groups of people; I’ve worked with diverse populations; in fact, I’ve spent a lot of time being the only white person in the room! I’m extremely patient; I’ve learned not to expect quick answers. Students take a long time to grow and meet the goals set for them by teachers and administrators — I think this means that I can stick with an issue and advocate for it as long as it takes to pass the bill.

(This is good, because we finally overturned Missouri’s lifetime ban on food stamps for people with drug felonies after an eight-year battle — I was only there for two and a half years of it — and we’re heading into year three in the fight to expand Medicaid in Missouri!).

Congrats! That’s awesome.

Any other ways that your teaching background has helped in your job?

One thing was that I was the co-facilitator of our Model UN team at the Lab School. Working with the kids and prepping with them for conferences involved reading policy side-by-side with them, which helped me get really good at reading policy.

Another thing you need to do as a teacher is adjust your writing and speaking to different audiences. You have your colleagues, your students with different abilities, and you have the parents.

That’s something I’m very good at when I think about all the different people I have to talk to, all the way from a low-wage fast food worker, to the lead state senator in Missouri, or the people in the governor’s office.

Even though you’re no longer teaching, it sounds like you’re still really busy and working on tough problems. Has leaving teaching been worth it for you?

Absolutely. Even though my current work is draining, I don’t take a lot of it home with me and that’s the biggest difference.

My current workplace also promotes taking care of yourself and your family, and making sure you don’t get burned out. A year and a half ago, when my mom was in the hospital, there was no question about taking as much time as I needed, which doesn’t have happen in many work environments.

I also realize that I’m finally working on the root causes of poverty. Especially after working in the inner city, I realize that government needs to be a much bigger part of the success of schools and the success of school children, and not just by training teachers better, though teacher preparation does need to be addressed seriously.

As a young teacher, I didn’t know anything about poverty. I was just thinking, “Why won’t this parent return my phone calls?” Now I’m working directly with their experiences.

So if some of the root problems I’m working on are addressed at the national level or the state level, I feel like that’ll naturally make schools better, because families will be stronger, children will be stronger, and parents will hopefully have better protection on the job, so they can be more involved in their children’s education.

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3 thoughts on “Life After Teaching Interview: Meg Olson, Social Justice Advocate

  1. I really enjoyed this — thanks so much! The only thing I couldn’t get was why at 31 was it strange to make a change like that? I think for a lot of us — me, too — around that age is a key defining moment in life/career. It seems like it’s around then that we realize, “Hey, this is real life and it’s MINE!!!”

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Martha! And good point about seeing your late 20s/early 30s as a defining moment rather than as the end of the line. I left teaching at 29 despite my fears that it was “too late” to start over. It’s been just about the most freeing thing I’ve ever done!

  2. Pingback: Twelve Skills That Will Help You Find Life After Teaching | Those Who Teach

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