What It Takes to Find Life After Teaching: Advice from a Former Science Teacher

As teachers, we’ve encouraged students to follow their passions, aim high and believe in themselves — but do we believe this advice applies to us, too?

Former science teacher TK did.  His interest in educational technology developed into a passion for programming — which led to his current work as an app developer.

Here’s his story (originally a comment on my post, How I Got My Post-Teaching Job: By the Numbers):

I taught 6 years of 8th grade science and 2 years of high school chemistry. Now I’m an iPhone app developer (iOS software engineer) for an amazing retail brand.

Here’s what I did:

As a teacher I was fascinated with finding ways to leverage technology in the classroom – IR clickers, web based software, smart boards, iPads, netbooks – I used a lot of tech over eight years. But I found the district level enterprise software for grading and attendance to be extremely lacking.

So to tackle those problems I decided to make my own grading and attendance app on my favorite device, my iPhone. It’s still on the Apple app store today.

I did a lot of things to learn how to make iPhone apps, from computer science 101 online courses to reading programming books to going to MeetUps about programming.

But by far the most valuable experiences came from just making apps on my own with little to no cookbook recipes to follow. Identify a problem then start hacking a solution. I enjoyed the experience so much I decided to change careers.

Throughout my last school year I participated in hackathons, met professionals in the industry, told them my story, showed them what I’d made, and asked them how to become a professional software developer. I was told to just start applying.

So during standardized testing season, with about a month of school left, I updated my LinkedIn profile and started looking for jobs.

Getting a software developer job made me feel like I was auditioning as a musician or artist. What really matters is your ability to produce good code, not what degrees you have or even what kind of experience you might list. You need to have a publicly available portfolio of work to point to. Any company worth working for is going to tell you to write a piece of audition software for them to evaluate. This audition piece is the most important part of the interview.

I did 4-5 technical “phase one” interviews on the phone.

As soon as school let out, I did 2 audition apps for two very different companies, both of which resulted in on site interviews. I was offered both positions. All of this happened in the space of about 2.5 weeks. I resigned my teaching position and started my new job before the new school year began.

The most agonizing part was having to choose between the two offers because I like both companies, the people, and the cities they are in.

Now all of this may sound straightforward and “easy” – it was not. Learning to program is hard – but if you love coding, like I do, those long hours solving problems won’t feel long at all.

To sum up:

If you’re a teacher and you want to change careers, simply not liking teaching anymore is not enough. I know how you feel, I’ve been there. Find something you’re passionate about and go after it with all your heart the same way you did with teaching (you were that kind of teacher, weren’t you?). What will get you through is passion for what you want to do. Sounds like the kind of thing you should be telling your students. [The] [b]est lead by example.

I think TK’s advice is spot on. To find Life After Teaching, we need to follow our own lessons from the classroom. This includes developing and practicing curiosity, imagination, patience, persistence, initiative, openness to new ideas and belief in our own potential.

That’s what makes TK’s career change story so compelling — he excelled at all the skills we want our students to have.  As he says, that might seem easy in theory, but it is hard work to practice what we teach.

I hear from many readers who say, “I don’t know what I would do besides teaching,” or “I’m afraid the only thing I can do is teach.” I was guilty of that negative thinking myself when I was considering leaving teaching.

It makes me wonder: Is there something about teaching that makes so many doubt their own potential to succeed beyond the classroom? Or is it a more general fear of starting over? What would it take for more people to go after the Life After Teaching they want?

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13 thoughts on “What It Takes to Find Life After Teaching: Advice from a Former Science Teacher

  1. Teaching can be demoralizing for many reasons — unmotivated students, helicopter parents, disorganized administration, lack of financial incentive, lack of prestige in our society for teachers, etc. but the strangest, most paradoxical, is the lack of personal progress. I taught the same thing for fifteen years. Most semesters I taught five sections of that class (university level business communication). After a while I wondered why no one was learning anything. They were, actually. I just met group after group after group of students at the same point in their educational career. With so many years of so many sections of the same class they all sort of fused in my mind as one endless class that never learned anything. The few years I taught upper division, that didn’t happen because I saw them AFTER, two years down the road, applying skills I’d taught. I think that affects many teachers who teach the same grade year after year after year. Part of me felt like a failure.

    I would also add that teaching can debilitating. It’s a giving profession. You don’t get much back. I left teaching psychically and physically drained. A person who is drained is not going to imagine other possibilities for other careers.

    Just thoughts…

    • Thanks, Martha. I agree that the constant sense of failure and all-consuming demands of the job hold teachers back. And it’s true that teaching the same age level/course year after year can make teachers feel they’ve failed — I think that was definitely part of it for me.

      Administrators, parents and the general public lend their voices to this chorus of failure, too. After awhile, it becomes hard to tune out and listen to your instinct — the one that says you *can* pursue success elsewhere.

      • The important message here is that TK went TOWARD something; he had a POSITIVE direction and something he WANTED to do. It was (as he says) not a negative reaction to teaching. That’s challenging for a lot of teachers for whom teaching has become their whole world. When I retired, almost everyone said, “What are you going to do? You need to get another job.” They were so wrong — I retired because the situation was untenable, I wanted to write and I was finally financially able to do that. Now I’m a writer who just happens to have been a teacher.

      • Good point — one that goes back to our discussion of the importance of having a life/passions outside teaching from the work-life balance post.

        Yes, it can be hard to envision a positive trajectory beyond teaching if you let it be all that you see, breathe, dream, and so on.

    • Thank you for your comment, Martha. I am hoping that I can find a way to bring confidence back to teachers that feel drained and want to move on to other places. I almost lost a job once because the students claimed that I was an ineffective instructor, even though I dedicated a lot of time and thought inside and outside the classroom. I was simply at the wrong place, at the wrong time, but it took years for me to drill that into my head because this was not the first time I had received complaints through a director and certainly not the first institution! Because of the people in my life who have helped me, I am still alive and I am thriving. I have also put in my notice to end my teaching career in December. It has taken many years for me to get to a healthy mindset, but I hope that I can find a way to make it easier and more expedient for others.

      • I have been writing for an online “magazine” published on Medium. The magazine is called The Synapse. It’s a very lively spot for teachers in all phases of their careers. https://medium.com/synapse You might check it out. I found it has been a good place for me to share lessons from my end of the career and the 35 years I spent in a classroom world that was — it seems — quite different from that of today. Your point, “Wrong place at the wrong time” describes well the end of my career. I was “over.” I still miss teaching very often and sometimes think of myself as a “recovering teacher.” I’ll always be a teacher, just not one who’s teaching. Now I get to teach that individual person who walks into a kind of enchanted circle — this past summer, I taught a little girl to paint. 🙂

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  6. Dear Thosewhoteach Author – Thank you so much for this blog. I have taught far, far beyond being burnt out and I am grateful that there are other former teachers who have made strides in changing their careers are here to be an example for those who want to move on, but feel hampered for whatever reason. It has taken several years for me with additional help in order to develop the resilience and preparedness to apply for other jobs. I teach at the college level and get paid once every four weeks, so it has also worn me down financially. I also believe that many teachers who want to leave the profession can benefit from partnering with likeminded colleagues and in some cases, receive much needed emotional support.

    In addition to finding a job that will better pay the bills, I am starting a foundation Thriving Instructors Manifest Excellence (T.I.M.E) that focuses on helping teachers of all subject matters thrive in and out of the profession. Part of the services that I hope to provide will be for exploring alternative careers because it appears that while there is a lot of encouragement out there to stay as teachers, there are a lot of legitimate and healthy reasons for moving on so that someone who really wants that person’s teaching position can have that opportunity made available to them.

    Have a wonderful week and I will be a frequent visitor!

  7. By the way – in case you are scratching your head and wondering what I mean by “better pay the bills”, I mean that this would be a job where I am paid biweekly, not necessarily a higher wage! Believe it or not, I am a better manager of my money when I am paid biweekly – even if I face a change in hours, etc! I am pretty open to trying anything that is related to organizing and fixing things!

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