Please help me welcome Ken Ronkowitz, an unretired educator, poet, and prolific blogger who taught middle and high school English in New Jersey* for 25 years before starting a second career in higher education.
In today’s guest post, Ken shares why he left k-12 education, how he found a “parachute” to life after teaching — and the 12 skills that will help you make your own jump.
Strap in and enjoy! 🙂
*Fun (or perhaps not-so-fun) fact: Chris Christie was one of his students.
Jeff Selingo was an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, but left to become a book author and columnist, still focusing on colleges. His new book is titled There Is Life After College. The title is not a question — Is there life after college? — but a clear statement that there is an afterlife. That’s the way I view my lifetime of teaching. There is an afterlife.
I don’t hate teaching. But I left teaching. I had been teaching middle and high school for 25 years. I still enjoyed it — most days. I wasn’t “burned out.” I told my wife, also a teacher, that I felt like some days I was going to school in the morning, but some days it felt more like going to work.
Twenty-five is a magic number for teachers in New Jersey because it means you are entitled to your full pension. (A benefit that is no longer there for new teachers, thanks to one of my former students, Governor Chris Christie.) I decided that I was going to leave as sitcom show stars I admired like Mary Tyler Moore and Jerry Seinfeld had — while the ratings and reviews were still good.
I had no real plan for what would come next. One of my colleagues was incredulous. “No one leaves without knowing what comes next,” he said.
“It’s kind of like jumping out of an airplane,” I replied. “Pretty exhilarating at first. I just have to hope I have a good parachute.”
My parachute was that a) I could collect my pension if need be (early and with a penalty, but in an emergency, an option) b) my wife was going to continue to teach and was okay with me taking some time to find something else. And, most importantly, c) I knew I had marketable skills.
Though I wasn’t a math or science teacher with STEM skills that could work for me, I was a very good English teacher. I am a good writer and communicator who had also gotten a master’s degree in film and video, and had picked up a good amount of computer and technology skills along the way.
One key moment in believing in my skill set had occurred a few years earlier when I first considered leaving teaching. A close friend worked for AT&T and said that if I was interested in applying there, I should look at their skills list that was used to sort résumés. The list contained a good number of skills I’d never seen before, including something called “platform skills.”
Platform skills, I discovered, is the name for presentation behaviors that a trainer uses to transmit content effectively. They are a blend of skills you need to do training and make effective presentations.
“You have no problem getting up in front of a group on a platform and talking. Most of us are not comfortable with that,” my friend told me.
He is correct. Many surveys show that speaking in front of a group is the number-one fear of most people. As Jerry Seinfeld liked to point out, fear of death is number two.
Platform skills are more than just being able to get up in front of a group to speak.
How many of these dozen skill questions can you answer with “yes”?
1. Can you be in front of a group of 5, 50, or 500 and be calm and professional?
2. Can you clearly communicate the session’s topic, goal, and relevance to the participants at the beginning of the session?
3. Can you use humor, analogies, examples, metaphors, stories, and delivery methods other than lecture or PowerPoint to engage an audience?
4. Can you facilitate large- and small-group discussions?
5. Can you give constructive oral and written feedback?
6. Can you plan and deliver presentations that convey complex information in a clear, accessible way?
7. Can you use an appropriate variety of audiovisual technologies to present information?
8. Can you establish and implement grading evaluation criteria?
9. Can you respond to audience and supervisor feedback in a timely fashion?
10. Can you work independently without supervision?
11. Can you write documents tailored for specific audiences?
12. Can you set and meet weekly, monthly, and yearly goals?
Every good teacher I know has those skills. Sure, some of us have more of some skills and less of others, but we’re not missing any of them. Those twelve platform skills are a very good starting place for building a résumé and preparing for an interview.
Moving from teaching to training is no great leap. It is a fairly natural one. I know several teachers who went that direction or became involved in jobs related to education, like academic publishing. But those skills also work for human resources and other business applications.
When I left teaching, I decided to take the summer off and not really look seriously for a job until the fall. I spent the summer working on a new résumé and sifting through the boxes of plans and lessons that I had taken from my classroom “just in case I needed them one day.”
That August, I saw an ad for a position as a director of instructional technology at a nearby university. After I did some searching on what that actually meant, I realized that I had some experience with all the requirements, though no experience in higher education. I applied, interviewed, and was in my new job before the summer was even over.
I have worked for that university, NJIT, in different capacities ever since. Twenty-five years teaching in a public school system had prepared me well for ever-changing priorities, new programs and having to learn new skills while I was using them in my job.
Besides supervising staff and student workers, I helped design courses, ran faculty training in both tech tools and pedagogy, chaired committees, and even started teaching a few classes a year.
I also picked up new skills in web design, coding, audio and video production, social media, and grant writing. I was offered a job managing a large grant at another college and took it for five years. I started my own consulting LLC in order to do training for other colleges, and took on web and social media clients.
This year, I think of myself as semi-retired (or, as my wife describes it, “someone with poor retirement skills”). I’m no longer looking for any full-time gig. I have my pension and benefits and a new 401(k) from my higher ed years, and new projects keep finding me. They keep me busy and add some income, but I turn down as many offers as I accept.
I still teach a course or two each year. Often, those courses are graduate courses that are online, but I still get energized getting in front of a class or group face-to-face. That’s why it saddens me to read reports that a strong majority of teachers surveyed about the profession say they are “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to encourage graduates to become teachers. That means they are in a job that they wouldn’t even recommend to others.
If it’s the case that you aren’t as passionate, idealistic or excited about teaching as you once were, I think you should change professions. Of course, I would say the same thing if you worked as an accountant, landscaper or pharmacist.
I had a former student who had worked for three years on Wall Street visit me. He said he had loved my class, loved literature and writing, and was not happy in his work. “Is a love of literature and writing a good enough reason to become an English teacher?” he asked me.
Well, I love those things too, but I had to tell him no, that’s not enough to be a teacher. Teaching is, for better and worse, a lot more than just a love and knowledge of subject matter. Though knowledge and passion for a subject matters more and more as you move up the grades and into high school and beyond, all levels of teaching require so many other skills, and much of your time will be spent doing things other than actually teaching your subject.
Maybe to a ninth-grade teacher, college seems like an easier gig. Only a few classes per day. Self-motivated learners. High-powered content. But that’s as much of a misconception as the idea that a high school teacher is done with work at 2:30 pm, has lots of vacations and summers off, and can teach the same lessons a few times a day for only 45 minutes. Teaching isn’t easy at any level or in any subject.
Whether you want to stay in education or try something completely different, if teaching is making you miserable, give notice as soon as possible. You can leave. You should leave. And there are other jobs that you are qualified to do. Prepare your parachute and jump.
Five Skills Teachers Have That Employers Want
Instagram It: How To Tailor Your Career Change Resume in Three Steps
Ten Action Verbs That Will Make Your Post-Teaching Resume Pop
What It Takes to Find Life After Teaching: Advice from a Former Science Teacher
Life After Teaching Interview: Meg Olsen, Social Justice Advocate
Life After Teaching Interview: Marie Ardito, Retiree Advocate
Thank you for this post. I love the questions as a guideline! I think that referencing them can help me write down the type of skills I acquired as a teacher and how useful they are for the business field.
Glad you find Ken’s advice helpful! I also love how the questions remind us of all the valuable skills we’ve developed — especially presentation skills.
I love this blog. It gives me hope. I love teaching and am not a teacher anymore. Oh, I still have a teaching job, but everyday I go in and deal with CYA. Every parent, student, administrator, etc. wants to know what I can do for them. It has become less and less about sharing ideas, inspiring, and feeling that light bulb go off above a student’s head. Most of what I encounter is students doing as little as possible but still wanting an A.
I still feel stuck on how to get started. My family depends on my income. I have looked at alternatives but they do not pay as well. I was an accountant before teaching. I have a Masters in Math. Yet, I feel stuck. I keep searching and trying to get inspired, yet that illusive alternative has yet to materialize. I tutor on the side, love it, but cannot make a steady income doing it. I will keep trying and this blog keeps me motivated but reality sets in and I cannot make the change yet.
Thanks for reading and sharing, mother msh. I really appreciate knowing that the blog motivates you.
Your experience in accounting and teaching, plus your degree in math, are all assets. It’s not easy to find someone with quantitative skills, communication skills, a background in business, *and* a passion for helping others!
It sounds like you’re not sure what jobs would be a good match for both your skill set and salary requirements. In that case, I’d strongly recommend informational interviews — they’ll help you research different careers, and get connected to companies, or even job openings, that could be a great fit.
Here’s a post that can help you get started:
Hope this helps and good luck!
Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. I will try your advice and let you know how it goes.
Hi there, I hope you don’t mind me replying to your post. I was also looking for an alternative career to teaching. I am now building my own business in the health and well being sector whilst still teaching until my business income means I can leave. Part of my business is also to mentor others to do the same, especially teachers. Please take a look at my blog page too to follow my journey and get in touch if I can be of help to you or you would like some more info. Good Luck.
I found that the routine of teaching became a rut – but a very comfortable one in some ways – and as the rut gets deeper, it is harder to get out of it. I took a cut in pay when I left teaching at the top of the salary guide. But I knew I could bring it back up faster than in teaching. You can actually negotiate with employers! They give bonuses!
I think you need to think outside the I-am-a-teacher and I-know-math and look at job sites for positions that just interest you.
What do you do now. Ken?
As I wrote, I consider myself semi-retired as I no longer have an desire to work full time. I still teach a few graduate courses a year. I do web design and consulting – and volunteer at things I enjoy, like working with the NJ Endangered Species program and the Montclair Film Festival education program. I finally have time to work on my poetry and painting. No downside, so far.
This is inspirational and motivating knowing all of the skills I’ve learned as a teacher. Thanks so much for writing and sharing; it’s very valuable.
Thank you for your post. I am a middle school teacher, teaching reading. I absolutely love what I do. However, I’m finding it more and more difficult to afford teaching. I don’t like it when teachers complain about how little they get paid, because we do get paid a decent salary, but even though I don’t live an extravagant life and have better-than-average financial skills, I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford to continue to teach. I am the only income earner in my family, as my wife and I chose to have her be a stay-at-home mom for our four children. As such, even though I want to keep teaching, I also want to be able to afford my home, my car, and you know, food.
My problem is this: I have a masters degree in learning and technology, but no experience outside the classroom. How can I get that experience so that someone (a university, or a corporation, or the like) would consider hiring me?
Your technology skills will translate easily in part-time work. There are many opportunities to get hands on experience in technology, you just have to look around and not be afraid to take something low paying that may lead to something much higher paying. I started tutoring at $20 an hour and now I make $65 an hour and I have to turn clients away. I would do it full time if I could rely on the steady income.
To move into higher ed, I would suggest starting with a community college. They require an MA and if you have some tech skills that’s good. Teaching online as an adjunct while continuing at your FT work is a way to make a transition. Adjunct pay is not great, but you’re doing it for more than just the paycheck.
Corporate is tougher to suggest a path without knowing what your experiences have been.
These are some good ideas, thank you. I do like the community college idea, I’ll have to look into that.
Absolutely fab article from a former primary teacher who’s making her way towards her dreams and no teaching primary school kids!
Your blog post is very inspirational. I too live in NJ and I am only in my second full year of teaching. I struggle with what you said as well: some days I feel like I am going in to school and some days I feel like I am going in to work. I never dreamed I would be struggling as much as I am and that’s why I stumbled upon your post, searching for other teachers who feel the same way as I do.
Educational and instructional technology is a field I discovered in the classroom that I find to be exciting and I am always looking for the new best technology-based teaching tools, then sharing them with colleagues. I have looked into instructional technology positions at college and universities in NJ, even applying for positions at Rutgers, but I find most require a masters degree, so now I am looking to pursue that.
Thank you for writing this. It is comforting knowing that I am not the only teacher feeling this way and I applaud you for having the courage to pursue another path, even after 25 years in the classroom.
Your blog keeps me going. I’m still trying to figure out my next steps. As of tonight, I start my 4th year tomorrow. And I am really very sad, Sometimes I feel hopeless because I don’t know what I will do if I left teaching.
I’m also feeling guilty for wanting to leave such a noble position when I know so many people who are striving towards this position, maintaining in this position and those who have been discontinued and are trying to get back their position.
I wish I could get rid of this depression and be excited about this upcoming school year but I can’t shake this feeling.
Thank you for allowing me to at least come here and vent a little bit.
Reblogged this on Jasmine L. Jackson and commented:
One thing I love most about teaching was utilizing my platform skills, This was the thing that made me most esxicted about my day.
Currently thinking of jumping out that plane myself, much for the same reasons as you did. I’m somehow still struggling with doubts that there are other opportunities out there for a former teacher. This article helped though.
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