Twelve Skills That Will Help You Find Life After Teaching

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.

Red, yellow and blue parachute against cloudy sky (5278205683)

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.

Related

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

Advertisements

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.

Related

Life After Teaching Interview: Marie Ardito, Retiree Advocate

Maybe This Year – A Retired Teacher’s Advice for the First Days of School

As a new school year begins, I wanted to share a reflection from Marsha Pincus, a retired high school English teacher who worked in Philadelphia public schools for 34 years. Here’s an excerpt from a longer piece on her blog, Her Own Terms:

I retired from full-time teaching six years ago, but the lessons I have learned and the people I have encountered remain with me. I carry their stories in my heart. 

Six years out, here is what I know.

Even in the darkest moments there is always a light shining through to the classroom. Even the angriest, most defiant child harbors a spark of possibility buried in his despair. Human beings have the capacity for enormous resilience.

I have been given one of the greatest gifts any teacher can be given — the privilege to continue to know so many students after they left my classroom. I have been to their college graduations and their weddings. I have seen them earn graduate degrees, become teachers and principals, businessmen and community leaders. I have seen them with their own children and watched as they’ve become role models for other young people in their communities.

I have also been to funerals — more than I want to remember. But such is life in all of its complexity.

Every child, no matter how old or seemingly jaded, starts the school year with the hope that maybe this year will be the one.

Maybe this year I will finally love school like I once did, when I was little and the teacher put smiley faces on my papers and my mother packed me lunch in my Peter Pan lunch box. 

Maybe this year, people will see me for who I am and value what’s inside of me. 

Maybe this year, I will connect with a teacher who will help me understand the ways to realize the dreams I barely let myself imagine except late at night, right before I fall asleep. 

Maybe this year.

Marsha’s essay reminds me of how important it is for teachers to have empathy. This can be easy to forget, or overlook, when there’s so much on teachers’ plates already, especially in the beginning of the school year.

I should know. Looking back on seven years in the classroom, I realize how much better of a teacher I would have been had I focused less on Getting Things Done, and more on helping my students feel seen and heard.

I think Marsha shows the way empathy can help teachers see their roles more clearly.

For more of Marsha’s story — including how many times her car’s been broken into, and the many nicknames she’s had throughout her teaching career — please read her full essay. You should also check out her portfolio on teaching Macbeth on Inside Teaching, a great resource that features units for all class subjects.

Oh, and one more thing —

I’d like to wish all you returning teachers the best for this school year. Don’t forget to be kind to yourself on the first days of school! 🙂

Related

First Day of School – Talking Back to Harry Wong (Teacher in a Strange Land)

Teaching Is Not a Business (New York Times)

Everything He Needs to Know, He Learned in 4T.

How I Got My Post-Teaching Job: By the Numbers

If you’ve been thinking about quitting teaching, you already know that the mental energy needed to explore the question, “Well, what else could I do with my life?” is often depleted by the time you get home from school. It’s hard enough to change careers with a normal job, but after a long day of delivering lessons, grading, planning, dealing with conflicts and attending meetings? Fuggedaboutit.

For me, it took almost three years of work (and a whole lot of luck) to make the jump.

OK, so I didn’t apply to jobs every day (not even every week), but I was teaching full time and finishing a master’s degree. I also moved twice, changed schools and got married during that time.

I hope sharing how I found a fresh start will help you figure out whether leaving teaching (or taking a break from it) is right for you. If it is, I hope to help you transition faster than I did — or at least be patient with yourself if it takes you a year (or three) to begin your own Life After Teaching.

For now, here’s a tally of the results of those three years:

  • 94 job applications
  • 5 job leads from contacts
  • 6 job interviews
  • 3 months unemployed
  • 2 weeks between my last teaching paycheck and my first non-teaching paycheck (Yess.)
  • 1 job offer 

Next time, I’ll explain why informational interviews were, hands down, the most valuable tool in my job search.

Fellow former teachers — what has Life After Teaching been like for you, and how did you get there? Has it been worth it?

Life After Teaching, Part Four: Five Little Things I Look Forward to at My Desk Job

In the first post of this series, Rose shared the story of how her office job lets her ease into the workday, go to the bathroom whenever she wants to, and enjoy other simple pleasures that weren’t part of her previous life as a high school biology teacher.

Two-and-a-half months into my desk job, I can confirm that it’s all indeed possible: I now get bathroom breaks whenever I need them and much, much more.

Here are five small perks of my new office job:

1. Enjoying breakfast at 9 a.m. 

Usually it’s a big bowl of Fage with strawberries:

yogurtandstrawbs

This is a big deal for me. When I was teaching, there were years when I taught three, 40-minute classes in a row starting at 7:55 a.m. (with homeroom in between). Lots of days, I hadn’t had anything to eat by 10 a.m., and also hadn’t gone to the bathroom until then. If I had been more of an adult (and more of a morning person), I would’ve gotten up earlier to eat a proper breakfast, but I always chose sleep over eating and looking nice for school.

Now, the first thing I do is eat breakfast while working at my computer. This takes much less energy than trying to speak in coherent sentences and motivate teenagers before any of us are awake.

2. Enjoying lunch every day

Since I’d usually sleep rather than get up early to prepare food, on busy days I’d get the cafeteria lunch, which some of my co-workers wouldn’t touch. The chicken patty sandwiches and pasta with meat sauce weren’t bad in my book, but they were not particularly healthy or satisfying.

Don’t get me wrong — we had our share of good food in the English department: ordering in from the local Vietnamese restaurant, bringing in goodies for birthdays — and cook-offs, too (including who could make the meanest chili). For a few years, my awesome department got me Popeye’s fried chicken (my favorite) for my birthday!

But it was rare that we got to just enjoy our food and each other’s company. On most days, it was a fistful of food in between taking attendance, grading essays and quizzes, or blowing off steam after some earlier incident in the classroom.

Now, I leave my building every day around 1:30, take a short stroll to my local bodega  and bliss out on a hearty helping of fresh veggies and roast chicken or baked salmon (I’ve managed to sidestep the fried chicken for now).  It’s tasty, and sure beats the many school lunches I’ve settled for.

3. Reading a book at lunch

I love this one so much. Right now, I’m reading The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley on my Kindle. Reading for pleasure while eating used to be one of my favorite things to do, and I’m happy to welcome this habit back into my life. Again, way more enjoyable than trying to read and grade three essays during lunch (and belated apologies to students who got their essays returned with grease stains on them).

4. Having a window near my desk, and a pretty nice view from it

Staring at cinder blocks and a sad, beat-up desk was the norm in both of the public schools where I worked. In my first school, we used to be able to look out at the baseball fields, but then they constructed a new wing that blocked our view.

Now, I get to look at this every day:

officeview

I realize that a lot of people in office jobs don’t get windows or a nice view, either, so I consider myself doubly lucky in this respect.

5. Having a clean, spacious and functional work area

I never had my own classroom and, in the department office,  my plastic crates  crowded my feet. Not to mention the piles of papers that would slowly consume my desk space, making the task of grading them even more unappealing. In my first school, all twelve of us in the English department had to share two desktop computers, along with two old laptops that were always on the fritz.

And did I mention the mouse problem? No kidding: we had to clean up mouse droppings regularly, and the janitors tried to find creative ways to kill them (drowning, if you must know). My school was in a very nice town too, and in nowhere near the level of disrepair of Trenton’s schools.

True story: once, when I reached for the emergency bag of peanuts that had been sitting on my desk for the better part of the school year, there was nothing inside it. A mouse had chewed a tiny hole in the back of the bag and eaten everything, leaving only shreds of foil that I hadn’t seen until I lifted the bag.

Now, I’ve got my own computer, phone and corner cubicle with lots of room to do my work. And thankfully, there is nary a mouse in sight. I’m even thinking about decorating my office space with photos, and possibly plants!

So, while my office perks don’t include catered lunches, foosball tables or masseuses, the little luxuries I do enjoy make working so much more pleasant than it used to be.

(Former) teachers, which small pleasures do you enjoy (or wish you could enjoy) at work?

Life After Teaching, Part Three: Yup, I Joined the Club.

Three dusty, plastic crates sit in a closet in my apartment.

Their contents include hardcover, dog-eared Folger Library editions of Shakespeare plays, piles of novels, hanging folders, manila folders, scattered handouts and a couple of DVDs. (Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Kenneth Branagh’s “Othello,” to be exact).

In one of the boxes, a calculator plays bedfellow to a neon-green Koosh ball, made super sticky from being touched by hundreds of kids.

In another box, there’s a small, stained-glass suncatcher depicting Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims on the way to Canterbury — a gift from students I had seven years ago, in my first year of teaching.

But I haven’t touched any of my school stuff in awhile…not since I joined the ranks of Those Who Taught this September.

Almost three months have passed, but I just updated my About page a few weeks ago and my Twitter page yesterday to reflect my new, ex-teacher status. When people ask what I do for a living, it takes me a minute to remember not to say I’m an English teacher. I was an English teacher.

So what do I do now?

I’m a writer in the communications office of a large nonprofit. And I have some freelance writing projects.

Do I feel guilty about leaving?

Yes.

Do I miss teaching?

Some parts of it, yes. More on this later.

And am I happier in the new job?

Abso-freaking-lutely. More on this later, too.

Leaving teaching is like breaking up with a bad boyfriend, exactly as Rose said.

When I first asked Rose to share her experience on the blog, I had been looking for someone to tell me that life after teaching could be better — even though I knew teaching was the most rewarding job I’d ever have, and even though I still cared — and still care — about education.

Turns out, a lot of teachers are searching for Life After Teaching. I mean, they’re Googling “life after teaching” and making Rose’s reflection on why she’s better off the most-read post on this blog!

(I also asked her to share what she misses about teaching, but that hasn’t gotten nearly as many views.)

I definitely did not start this blog to help teachers quit their jobs. But I’m ready to add my story to the fire…

Related

Life After Teaching, Part One: Four Reasons Why I’m Better Off

Life After Teaching, Part Two: Four Reasons Why I Miss Teaching

Life After Teaching, Part Four: Five Little Things I Look Forward to at My Desk Job

Life After Teaching, Part Five: Why I Don’t Need Summers Off Anymore

Life After Teaching, Part Six: Five Things I Learned in Year Two

Happy Birthday to Eleanor Roosevelt, Boss Lady and Badass Teacher!

Eleanor Roosevelt was an awesome woman. Though she was born into wealth and privilege, she fought tirelessly for the rights of everyday people. She also encouraged women to become “political bosses” – yes – “women bosses who [could] talk as equals” and “play the [political] game as men do.”

eleanor-roosevelt1

In fact, “the Lady” wielded much more political and personal power than history has given her credit for. According to Blanche Wiesen Cook (author of the twovolume ER biography I’m reading), ER essentially ran a parallel administration during FDR’s twelve-year presidency. Whenever she disagreed with his administration’s treatment of women, the poor, African Americans and other marginalized groups — which was quite often —  she would openly oppose her husband in public speeches, newspaper articles and other efforts to effect the changes she wanted.

As much as ER loved the political game, she was just as passionate about education. She had loved being a student, and loved being a teacher of history, literature and public affairs at the Todhunter School for Girls in New York City.

In honor of what would have been her 129th birthday today, here are 5 things that made Eleanor Roosevelt an excellent educator:

1. She championed women’s education in word and deed.

In a 1930 essay for Redbook, and in many other publications thereafter, ER encouraged women to educate themselves in order to gain real political power. They had to “take the pains to study history, economics, political methods [and] get out among human beings.”

And she was confident in the social change that would come as a result: “In my youth I knew women who hid their college degrees as if they were one of the seven deadly sins. But all that is passing, and so will pass many other prejudices that have their origin in the ancient tradition that women are a by-product of creation.”

ER put her beliefs into practice when she bought the Todhunter School for Girls at 66 East 80th Street in 1927. There, she served as vice principal, teacher and participated in all aspects of school life – including writing for school magazines and newsletters, raising money and seeking prospective students.

Todhunter School

2. She was a tough teacher who wanted her students to be informed, critical and active citizens.

ER held her students accountable for their work, and felt disappointed when they performed poorly. She believed that “the girls will have to take certain hurdles in life and that hurdles in school are an important preparation.” ER assigned research projects to promote critical thinking, wrote exams to assess her students’ political literacy (sample question: “Do you know of any way in which the Government protects women and children?”), and organized school trips to courthouses and tenements so her girls (who all came from privileged backgrounds as well) could learn about and be inspired to improve their communities.

She believed that good teaching began with students’ own interests, and that lifelong learning was imperative, saying often: “Education only ends with death.”

3. She loved her job, worked hard at it, and it paid off.

ER described teaching as the “one thing that belongs to me” and also said, “I like it better than anything else I do.”

On her commutes to and from New York’s Grand Central Station, she would grade papers, and read “voraciously” to prepare for the week’s lessons and lectures.

Blanche Wiesen Cook calls ER’s success as a teacher “rapid” and “intense.” Student Patricia Vaill said, “I never forgot a damn thing she ever taught me.”

todhunter1

ER (in dark coat) with Todhunter students and principal Marion Dickerman (third from left)

4. As much as she could, ER remained a dedicated teacher despite FDR’s growing political career.

Throughout FDR’s two terms as governor of New York, from 1929 to 1932, ER made weekly train trips from Albany to Todhunter rather than give up her teaching duties. At the time, this refusal to give up her work was rather unusual for a political wife – and unusual, actually, for any wife of a financially secure husband.

ER juggled teaching, family and business engagements. After teaching all morning, she would attend political events in the evening. On Wednesdays, she returned to Albany and to her roles as First Lady of New York and mother to five children.

Only when FDR was elected President in 1933 did ER finally, reluctantly, leave her teaching career.

eleanor_roosevelt_alt

5. She never forgot the teacher who inspired her.

ER modeled her teaching on Marie Souvestre, a radical, feminist educator and founder of Allenswood, the school Eleanor attended from ages 15 to 18.

Roosevelt admired Souvestre’s brilliant mind, formidable presence and commitment to creativity and intellectual rigor. ER recalled being “expected to do a good deal of independent reading and research” and working hard on her papers though she had seen Souvestre “take a girl’s paper and tear it in half in her disgust and anger at poor or shoddy work.”

Allenswood was where the adolescent Eleanor began to express her opinions, feel confident in her abilities and take on leadership roles. “For the first time in all my life all my fears left me,” she said.

ER's Allenswood school portrait

ER at 15

Souvestre and Roosevelt became lifelong friends.

After Souvestre’s death in 1905, ER kept her beloved teacher’s picture on her desk, and carried her teacher’s letters with her always.

souvestre

Marie Souvestre, also a badass teacher

Today also happens to be the International Day of the Girl. What a perfect pairing of women’s education advocates!

15 Ways to Be Kind to Yourself on the First Days of School

Whether you’ve been back for a few weeks, or just a day or two — you did it!

You made it out of bed at an ungodly hour, rocked a fresh first-day outfit, and presented your Teacher Self to a new crop of kids.

You’re taking attendance, writing those first parent e-mails, planning lessons, doing lunch duty, attending meetings, assigning first homeworks, and collecting first homeworks.

Maybe you’re teaching a brand-new course this year, or taking on a new responsibility as coach or advisor, too.

Through all of this, you’re delivering instruction to multiple groups of differently abled, very distractible kids.

So, please remember — it’s OK if…

1. You don’t know most of your students’ names yet.

2. It takes you a full five minutes to remember old students’ names when they say hello in the hallway.

namesticker

It’ll come to me…

3. Your desk is already a mess of papers.

This week's grading

100% authentic piles of grading

4. You didn’t have time to make that perfect bulletin board / seating chart / welcome letter like you’d planned to do.

marvelous-multiplication-bulletin-board

I’ve never made a bulletin board this pretty. Ever.

5. You already had to change a lesson because the copier was jammed or occupied.

jammedcopier

Sad sight for sore eyes

6. You already had to change a lesson because the computer / projector / DVD player / TV / internet didn’t work.

test colors TV

“Hey, who here is good at TV stuff?”

7. You forgot to turn off your phone during class.

8. You forgot to go to the bathroom, even when you had a minute.

Imagine going to the bathroom when you need to...

Should’ve gone during prep!

9.  Your perfect “first days” lesson was not the raging success you’d envisioned.

10. You haven’t had time to catch up properly with your colleagues because of all the work that needs to be done.

11. You’re already grading or playing on your phone during the first full faculty meeting. (Do as I say, not as I do…)

facebook-30-iphone-app_1

Official story: teachers don’t have friends or use Facebook.

12. Your second-day outfit was not as polished as your first-day outfit. (Soon, you’ll be proud to have made it to school with matching socks!)

13.  You didn’t have time to make lunch and/or dinner.

School Food - Chicken Nuggets

School lunch it is…

14. You didn’t have time to make that doctor’s appointment.

15. You’re already falling asleep on the couch when you get home!

It's OK to be dog-tired!

It’s OK to be dog-tired!

Remember, teachers do heroic things, but you’re still human!

Rinse and repeat if you’re a first-year teacher.

Also: what would you add to this list?

What a Great English Teacher Makes

Got my first thank-you letter submission of the summer, and boy, is it a tough act to follow.

It’s basically every English teacher’s dream for her students: that they become passionate, prolific readers; sincere, reflective writers; and critical thinkers about themselves and the world.

I couldn’t help but think of Taylor Mali’s famous, “What Teachers Make” in titling this post.

I’m also reminded of “The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” from this past Sunday’s New York Times. English professor Verlyn Klinkenborg writes,

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.

No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.

Thank you to my old colleague Lauren for sharing this letter, and for being the amazing teacher who passed on a “rare and precious inheritance” to this student!

msmthankyoucard

msmthankyou2

Mrs. Malanka,

Thank you so much for everything that you had done for me this year! 🙂 Even though, initially, I felt as though I was never going to improve my abilities in English class, through your instructions and encouragements,  I was able to transform my past inclinations — to be shy and silent at all times, to cherish books of my savor only, to accept all opinions as truth, and to adamantly write as I had done in the past. Now, I feel a lot more comfortable to share my own stance, and to sort out some other stances that contradicts mine. Nowadays, I am in love with reading! (which is very new for me. As a child, reading used to [be] my least favorite)

I have started my summer reading and will be reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, as you had advised the students who enjoyed Mark Twain’s satirical style of writing that made the readers chuckle every few paragraphs or so. In addition, unlike I have been used to, I learned to ponder as I read, and pay attention to the profound meanings that the authors hoped to portray. And since I had discovered this exhilarating exercise, I fell in love with all kinds of books! 🙂

Additionally, from you, I have learned to try my best to read news articles as frequently as possible to expand my horizon. So far, it has been an fortifying experience. I truly believed that if I were not in your class, taking an AP course, I would never have (or really late) encountered the beauty in reading and writing. I became more used to editing many times and cutting out parts that were [not] important in a coherent essay. Although I still have a long way to go as a writer, I believe you have launched me into the world of reading and writing that I have been avoiding my entire life. So I thank you for this exposure to a fascinating way to look, not only at novels, but also at nature, appreciating the harmony that is embedded everywhere amongst the readers, people, nature, and novels. Thank you so much also for writing my recommendation! 🙂 You’re a great teacher, and this year (English) was honestly the best experience that I have ever had regarding a humanity class!!! 🙂 Oh, and I hope you don’t find the pen* too troublesome; I thought you would enjoy collecting another set of pens! 🙂

Plus, I can definitely see you writing a great novel with such a pen! 🙂

Have a great summer, and I will keep in touch! Thank you!

*The student also gave her a cool feather pen along with the card.

Life After Teaching, Part Two: Four Reasons Why I Miss Teaching

Since the last post about Rose’s Life After Teaching,  Ellie Rubinstein’s video resignation from teaching went viral. In the video, Rubinstein is visibly distraught to leave what she loves.

 It hasn’t been a clean break for Rose, either. Though her current office job is much more stable than her past life as a high school biology teacher, she considers what’s lost by leaving education in today’s post.

Why I miss teaching:

1. I miss crafting lessons.

Everywhere I went — the supermarket, vacation, an art museum, you name it — I was always on the lookout for “treasure” – things I could use to make learning biology more exciting for my students.

While visiting the Clearwater Aquarium in Florida, for example, I was so inspired by the aquarium’s work with Winter, the injured dolphin later featured in the movie, Dolphin Tale, that I spent an hour talking with representatives there about the importance and impact of educational materials (which they didn’t have). And, even though I was on vacation, I loved thinking about all the lessons I could generate from this experience.

Winter the dolphin

Winter the dolphin

In addition to planning for my students, I also miss sharing my lessons with colleagues. I miss talking to people who are as passionate about teaching science as I am. I miss working with them to improve my lessons, to improve our school, and to improve the education system.

2. I miss the students (most of them).

I miss talking with the students, getting to know them, and helping them learn a subject that I love. As cheesy as it may sound, students’ “aha” moments are like shooting stars. If you aren’t looking at the right time, at the right student, you might miss them. And if you catch one, it’s like nothing else.

I miss the good, unexpected moments, too — like when the class shares a joke, students thank you for your help, or say that your teaching inspired them.

I even miss the (seemingly) off-topic discussions.

One time, we were studying types of muscles and a student, very sheepishly, asked what muscles cause “nipple-itis”.   After we all laughed, I used that comment as a springboard to discuss involuntary muscles with the class.

involuntary muscles

3. I miss the “nobility” of teaching.

Even though society has mixed feelings about teachers (having tenure, pensions, and so on), most people can accept that a teacher’s life is devoted to a noble purpose.

At the end of forty years in the work force, teachers can reflect on all the students they educated.  They were “in the trenches” helping to improve society.

super_teacher

With my cubicle job, in an abstract, roundabout kind of way, I help society too, but will I be proud of my life’s work in forty years?

Kind of…but I’m not sure “kind of” is enough.  It will be a challenge to find another profession that will give me the sense of purpose that teaching did.

4. Guilt, judgment and second thoughts

I sometimes feel guilty for leaving teaching. I feel like I gave up on the future students I will never have. I gave up on the “good fight” of improving America’s education system.

When people find out that I’m a former teacher, some understand why I left. Others judge me like I’m a monster, saying, “How could you give up a life devoted to teaching children?”

Or, they just think I’m stupid for giving up all those “great benefits”.

I wonder if, one day, teaching will be a great job for me again. What if the American education system is reformed? What if society thinks that those who educate children should be treated like educated professionals and be paid a living salary? What if I have children and want to spend summers and holidays with them? What if…?

Like I said before, teaching was like a bad boyfriend: I loved it, but too many times it made me cry. After I took the stress of teaching out of my life, my physical and mental health vastly improved.

When I reflect on it, my brain tells me I made the right decision, but my heart still hurts a little. Maybe it always will.

Related

Life After Teaching, Part One: Four Reasons Why I’m Better Off

Life After Teaching, Part Three: Yup, I Joined the Club.

Life After Teaching, Part Four: Five Little Things I Look Forward to at My Desk Job

Life After Teaching, Part Five: Why I Don’t Need Summers Off Anymore

Life After Teaching, Part Six: Five Things I Learned in Year Two

Life After Teaching, Part Seven: Five (More) Things I Learned in Year Two