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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