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

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From the Classroom to Parliament: A Former Teacher on Her New “London Life”

I’m excited to share today’s guest blog from fellow former teacher theentiretyoflife. She responded to my recent call for submissions from those who’ve found life after teaching, and I’m so glad she did.

After five years teaching primary school in southeast England, she landed a job (on her last day of teaching!) in the Education Service of the Houses of Parliament in London, where she presents workshops and develops educational materials for visiting school groups from throughout the UK.

In this post, she takes stock of her new life — its challenges, rewards and whether leaving teaching was the right move.

For her full story, please visit theentiretyoflife.


It’s been just over 3 months since I began working in London.

Before I started the job, my mind was filled with questions:

Will I like the job? Can I handle the travel? Will I miss school holidays?

Now, I love my “London life.”

That said, it does have some drawbacks compared to teaching — mainly that I have a much longer commute than I did as a teacher.

Where I once had a 10-minute drive to work, my commute is now an hour and 45 minutes each way. This means that I have to get up almost an hour earlier than I used to. So by 6:45, my usual teaching waking time, I’m out of the house and walking to the train station.

Three months in, the 5:55 am alarm — followed by a no-really-get-up-now 6:00 am one — is still painful. But I have honed the art of getting ready in half an hour once I extract myself from the covers at 6:15. Whether I am actually presentable within that half hour is another question, but I haven’t missed the train yet.

The longer commute also means I’m home much later than I used to be. This is only a problem when my friends with children need events to start at 5:00 pm, and sometimes I can’t make it until almost 7:00.

Thank goodness for Time Off In Lieu — my work’s policy of allowing employees to accrue anything over allowed hours as time off. The closest thing to TOIL in teaching is the holidays. You can, headteacher permitting, get time off, but it is a kind gesture rather than an expected norm. Plus, there’s no such thing as working hours in teaching so it’s been quite a shift in my thinking.

Although the longer hours have taken some getting used to, the new job has also offered plenty of rewards. For instance:

My commute has made me a good deal fitter than I was as a teacher. Even though I’m on my feet less compared to teaching, the brisk walks to and from the train have helped me exercise more. I can now walk for miles at a fast pace, making it from Big Ben to sitting on the train in 10 minutes if need be.

In general, my workday is much more relaxed and easier to manage.

At the beginning of the day, I get to decide what I do first. If I’ve observed a workshop, I’ll write it up so I remember what happened. If I need to ring the IT department, I ring it. I have workshops to teach, but when I’m finished with them, there’s no need to mark anything — I just return everything to its proper place and off I go.

And even though I have to be in the office until I’m allowed to go home (usually no later than 5:00), my working day stops! It doesn’t carry on into the night until it’s done like it used to. I leave unfinished work on my desk, switch off my computer and go home.

Because I don’t need to bring work home, I’ve come to enjoy my commute: the seats on the train are cosy, and I love having the time to write, read, watch TV and sleep.

Another perk of the new job is that I now have a thriving social life. Where my evenings once held a large amount of marking, and Sunday afternoons were spent planning, my evenings are now spent with friends. Although I get home substantially later, once I’m home my time is my own. Friday evenings actually begin at 4:00 pm in the pub (and usually a second outing once I get home) and previously panic-planning Sunday afternoons are now spent doing whatever I like.

I even enjoy going to work now. I love teaching workshops on topics like parliamentary procedure, voting and how to engage with politics. And I love being able to write new material that will be used with visiting schools. It’s a pleasure to still be involved with educating future generations about how politics works and affects our lives even though I’m no longer in the classroom.

I also love the eclectic mishmash of the buildings where I work and the privilege of walking through them. Since September, just during lunch, I’ve been to Westminster Abbey, St. James’s Park and explored all round Whitehall. I’ve found statues I never knew existed and pockets of garden solitude in a bustling city.

Outside of work, but because of my position, I’ve been to Buckingham Palace, the Cabinet War Rooms and Hampton Court. Every day that I explore some new corridor in the Palace feels like a gift that I can’t quite believe is mine.

The Verdict

I decided to work between Christmas and New Year’s Day, to save my holiday for this summer. I had been wondering how I would find this major departure from the long holiday breaks I was used to.

Actually, surprisingly, I haven’t minded.

Would I like to have been off work? Sure, who wouldn’t?

Do I resent my lack of holidays?

As I stood on the station platform on December 29 at 6:57 am, wearing knee-length socks, two scarves and two pairs of gloves to combat the minus-five conditions, I considered this.

I recalled the lesson planning I would have been doing. The waking up to that impending sense of planning-doom — the way it would take over a few days, and still leave me feeling unprepared.

A little part of me still wanted to be asleep in bed, but mostly I felt glad. Glad to be going back into London. Glad to be away from planning-panic and the stresses of school. I was even glad to be exercising again!

Over the last few months, I’ve met yet another group of lovely colleagues. I’ve embarked on a job I would not have entertained this time last year, and my day-to-day life is a whirlwind away from December 2013. There are challenges, don’t get me wrong…

But when, even though I’m working in what I still think of as the Christmas holidays, I turn around to see this at the end of the day —

— I have to admit, life after teaching is turning out to be pretty good.

 

 

Life After Teaching Interview: Marie Ardito, Retiree Advocate

marie pic 2 001Marie Ardito spent 31 years in the classroom, where she taught first through eighth grade, spending most of her career as a reading specialist.

When it came time for her to retire, though, it didn’t quite happen.

After two months off, Marie began a new career helping others like her. She’s now an information coordinator for MA Retirees United (MRU), a nonprofit group that educates public sector workers about their retirement rights and benefits. Before that, she was the executive director of another retirement group.

When I read about Marie in a recent New York Times article about “second-act” careers for retired workers, I knew I had to reach out to her. In the article, she says,

 “One of the things that drives me crazy is the comment, ‘I can’t do anything but teach.’ I say, ‘If you can relate to kids, normally you can relate to anyone.’ The skills are transferable.”

This is exactly what I’ve come to realize in my own second-act career as a writer — and what I’ve tried to communicate through posts like Five Skills Teachers Have that Employers Want.

Marie was kind enough to speak with me about her career path and share her take on what teachers have to offer in the workplace. Here are some highlights from our phone conversation.

What made you interested in helping retirees?

Basically I loved teaching. When I was thinking long-range, I knew I had to put some teaching into my retirement. My first thought had been to develop a seminar I would do for seniors, and then a neighbor of mine told me to catch them before retirement. And so I looked at what I had done, saw that I could adapt it, and developed a “Preparing for Retirement” seminar that I started doing years before retirement.

I’m not saying that all of my retirement is teaching — it isn’t. Ever since I was a kid of 16, I’ve had an interest in older people. I had worked in a nursing home, and thought that that was an age group that I someday wanted to reach out to.

I feel that my experience as a teacher enables me to do an excellent job with presenting issues, whether it’s preparing for retirement, living in retirement as an informed retiree, or understanding social security and Medicare, which are all seminars that I do. It enables me to present it in an understandable way, and I feel I’ve gone beyond teaching to a new way of life.

How did you get your current job?

I had been approached by Kathy Kelly  (who was, at the time, the president of the American Federation of Teachers in Massachussetts) to help form a retirement group. So we talked, and MRU was born. We started with a couple of hundred members, and now we have close to 2,500.

So your work after teaching came about because you were approached by people based on work you were already doing.

Yes, and I think this happens a lot to people. What I find over the years, dealing with several members, is that when they’re asked to do something that’s outside the teaching profession, sometimes they’re reluctant. I’ve had them call me and say, “Well, what do I know about that particular thing?”

I know for myself, when I initially took the first job, I was thinking, “I’ve got to speak at board of directors meetings; I’ve got to speak at chapter meetings.” So I think that there’s always a little bit of fear of the unknown and questioning whether you’re really up to the task, but I think what those who have either retired from the teaching profession or are thinking of moving on to something else very often don’t realize, is that the skills that we’ve developed as teachers are so marketable and transferable.

I feel really strongly about this too, based on my own experience with changing careers. So what helped you gain confidence? How can we convince more teachers to be proud of the skills they’ve acquired and help them communicate all that they have to offer to employers?

I think sometimes we forget what we’ve taught. I can remember repeatedly saying to students no matter what age level, grade or subject I was teaching, “There are no stupid questions in my classroom.” And I think that we as educators who have said something similar to that — “Don’t be afraid to ask a question,” or “Don’t be afraid to try something” — I think we don’t hear ourselves when it comes to our own personal life. We look for the safe and the sound and the tried and the true and then realize that maybe putting your feet in the cold water could turn out to be a great adventure.

That’s something I’m still learning, too. In my new career as a writer, I’ve realized all those things that I said to my kids about good writing — they still apply, and I’m still learning them.

Yeah — I can remember, back when I first started teaching, putting bulletin boards up with sayings, and I can remember the saying, “It’s better to try and fail than fail to try.” I think that that’s something we have to learn — that yeah, you might fall on your face, but you can fall eight times or 80 times, but just get up and just keep moving.

And I don’t feel this is limited to teachers. I think people don’t think about what they might like to do — whether it’s retirement or changing careers — and the fact that they can do something else.

As part of one of my 12 hour-long seminars, I used to hold up a peanut. You know, the kind you eat at the ballpark — the double peanut? I’d say to them [the retirees], “I used to be fascinated when I was a kid learning about George Washington Carver.” And I said, “He took this stupid little peanut and came up with 300 different uses for it! Somehow or another, I kinda think big ol’ us must have more than one use — more than one thing that we can do.”

You mentioned your presentation skills earlier. What other skills from teaching have helped you be successful at your job?

I’m involved a lot with legislative issues, and I think the research skills I developed both as a student and as a teacher have been absolutely invaluable. I also worked in different systems, different buildings, so I think that another one of the skills that I’ve found invaluable is to adjust to change. I think every teacher has a little of that, because every year you get a new group of kids.

So what other skills do you think teachers have that set them apart?

It depends on the field they want to change to. I bumped into a woman who worked at an inpatient hospital. She was a retired teacher, and her people skills, her computer skills and her organizational skills helped her. She revamped the whole admissions process for them, and she just got a promotion to some other department.

As someone who successfully transitioned into a new career after retirement, what advice do you have for older teachers who want to begin a new career?

I think you have to have confidence in yourself. You’ve got nothing to get discouraged about, because there is one job out there for you. If you don’t let somebody deflate your balloon, and you believe in you, age is just a number! Especially as teachers, I think we become so engrossed in kids that we forget ourselves. Everybody, no matter what their profession is, has to think, “I can do it!” Like I used to tell the kids at school, “Do the impossible.”

Age is a number, and if you’re bogged down by a number, shame on you! And if someone asks me, “How old are you?”, I have to do the math, because I don’t stop to think how old I am.

You’ve got to have curiosity and always want to know more. Try something new. I don’t care if you’re 65; you can still get a job. If I believe I’ve got something to give, if I can sell myself, they’re going to grab me at 65. It’s attitude.

A Reader Asks: Should I Quit Teaching if I Can Make More Working at CVS?

Melanie is a fifth-grade math and science teacher at a Title I public school in Florida
where 79 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch.

She’s looking for advice from fellow educators – past and present – on whether she should leave teaching.

Here’s her story:

After teaching for seven years, I have come to hate my job. 

I dread waking up in the morning. The children put me in a bad mood.  The stress of being held accountable for situations out of my control puts me in a bad mood.  Never feeling like I am successful at my career has put me in what seems like a permanent bad mood. 

I’m tired of not being recognized for good work.  I am tired of not being able to “move up” in a company even though I work hard.  I am just tired!

While I was in college, I was a shift manager at CVS.  I have recently gotten in touch with my old store managers and I have been given a window of opportunity to become a store manager myself, starting out at $10,000 more a year than what I make now with my master’s in education.  I’m not sure whether I should take this opportunity.

When I think about store management, I start feeling happy.  I enjoy daydreaming about mastering my job duties and being recognized for them.  Everything about this seems appealing except for the hours. 

I am only 28 years old, and I want a family one day.  Teaching offers a great schedule for having children, with holidays, weekends and evenings always at home.  Store management does not offer such a stable, family-friendly schedule.

Can anyone provide me with a perspective that may help me make a decision?

Thank you!

Those who teach or have taught: What advice can you offer Melanie?

I know that lots of teachers work retail jobs on nights and weekends or during the summer. Do you find retail work relaxing compared to teaching? How else do the two compare?

Here’s my take:

Both retail and teaching require standing on your feet for hours. You also need to interact with large groups of people, manage a wide range of personalities, and cater to people’s needs and complaints in both situations. I know this from making Blizzards at Dairy Queen in high school, checking through long lines of customers at Target in college, and teaching high school for seven years.

So working in retail full-time will be tiring too, but in a much less personal (and more manageable) way. Sure, you’ll have to deal with old ladies complaining about discounts that didn’t scan, or hear kids whining to their parents, but those kids won’t be complaining to you or about you. They are no longer your responsibility. I think that could be really freeing.

But you won’t get to do much creative or intellectually challenging work. And you won’t feel the joy or accomplishment that can come from a great lesson or a funny moment you share with your students.

You say you want to be able to spend evenings and holidays at home when you have kids, but I don’t think that means you have to stay in teaching right now, or that you can never go back to it if you leave.

You’re only 28! What if you try the retail job for a year? You can go back to teaching when, and if, you’re ready. In the meantime, you can try something new, get your energy back and make more money.

Five Skills Teachers Have That Employers Want

Teachers are some of the most hardworking, patient and reliable workers out there. I know this and other people who’ve taught know this, but if you’re a teacher looking to start over, how can you persuade employers outside education?

Hiring managers often screen out candidates with backgrounds that don’t match the job description exactly, and it’s safest to choose someone with direct experience rather than take a chance on a career changer.

Another hurdle is the “lazy teacher”/”teaching is easy” stereotype, and we’ve all heard the “must be nice to get summers off” line more times than we care to count.

So when people see “teacher” on your resume, they may think all you do is show movies while reading the newspaper in the back of the classroom; or stand at a lectern and drone like Ben Stein; or sing songs about bunnies to an adoring crowd of small children.

You must show them they’re wrong about you.

To do this, you need to take an inventory of your transferable skills from teaching.  This will help you craft stronger resumes and cover letters and prepare for job interviews with better focus. The list below is a basic one; I hope it’ll help you create a complete list of all the valuable skills you have to offer.

1. strong written and oral communication skills

Seems obvious, right? But you still need to explain how the lessons you delivered each day are good examples of your ability to make complex material engaging, understandable and persuasive to a general audience.

You should also list examples of the many types of writing you’ve tailored to different audiences: e-mails to parents, administration and support staff; individualized feedback to students; lesson plans and class materials revised for different skill levels; and so on.

Include any presentations you’ve made at professional development conferences, faculty meetings and board of education meetings as well.

Side note: As ingrained as it may be, please resist the urge to use education jargon such as “differentiated instruction,” “backwards design” and “multiple intelligences” in your resume; these terms will mean nothing to the resume reader. Plus, you’re no longer looking for a teaching job!

2. strong interpersonal skills

Again, even though it’s a no-brainer for those of us who’ve taught, you’ll need to show how experienced you are at working with all kinds of people in a complex organization.

Great examples of this: co-teaching; team-teaching; working with in-class support teachers, paraprofessionals and guidance counselors; and collaborating with teachers in your department and in other departments. Any projects that came out of this work will help strengthen your case.

You should also demonstrate how you’ve handled difficult people and situations with professionalism, tact and integrity. Go into interviews prepared with at least two anecdotes to illustrate how you defused a potentially chaotic classroom environment or changed a relationship with a student or parent for the better. You could also emphasize your experience with working in varied environments, such as middle school and high school; suburban and urban districts; teaching special education and Advanced Placement classes; or all of the above.

3. demonstrated ability to work independently

Whether it’s designing a course, a unit or even a 40-minute class, effective classroom planning demands time and discipline. So does giving students feedback, especially when you have more than 100 students, as middle school and high school teachers often do. Some teachers are so industrious, they get all their planning and grading done at school. Other teachers devote nights and weekends to schoolwork after putting in at least eight hours during the day. In most cases, there’s no one who can do the work for you, or even share responsibility for it.

So how do you demonstrate this accountability to employers? My advice is to quantify what you’ve done wherever possible — from your student load, class size, course load and even how much grading you do. On my resume, I wrote that I graded about 1,000 essays a year. Take that, lazy teacher stereotype!

4. demonstrated problem solving skills/ability to learn new things quickly

Unfortunately, the lazy teacher stereotype is hard to shake. One persistent belief is that teachers use the same tired lessons every year, or just make students do worksheets from a textbook.

The many good teachers I know always try to do better. They change lessons that didn’t work, revise their curriculum or seek professional development opportunities in the summer, and even adjust their plans in real-time as they “read” what’s going on in the classroom.

In interviews, be prepared to explain how you solved problems, faced new challenges and handled unexpected circumstances. Use your best learning experiences from teaching to demonstrate how well you can handle all the responsibilities of the position you want, and adapt smoothly to a new career and work environment.

5. demonstrated ability to work under pressure/in a fast paced, deadline-driven environment

Again, it’s helpful to quantify here to demonstrate the many competing tasks you were able to deliver on deadline.

How many different lessons did you prepare each day?

How often did you submit lesson plans?

How often did you submit progress reports and grades?

What other forms of feedback did you provide and how often?

Once you’ve gathered this information, and gotten lots of practice with sharing it, you’ll start to understand — and project — how well teaching has prepared you for your next job.

Related

Ten Action Verbs That Will Make Your Post-Teaching Resume Pop

Instagram It: How to Tailor Your Career Change Resume in Three Steps

A Kaleidoscope of Career Alternatives for Teachers (Cleveland State University)

Transferable Skills Checklist (University of Toledo)

How Informational Interviews Helped Me Find a Job After Teaching

I found the posting for my current job through indeed.com. Two weeks after submitting my application online, I was contacted for an interview. Two weeks after the interview, they called me with an offer. As I mentioned in my last post, this opportunity came nearly three years after I started exploring the idea of leaving teaching.

At first glance, it looks like I changed careers all by my amazing self, but that’s far from the case.

Besides pure luck, I have to credit the 25 people who were willing to talk to me about their careers in informational interviews.

With their help, I was able to research new jobs, develop non-teaching experience and find out what employers are looking for. If you’re looking to do the same, I’d recommend that you spend as much time on informational interviews as you do on job applications. In fact, on those nights and weekends when you’ll do anything but schoolwork, try researching who your first (or next) informational interviewee might be. It’s much more fun, and more productive, than applying to jobs without a clear direction.

More on why informational interviews were indispensable to my post-teaching job search:

They helped me figure out what I wanted — and what I didn’t want.

I interviewed public relations executives, marketing managers, publicists, writers, editors and even a special assistant to a university chancellor. All were generous with their time and willing to share how they got their jobs, what they liked and disliked about them, as well as the challenges facing their respective fields. Four of the people I interviewed were former teachers. All said they had enjoyed teaching, but none expressed the desire to go back to the classroom! Talking to them made me believe that starting my own fulfilling career after teaching was actually possible.

With each interview, I also began to figure out what I wanted in my next job:

– one that would let me keep sharing good stories (I was an English teacher);

– work on a small team with smart, motivated people;

– work independently on concrete assignments;

– become a better writer; and

– ideally, do something to help people.

I made a mental list of things I did not want from my next job as well:

– work on nights and weekends

– daily interaction with a large number of people

– responsibilities that are emotionally draining (Can you tell I’m an introvert?)

My new job knocks it out of the park on all counts!

They helped me revise my resume and build my non-teaching resume.

During each informational interview, I asked what skills people used in their jobs, what types of people their jobs were best suited for, how I might break into their fields – and I took notes on everything. This helped me tailor my resume (and cover letter) to emphasize what the marketing people said, for example, when I applied to marketing positions.

At the end of each meeting, I asked if they knew anyone else I might speak to. In most cases, people did recommend others to contact, and many made introductions on my behalf as well.

Here’s where the simple math of the process will come to bear: The more informational interviews you do, the more people will know you’re looking for a job. The more people know you’re looking for a job, the more likely you’ll be connected to new opportunities.

For example, even though I wanted to do something related to writing, I didn’t have any clips that were less than five years old. But, because several people I interviewed introduced me to editors who were looking for freelance writers, I was able to get new assignments and start repairing that weakness in my resume. I also pitched several stories to one editor I interviewed that ended up getting published.

They connected me to job leads and interviews. 

Please do NOT go into an informational interview and expect the person to give you a job, i.e. do not utter the words, “Do you think you can hire me?” or “Do you know anyone who can get me a job?”

Your main focus should be information gathering: Do you like the job as this person describes it? Do you think you might be interested in this company or this industry?

However, you might discuss what you like and what you do well; your interviewee might ask you what kinds of jobs you’re looking for; and you might even offer to do something that will be useful to both of you (like when I pitched the editor stories she was interested in publishing).

In my case, several people e-mailed me more than a year after we’d spoken with information about jobs at their companies. Even though I didn’t end up applying to all of them, or getting the ones I applied to, I was still grateful for the information and the opportunity to interview for non-teaching jobs for the first time.

They helped me practice interviewing. 

Every informational interview was an informal conversation that helped me prepare for the real thing.  Each one made me feel more comfortable with meeting new people in a professional context and asking them job-related questions. I also got practice with talking about myself, including explaining how my teaching experience and interests matched what they said was needed to succeed at their jobs.

Informational interviews are also a good time to rehearse your answer to the question that I got asked on every single job interview: “So what made you decide to leave teaching?”

My advice? However unhappy you may be with teaching, stick to the positive and try to tailor your answer to what you learned through informational interviews.

EXTRA: Three Things You Must Do for Every Informational Interview

1. At the end of the interview, ask, “Can you recommend anyone I might speak to?”

This can be a great source of new people to interview. And even if someone says no, he doesn’t know anyone, it doesn’t hurt to ask!

2. Say thank you.

If you’ve ever written a recommendation for a student without a word of thanks in return for your effort and time, you know how meaningful a sincere note of appreciation can be. It also doesn’t hurt to get your interviewee coffee or cupcakes as a small token of your thanks.

3. Follow up.

Update your contacts periodically on your job search with short, personal e-mails (not mass e-mails). Let them know what actions you’ve taken, what jobs you’re looking at and anything they said or did that has helped you. This will keep you on their radar, and let people know the time they spent on you was worthwhile.

Related:

Mastering the Informational Interview (New York Times)

My Pet Peeves About Informational Interviews (New York Times)

Five Good Reasons to Schedule Informational Interviews (Job Jenny)

Next up, a post on transferable skills from teaching!

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