Saturday, July 2, 2016

A Change Will Do You Great

So, what are you supposed to do when you realize that you need a new career?  I had wanted to be a teacher since the days when I played school with my stuffed animals. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education and Special Education, a Master’s degree in Elementary Education, and I am a National Board Certified teacher. I won Teacher of the Year at my school 4 years ago. And yet, by September of my 13th year of teaching, the thought of stepping foot into a classroom made me physically ill. How did this happen?

When I had once spent my time scouring Pinterest for classroom resources, I found myself searching for ways to make money at home. I like the feeling of accomplishment that comes with work. But this year it became clear that I had lost the desire for my work to involve grading papers, lesson plans, faculty meetings, parent conferences, and classroom management. I was beyond burnt out. And worse than that, I didn’t know what I wanted to do instead, which is a foreign feeling for me.

I am the type of person who has always known what I wanted. I knew from an early age that I was going to be a teacher. As I said above, I used to play school with my stuffed animals, reading to them, and putting stickers on their “work”. If only it were really that simple.

I had a vision for myself: I would go to college, get my degree in education, teach for a few years, and end up getting my doctorate so that I could finish my teaching career in higher education. I was right on track, too. I started my career teaching second grade at the grade school I attended as a child. I then got hired at one of the top public schools in the state, where I had been teaching for the past 11 years. During that time I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Master of Sciences degree in Elementary Education, and obtained my National Board Certification. As I said before, my colleagues elected me Teacher of the Year, and two years ago, Educational Horizons Magazine published an article I wrote and asked me to lead a webinar for them. It’s been a teaching career to be proud of. But pride doesn’t mean anything if you’re not happy.

The unhappiness didn’t just happen one day; it’s been building over the years. It started with the seemingly impossible demands of new standards and state testing. Then I had a particularly difficult year with students’ parents, in which I felt nothing I did was good enough. Last year was the tipping point. Despite having a wonderful class, supportive parents, a team I loved, and getting to teach alongside my best friend, I still wasn’t happy. I thought what I needed was to move on from the classroom. I applied for several teacher coaching jobs and Reading Recovery positions, disheartened to not even get an interview. I began to wonder why I had worked so hard to build a glowing resume. Then a special education job opened up at my school, and although I had never taught it before, my principal gave me the opportunity to interview for it.

When she called to offer me the job, I felt like I had a chance to start a new chapter in my career. I romanticized what it would be like to work with small groups of learners and collaborate with them in their classrooms. But the reality was nothing like I thought it would be. I had never dreaded going to work before this job. I had never cried about work before, but I was crying all the time. I had never pulled into the parking lot and felt nauseous about entering the school building, but that is how I felt everyday this past school year. I didn’t see my students progressing the way I hoped they would and it felt like I was failing them. The severity and unpredictability of some of their behaviors scared me, and the legality of their Individual Education Plans was weighing on me. On top of it all, I felt guilty for feeling these feelings. I was a mess.

I kept looking for other jobs. I went to visit other schools that had openings I thought I might be interested in. But the whole time I was touring these schools, I felt uneasy and couldn’t wait to leave. Not a good sign. The truth is, it wasn’t my school that I needed to leave; I loved my school and the people in it. It took me a while to realize it, but somewhere along the way, I lost my passion. And you simply cannot be an effective teacher without passion. Moreover, I am not a person who can just go through the motions and collect a paycheck. So what was I supposed to do now?

First, I had to accept the fact that my time as an elementary educator was over. I had to mourn the loss of my identity as a teacher. It was sad and scary. Was everything I had accomplished over the years a waste? What about my retirement? Would I be considered a failure? With so many questions and not many answers, I felt lost. But at the same time, I began to also feel a bit of relief. As daunting as it was to say goodbye to teaching elementary students, in doing so, it felt like I had opened myself up to a world of possibilities. I don’t regret becoming a special education teacher; it gave me a newfound respect for special educators, and ultimately gave me the motivation to move on.

It was time for a revision of my vision. As I said before, I always saw myself getting my doctorate and teaching at the college level. I knew I wasn’t ready for all of that just yet, but being back on a college campus sounded wonderful.

I had been volunteering as a career mentor to students majoring in Education at my undergraduate alma mater for the past three years, and I really enjoyed it. I met with my friend, who is also the director of the mentoring program, and he helped me brainstorm some next steps for getting a position in higher education. With my sights set on working in admissions, alumni relations, or academic advising, I began scouring the employment opportunity web pages of all the local colleges.

After three applications that failed to result in interviews, I found it: my new career. My graduate alma mater was looking to fill three academic advisor positions, and the second I saw that, it was like a heavenly choir started singing and a ray of light was shining down on my phone. As cliché as it may sound, I really felt that it was meant to be. Every step of the way, from the application, to the interview, I just had a notion that this is where I was supposed to be. When I got the call that they wanted to offer me the academic advisor position in the School of Business, an immediate feeling of euphoria washed over me.

But as thrilled as I was to begin this new career, it wasn’t easy to leave my students and colleagues, especially in the middle of a school year. I felt incredibly guilty, like I was abandoning my students and teammates. I was sad to leave my friends, and scared to leave the only job I had known for over a decade. Nevertheless, I knew I really wasn’t good to any of them if I wasn’t happy.

And I am very HAPPY to say that after three months as an academic advisor, I absolutely made the right move. I love what I do. I look forward to going to work each day. I enjoy helping college students map out their journeys to graduation. I have wonderful, supportive colleagues, and I am especially fortunate to have made good friends with the other two advisors that were hired at the same time I was. Also, I love my office (that’s right, MY OFFICE with a big, beautiful window). Additionally, this position will afford me the opportunity to work on my doctorate and to teach at the college level. I will note that I did take a pay cut with my new job, but I don’t believe you can put a price on happiness. And I feel happier and healthier than I have in a long time.

I’m so grateful to my family and friends who supported me along the way; without them, I don’t think I would have had the courage to make this change that I so desperately needed.

I wrote this post in an effort to explain why I left the classroom, to reflect on how my life transformed this year, and to encourage anyone who is considering a career change. Do it. The majority of your time each week is spent at work, and you deserve to spend that time being happy. Yes, change can be scary, but spending any second of your precious life being miserable is even scarier. In my experience, change isn’t just good; change is great.

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