Is teaching a calling?
November 17, 2011 1:40 PM   Subscribe

How happy are you with your 2nd career as a public school teacher?

I’m in my early 40's and am considering transitioning from a sales career into teaching middle or high school English. I’d love to hear from Mefites who’ve made a similar transition (successfully or unsuccessfully) and to get your feedback on my main areas of concern -

- I have kids but I don’t have day to day experience working with large groups of children/teenagers (I haven’t been a Girl Scout leader etc.). How big of a problem is this?

- About ½ the teachers I talk to suggest that teaching is a calling (similar to the ministry) and that if it's not your first choice as a career than you’ll never be happy doing it. I can't believe this is true but I'd love to know your thoughts.

- Do you actually get to connect with the kids? My husband seems to think that kids in high school are like people in prison...biding their time until they escape. Another friend is a high school counselor and laments the fact that she never really gets to work with the's all testing and assessment. I remember many of my teachers very fondly and am still in contact with my 5th grade teacher...have times changed that much?

Are there other, larger issues that I should be concerned about? Any feedback you could give me would be appreciated. I'd also love to hear from anyone who had a teacher with a more "alternative" career path...did you, as a student, see any benefits?
posted by victoriab to Work & Money (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Well, one practical larger issue is the fact that in the US in many areas/districts, teachers are being laid off at astounding rates. Do the teachers you've been talking to indicate that there are jobs available in your area?
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:50 PM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can't believe this is true but I'd love to know your thoughts.

I went to a large (~4000 students) high school. Many of my teachers in high school had prior careers; I can't recall all of them, but a few definitely talked about their previous jobs as scientists, lawyers, academics, small business owners, programmers and so on.
posted by griphus at 1:56 PM on November 17, 2011

I worked as a teacher's aide for a year between careers.

I think teaching can be more bureaucratic than some people expect. And some parents can be more of a problem than some kids. But I don't have any specific examples on the top of my head.
posted by maurreen at 1:57 PM on November 17, 2011

Response by poster: The state program I'm considering only offers fast-track certification in areas where there are current deficits. I was surprised that English is currently on the list...the rest are mainly the hard sciences and foreign languages. I expect that most of the openings will be in city schools, not suburban ones.
posted by victoriab at 1:59 PM on November 17, 2011

They're certifiying you, sure, but are they placing you? In NYC, a bunch of people in the state/city's fast-track program are finding themselves unable to get a school to take them on after the certification process.
posted by griphus at 2:02 PM on November 17, 2011

Response by poster: Actually griphus, you've touched on another concern. Teachers hired through this kind of certification require additional supervision by the school and I'm curious how it impacts their hiring decisions. The program boasts an 80% hire rate but doesn't do actual placement, so I'd love to hear from graduates about their experience.
posted by victoriab at 2:22 PM on November 17, 2011

Former high school English teacher here (it was my first career though).

I really, really recommend volunteering in a classroom for a few months before making a decision. Build a relationship with the teacher. You'll see what really happens--pedagogically, administratively, behaviorally.

1st question: I don't think that's an issue, but developing your classroom management skills is tricky, and different for everyone because so much of this is based on your personality. Don't enroll in a program that doesn't want to talk about classroom management: it's at least 50% of successful teaching.

2nd question: I'm not sure it's a calling exactly, but there's SO MUCH about the job that's kind of impossible that you really have to feel strongly about it. Hell, I did, and I *still* burned out after four years. Make sure it's what you want. Know that you'll probably be working at least 65-70 hours a week for your first year. Know that you'll be taking a lot of work home (especially as an English teacher). Know that pushing through genuine and feigned disinterest all day is exhausting.

3rd question: YES! This is easily the best part of teaching. I taught at a rough city school with kids who've seen way more than I have, and we still connected. Respect them, be professional, be caring and concerned, be consistent, and be fair: most will trust you and you will definitely develop a bond with your kids.

Teacher turnover is high, especially in urban schools, which is where these programs tend to place their recruits. Make sure that you like your future colleagues at a school: they will be your best support. Also make sure you agree with the principal's pedagogy; make sure the principal will have your back when dealing with irate and/or unreasonable parents.

I know this sounds doom-and-gloom: a lot of it is. But I also think about going back to the classroom nearly. every. day. because it can be AWESOME. When you see your kids finally enjoying reading? Getting excited about Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Shakespeare? When they bounce in, happy to be in English class? When a kid feels comfortable enough to come to you for advice or help? It's one of the best damn feelings in the world. But know that for all of that, the Mr. Keating moments aren't the norm.

Feel free to MeMail me if you have other English teachery questions. While no longer a classroom teacher, I'm still in education and can point you to some useful resources.
posted by smirkette at 2:38 PM on November 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

You really need to look into whether or not these alternative teaching cert candidates are actually getting jobs, PARTICULARLY in your content area. The organization you are with may very well boast an 80% rate, but that might be because of the hard science and bilingual positions that get placed.

I went through something very similar to Denver Teaching Fellows and despite being in a high needs area, I still did not find full time employment this year.
posted by raccoon409 at 2:48 PM on November 17, 2011

1. It's a problem not to have experience with large groups of kids. When it's you with 30 6-year olds (or 30 14-year olds), it can be intense.

2. I think it is a calling, and I think many people go into it because they think it will be an easy, secure gig, with minimal education required.

3. If you're the sort of person who connects with kids, then you will. I sincerely believe that adults are in charge of creating successful situations for the children (age 0-18) that they interact with.

I work in public schools in southern California.

Issues to be concerned about are the following: massive layoffs, poor work conditions, insufficient resources/support, ridiculous hours, and absolutely horrible pay.

If you're in California, I would heavily advise AGAINST becoming a public school teacher. If you want to make money by teaching kids, become a tutor. Especially if you speak a second language. If you're interested in autism or special education, become an ABA therapist. Better money, more useful training, less terrible hours.

Teachers are outrageously undervalued and unsupported in this country. Around here, we start at about $30k a year, and a 3rd of that is taken out for taxes and whatnot, so you make about $20k a year, which obviously isn't a living wage in California. My girlfriends who are new teachers have part-time jobs in addition to their teaching.
posted by ckk88 at 3:46 PM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am not a teacher, but I have a job in a public school as part of an emerging secondary career. You can look at questions like this recent one, and this one, for a start to get an idea of what it's like to deal with the kids.

Because, well, like you said: It's the "day to day experience working with large groups of children/teenagers" that is not taught anywhere, and you learn by observing and doing. The answers to the questions I linked to are a combination of things that are taught, and learned by experience.

It is a bit of a calling, though. But it doesn't have to be your first job. When I was a kid, I wrote in my journal that I wanted to be a teacher. Now I know as an adult that because schools are bureaucracies, not businesses, and not offices and not just about the teaching, I don't want to be a teacher. I did a few other things for twenty years. It turns out what I do want is to make a difference in kids' lives. So I found other ways to do that, starting by volunteering in my daughter's school and then working my way into a job, one that has/will lead to another, and hopefully another.

And yes, I do connect with the kids. Sometimes in the work part, but also in the extra-curriculars - the Breakfast Club, the events I help produce and even just hanging on the playground with my kid. That is the best part. And the worst part - you kind of don't want to know some little kid says he sometimes sleeps in the car with his dad. Some days, when my own child doesn't adore me, I still get hugs around my waist from other grubby little kids. I may be the only person they hug that day. High school and middle school is different, but when the kids who've graduated come back to see their little siblings in productions, they remember me and it feels great. There is nothing like walking down the street and having your name shrieked by a kid who realizes that a school grown-up buys bread in the same store they do. And there is nothing like sitting in a movie theatre watching a Harry Potter movie by yourself as a guilty pleasure for a grownup, and then realizing that you are surrounded by kids you boss around all week long.

Larger issues would be that where I am, and I believe where most are, pretty much all positions are unionized. You may or may not have strong feelings about that. I, for one, am grateful for my job, which is well-paying and lets me freelance aplenty alongside. However, when our contract is up, if it comes to it, regardless of how I personally feel, I'd be required to strike if called for. Nobody wants that, not even the employees. That said, when I needed to take bereavement days last week, and our principal made a comment that I wouldn't be paid, I reminded her that I was entitled to three bereavement days every year. So you not only need to know your job, you need to know your rights. In our school, the principal recently changed. After years of having one boss, everyone now had to meet somebody's expectations and make many many many many adjustments. And yes, it's a shit-tonne of paperwork rather than just reading Roald Dahl books to them all day long. An accident report or incident report can take twenty minutes out of the day. Parents are really, really hard sometimes. "Excuse me, but why does my dearest child have to stand still for two minutes every morning?!" "Um, out of respect for the National Anthem?" But, that said, not a day goes by that my daughter doesn't come home and tell me what her teacher read to them each day, and today she told me "OMG, I accidentally said "Bye, Buddy" to my teacher!!!" So, you can do a lot with the parts you can do a lot with, and that's great. I want to work in a school for these reasons: The kids. The hours. The unknown factors within the structure of the day. It's scheduled, but anything can happen.

I am a great reader because my third-grade teacher read chapter books to us every day. I can draw well because she let us draw while she read. I also love reading and learning because of my eight-grade social studies/English teacher and how every day he brought in a scented vial and had us describe what we smelled and write at least one line about it. If I could find them now, I'd hug them, because they made me a better parent and a better person. As I said in the other thread - the best part of working in a school is that you have the ability (and power) to be either the best part of, or to ruin a kid's day.
posted by peagood at 7:18 PM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Okay, I've typed out answers three times and abandoned them each time. I guess this is what I've been trying to get at: Your post doesn't read as someone who is going into education because you're passionate about it. The only things you say that give me hope are that A) you've talked to a lot teachers about the profession, so have obviously been considering this for a while, and B) you seem to care about connecting with kids.

But then again, if I was pushed to say the most important thing a prospective teacher should be or do, caring about kids tops the list.

There are three kinds of good teachers (I've said this on the green before, so I'll be brief):
--Prophets: people who excel at lesson planning, delivering instruction, teaching pedagogy, reteaching, etc. They get most excited about when students "get it" and when a lesson succeeds.
--Priests: people who are ALL about relationship/community. They love when students confide in them, trust them, and get along with one another. Teaching for them is about more than delivering information and testing kids. It's about the "whole" person and community.
--Kings: people who love testing, managing data, organising and administration, running programs, being the leader of a cause/movement, etc. They are often activists who get into education so they can do "social justice" and also tend to rise in the ranks into school or district administration because they have natural skills in that area.

Knowing what you're good at allows you to then work on the areas in which you aren't as good. Unfortunately, there are so many things about teaching that you just can't learn without getting in a classroom. And even then, you've got to fail A LOT before you start learning how to NOT fail. And whatever your strength area is (priest, prophet or king), you'll fail less in that area and it'll carry you through the first few shitty years/decades. The fact that kids liked me and I liked them got me through the first three years, and even now, is the thing I fall back on.

It sounds like the program you're considering is sort of an intern program (which is what I did - I had been teaching for three years before I was fully credentialled) - in CA, the only difference is that you need an intern coach (a colleague) and they can pay you less because you're not credentialled. That's actually a benefit that even your inexperience won't overcome for a lot of schools. Especially urban ones.

If you want the reality of what the career is, here is what my day looked like:
7:30 - arrive at school, turn on heater/technology, make last-minute copies, talk to kids
8:00 - first period starts. 13 10th grade boys who can read at 2nd grade level. We do a curriculum called Corrective Reading where I have them repeat statements and answer questions for an entire hour - on my feet, talking constantly, getting kids quiet and on task through the sheer force of my personality.
9:00 - 15 minute "brunch." Students come in and want to talk. I pass out papers and set up the room so that when students come in, they can start right away.
9:15 - second period starts. 26 10th graders. Today, we read Oedipus and they did a quiz (that I wrote), a mark-up (that I designed and copied), and etc.
10:15 - third period starts, which is my prep period. Today I wrote a quiz, made copies, graded three piles of papers, set up the room, re-planned a section that didn't go perfectly in 2nd, returned email, and ran to the bathroom (which I have time for MAYBE once a day).
11:20 - lunch time. Had a meeting with a colleague to discuss an upcoming unit, and ate half my lunch. Made it back to my room just before the tardy bell.
12:00 - fourth period. This class is also 26 10th graders, but over half have ADD, ADHD, learning disabilities, poor concentration/impulse control, and/or read far before grade level. If I do anything less than stay super energised, be really prepared, keep the tone light, and be really consistent on the rules, they devolve into chaos.
1:00 - fifth period. This class is 31 10th graders, and they're all tired and/or high by then. Again, I muster the remaining energy reserves to stay up, positive and focused.
2:00 - sixth period. This is 25 9-12th graders for my Mythology elective. There is no curriculum and the books are woefully inadequate. My students range from AP 12th graders to ELD 2 students (who can barely speak English). Today, we worked on a 20 foot mural depicting the Greek creation account, and I got to eat the rest of my lunch in between the help students needed.
3:10 - final bell rings, and I sit down for a minute. Three students come in to talk and do make-up work. I help them for an hour.
4:15 - another meeting with a colleague to talk about the next unit.
5:00 - closed up my room after making sure my copies were made for tomorrow, and everything essential was graded, and all the chairs were up on the desks for the custodian.

Right now, I'm doing metafilter instead of the stack of grading and planning, which when I get to it, will take another hour, minimum. That's about a 10 hour day, and it's pretty typical. Hell, it's probably an easier day than normal. That's about 120 student contacts, about 50 emails received and returned, 6 hours of nearly constant talking, and about 5 minutes of quiet in the whole day. That's so much energy that I feel like I've run ten miles (according to a pedometer, I walk 8-10 miles a day in my teaching day alone).

Can you see yourself doing that? Despite how difficult it is, I'm excited to go back tomorrow, and I know that by the end of break next week, I'll be thrilled to get back to work. If that didn't scare you, then you're weird. But it's also ridiculously rewarding and I can't ever see myself doing anything different.

That said, here's my advice:
You need to find someone whom you admire and ask them if you can shadow them for a week or two. Stay the whole day, including the meetings and other obligations. After you have done that, find another placement in a different school where you can watch for another week. This may not be super practical if you're working right now, but you need to know what it's like before you get into it. You don't want to be like the 50%+ of new teachers who leave the profession in the first five years. And watching a real teacher over a long period is the only way to figure out if you can hack it.

I've personally worked with teachers who've come to the profession as a second/third career, and some wonder why they never did it before, and some wonder if they will even survive their first year. My current student teacher is coming to it as a 3rd career. She only entered the profession because she didn't know what else to do with the English degree she had gotten in her 20's (she was a journalist for a few years, but then a stay-at-home mom for 19 years) and her family needed the money. I really, really see that motivation as being a big problem.

I am happy to talk to you via memail about it - I'm a new teacher mentor and master teacher and I've got a lot of experience assessing teachers. It's good that you're considering this so carefully - teaching is not for the faint of heart. It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do. And also the best thing I've ever done. Good luck.

[sorry this is so long!]
posted by guster4lovers at 8:16 PM on November 17, 2011 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the great input. My main motivation in wanting to teach is to feel more fulfilled by how I contribute. I have a special-needs child in public elementary school and I’m constantly amazed by the wonderful teachers, therapists and administrators that I meet at his school. They do so much to make him successful and I find them completely inspiring. I also love to talk to people and explain things which is why I've been so successful in I'm just wondering if I can translate these skills into a classroom.

Because I've received such varying reactions from the people I've talked to about this plan (and most of them are currently involved with education in some capacity), I'm left confused. I am definitely going to try and shadow a teacher at both levels for a few days and I'll also do some more research on the actual placement numbers...thanks for all the good ideas and for sharing your stories.

On preview: guster4lovers....I just saw your post as I was previewing mine...I'm memailing you. Thanks again everyone.
posted by victoriab at 8:27 PM on November 17, 2011

My mom began her career in publishing, took 10 years off work to have kids, and then began a new life as an elementary school teacher in her 40s. She characterizes it as the first job she has ever enjoyed. She loves the autonomy and, at least in 4th grade, she really can connect with the kids and get to know them. She finds the work extremely fulfilling and feels like it never gets boring. For instance one of her kids just figured out a novel way to cheat that no student has ever come up with before in her 15ish years in the classroom. She finds this hilarious.

Oh, and I graduated high school in 2007 and am confident that I will never forget my English teacher and she'll never forget me. That connection is absolutely still possible. I went back to my high school in April of this year for a visit and all my teachers who were still teaching there knew me by sight.

I warn you that the first few years are brutal. Once you fall into a rhythm and have materials and coursework prepped it's easier, but it's definitely never a job where you can sit and coast. That said, my mom loves doing it.

To prepare and see if she thought she could hack running a classroom, my mom taught Sunday school at our church. Plus, then she got a letter of reference from the Sunday school superintendent. This was a pretty low-risk way to go about it, I think. I don't know if that's an option for you, but I feel like every community has some opportunities out there for people willing to teach something a few hours a week for free.
posted by troublesome at 9:33 PM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Teacher in NYC here, hiring freeze as well. I don't know if it's a calling or not- I consider it a very tiring job! Have met hilarious kids and great people and have a lifetime of stories..but if another opportunity arose, I would take it.

I think everyone is saying the same thing- whether you really want to do this or not, right now hiring is very very tough.

As I said to someone else here before and as someone else said above too- don't quit your day job, volunteer first. It's exhausting and not particularly well paid, and as many kids will curse you out as write you poems of appreciation!! Depending on where you work of course.

Good luck but remember lots of people are searching more meaningful work. Lots of teachers want to be writers, actors, professors and other things. The grass is often greener.

Definitely volunteer first. And don't forget even when hiring times were good, 50 percent of new nyc teachers quit within 3 years. With the slowed economy less people are quitting but it doesn't mean they are actively 'feeling their calling!'
posted by bquarters at 12:51 AM on November 18, 2011

In my first year teaching I became good friends with a 40 something lady for whom teaching middle school english was a second career (it was her first year too)- i've since quit, but 5 years on she's still doing it and loving it!
posted by misspony at 12:19 PM on November 19, 2011

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