burned out lawyer rethinking a new career in teaching
February 21, 2014 5:00 PM   Subscribe

I just left law after 18 years as a sole practitioner. I am burned out. I'm not very money oriented, more into helping people and socializing. I like work that has a beginning and end. I've never been a good employee. I thought that I would like to become a high school social science teacher and I now have a license to teach. I'm a 54 yo female.

My anti-authority streak is pretty strong, I am considered fairly creative, although I am not an artist. You may have noticed that I have not written about my love of children. I am drifting and am feeling like I may be making a mistake. The only other thing to do with myself is to clean houses. It is something I have done before. I would like to be a small business owner but can't get more focused than that. As far as capital: I am flat broke.

Do you think I should stop pursuing the teaching jobs?

I would appreciate any and all feedback. Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I left law at 41 after 8 years of practice and thought about teaching, but decided that being a legal secretary would be more fun (I like word processing stuff), less of a grind, and I could come in hung over and say, hey, take it easy on me today, I'm hurting, which you can't actually do with a room full of kids. Plus I figured out that I could do it with one hand tied behind my back and still get paid about twice what I would for teaching. I worked 9 - 5:30 and had an actual life and on the occasions that overtime was called for, I got paid for it. I'm not incredibly money oriented but you do have to pay rent, etc.

It actually eventually turned into something a little more like law practice, but without the burnout involved.
posted by janey47 at 5:10 PM on February 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

What kind of law did you practice? Any specialties or interest? Because you might be able to take some of that experience and work in a variety of non-profits. I have a friend who worked in environmental law for many years and now does government agency work in his area of expertise.
posted by brookeb at 5:15 PM on February 21, 2014

I do think you should consider not pursuing teaching, only because I think teaching is really only a good profession for people who really, really want to teach, and I'm not getting that from you. Teaching is incredibly hard and demanding and does not have a reputation for not burning people out.

I actually think if you don't care too much about money, having your own cleaning business would be wonderful. Low stress, no crazy hours, no desk, just you and an iPod and a dirty house.
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:17 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nothing in what you've written gives any indication of why you think you should stop pursuing teaching. Why are you considering stopping? What made you consider starting it in the first place?
posted by ook at 5:19 PM on February 21, 2014

If you do consider teaching, I would definitely look into community college teaching. I taught business law at a community college right out of law school and really enjoyed it. You are generally teaching students who are working their way through school or are non-traditional students. They're far more appreciative than the many of the undergrads at large universities. Also consider teaching political science if your local community college's accreditation standards allow it.

I am in compliance now and I would recommend it but I, like you, am very anti-authority and lean toward the artsy and creative. I enjoy the work but struggle with its authoritarian structure and lack of creativity.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 5:22 PM on February 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you don't love it, teaching is a pretty shitty thing to force yourself to do every day. And if you're not into it, the kids are going to suffer along with you.

In all seriousness, if you're going to make yourself do something you don't appear to have a passion for, lawyering at least pays a little better.
posted by charmedimsure at 5:24 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

None of the teachers I know would describe it as:

"work that has a beginning and end."

It's relentless work, definitely bleeds into your nights, weekends, and summers. Moreover, schools can be pretty authority/bureaucracy heavy, depending upon your particular administration. Not a great place to indulge a lot of creativity, since you will be beholden to a thorough raft of state and national standards and tests.

Unless you find a more flexible, Waldorf-style private environment --or a community college type of situation as suggested above-- it seems like teaching might not be a great fit for you, no.
posted by like_a_friend at 5:26 PM on February 21, 2014 [9 favorites]

I teach high school social studies.

I was excited when I saw your post, because one of the best teachers I've ever met was a former corporate lawyer turned teacher. So I was all set to recommend it highly (I switched careers too, and I love it).

But after reading your description of what you're looking for, I don't think teaching is the best bet for you. Here's why:

I like work that has a beginning and an end.

Teaching is work that never ends. Never, never, never. You always have lessons you should be planning, work you should be grading, emails you should be sending. It is notorious for burning people out.

My anti-authority streak is pretty strong
This might work in some schools, but many schools are moving more in the direction of top-down, ed reform ideas that would encourage you to do things the way they want you to. You could circumvent this, but I get the sense that it'd annoy you just being told what to do all the time by people who know less than you about your students.

You may have noticed that I have not written about my love of children.
Umm, yes. You don't have to be a warm earth-mother-type, but dealing with 100+ teenagers every day does require some affinity for the age group.

Look, if you sounded passionate about it at all, I'd definitely encourage you to pursue it further. I really love this job - it's incredibly intellectually stimulating, you get to have really interesting conversations every day, you know that you're doing something that really matters. But it's not the low-key job with work/life balance and a definite end time - which is what it sounds like you want.
posted by leitmotif at 5:27 PM on February 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

From the anonymous OP:
I thought about teaching because it was my original career goal 30 years ago. My areas of practice when I was an atty were family, children, and tribal law. I will not go back to practicing law. I can't handle the stress. I guess that is a concern with teaching. That it will be too stressful for me. I would very much like to be self-employed. I worry that cleaning houses [which I really like] will lead me to being too isolated. I'm an introvert [thus, the stress while practicing law] and tend to only get social interaction when at work. Maybe that is a better question: how to build social interaction into my life if I were to clean houses as a job?
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:37 PM on February 21, 2014

Develop hobbies! Dance, pottery, helping kids at after-school programs getting them ready for college, cooking groups, local history, outdoors activities, whatever.

Definitely don't go into teaching if you want a job with finite work hours and have an anti-authoritarian streak. It's really not at all like you are imagining it. At all.
posted by barnone at 5:44 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Teachers, especially new ones, burn out all the time. So I'd consider what made you burn out as a lawyer vs. where you stressed during student teaching. Also, did you like student teaching? Are you an enthusiastic learner? Are you flexible? Are you ready to commit 10-12 hours a day for your first year (maybe less on weekends)?

Liking children is not essential for teaching high school. They act like immature adults more than children. Can you deal with adults with poor impulse control? Those who aren't used to being responsible for their own progress? Unmotivated folks (because 1st year teachers don't get the AP classes)?

You don't sound excited to teach so I'd suggest not teaching. You need a lot of energy for your first year: designing lessons, working out classroom management style, and managing constant chaos.. Students miss classes or don't do homework and all of a sudden your perfectly planned lesson (with a beginning and end!) is going to fall flat. Now you're going to have to figure out how to get that kid who missed 3 days hunting to catch up and that girl who is sick at least once a week to come in to make up the lab and OMG evolution unit is here and you have 3 parents calling because you hate little baby Jesus. You'll feel like you can't move forward because so many students are struggling with the last unit but then you'll look at the 5 kiddos rocking As and feel like you're letting them down. You won't have beginnings, middles, and ends because learning is a process and your students, all 100+ you'll see in a day, will be at different places. You won't teach science... you teach students. It's a huge difference and it really takes a while to learn that art.

Other options to consider: subbing (especially long term subbing), working for a publisher (sales, test development or grading), train adults with a professional development company, look at govt jobs with your state Dept of Ed.
posted by adorap0621 at 5:52 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm not quite sure if I should try to give a stab at your question because personally I hated teaching younger students (ie, high school).

However, just a couple thoughts. I wonder if you should reconsider and/or would be qualified to teach CC or university? Specifically because you 1) are creative and 2) seem passionate about the content of your field, although not the work (ie, tribal law). In my experience, high school teaching ...I was told to use worksheets and a particular worksheet and use book X and assign pages Y - no freedom whatsoever. Teaching at the uni level, however, you had the freedom to teach and do it however the hell you wanted provided that you taught your content area. But ifyou are passionate about certain areas, you can use that to introduce to your students, and they usually responded well, as did the administration(although it was a different field/etc). Although I would never in a thousand years suggest that anyone adjunct teach, maybe you could *test* if you liked this by teaching just one university course? IF so, then look for full time faculty positions.

The other question you mentioned: I'm an introvert [thus, the stress while practicing law] and tend to only get social interaction when at work. Maybe that is a better question: how to build social interaction into my life if I were to clean houses as a job?

Why not try to do this part time on the side and see how you feel? Because it sounds like you are throwing hurdles and "what ifs" and these things may not be an issue.

This is anecdotal, but I'm very introverted and self employed. When I used to work at a corp job (and at most other jobs), I would need to come home and NOT talk to people/felt drained all the time. However, when I became self employed and worked from home ...I became far more balanced. Now I make a point of seeing friends once a week or so or more. But you are likely not to know how you will respond until you test this. If you find you need people every minute of the day, there are things you can do, such as reach out to people, join groups, or even modify your business (ie, maybe you can also pitch yourself as an "organizer" and work with people? Or have special targeted clients?) These are just some possibilities.
posted by Wolfster at 6:08 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Anti authority personalities can really struggle with teaching as schools can be very hierarchical, much more so than you might think especially at a social level. As an introvert I suspect you would find dealing with bunch of teenagers extremely challenging as you often have to give them a lot to get anything back, and they do respond to personalities.

not saying don't do it, it will be different to lawyering, but emotionally you might find just as exhausting depending on school and median age of kids especially.
posted by smoke at 7:44 PM on February 21, 2014

I've had awesome teachers who turned to teaching after making their (small) fortunes doing something more lucrative. They were near retirement age and found a real passion for teaching in the last years of their career. It would be great if you fit into this category.

Perhaps you should try subbing to see if you have any affinity for teaching full-time. If you like it, then you should search for a full-time opportunity. I suspect that social studies is a very competitive field, so you might do some hopping around different schools for the first few years.

Also, you don't need to make your passion a full-time job. Have you considered volunteering? Maybe teaching an ESL class or a SAT class? (All involve leading a group of students, which is why I'm recommending it over simply tutoring a single student.) Or teaching in an afterschool program, for pay or no pay.
posted by myntu at 7:47 PM on February 21, 2014

PLEASE do not become a teacher.

I work with people like you, and with all due respect, people who come in to teaching with motivations like yours do nothing for students, coworkers, or schools except weigh us down because you are not there for the right reasons. Schools are not where people burnt out on one profession should try to ease their ailments, especially people who are anti-authority and anti-establishment.

You can do good elsewhere. Don't become a teacher.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:55 PM on February 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

I used to teach ESL as a volunteer. There are many newcomers to the US who are willing to pay for English Language tutoring, especially those seeking advanced degrees and needing to prepare for and to pass the TOFL. This test is sometimes difficult for people whose mother tongue is English.
You could write your own ticket as regards hours, class size, and personal involvement. I found the work to be very fun and rewarding since the students were self motivated and very appreciative of many kinds of help with their new surroundings. With your legal talents, you could help them to avoid people who do not have their best interests at heart and who are actually out there just waiting to scam them.

Best of luck with your decision.
posted by EZung at 3:42 AM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Without commenting on how you specifically would hold up as a teacher...

My high-school AP Government teacher had been a prosecutor until very recently before teaching us--he was probably 40something--and I thought he was great. He could inject lots of relevant stories to keep us interested. You have never seen a high-school classroom as focused as when someone with a legal background is explaining Romeo and Juliet laws.

But yes, we were the 'motivated' kids, and seniors in high school. Someone above suggested community college, and that might be more efficient for leveraging your background for a better teaching schedule, better rapport/respect from students, etc. You could also look into magnet high school programs with a social science focus.
posted by ecsh at 5:12 AM on February 22, 2014

Re: building socialization into a cleaning business. I had the same experience as Wolfster above - I left a job that was all-social-all-the-time to start my own gig, and found that suddenly I had way more energy to interact with people. Depending on where you live, there are likely lots of community groups, meetup groups, nonprofits (who might be excited to have a volunteer with your skills), faith groups and classes that you can plug yourself into.

And, seconding the part-time idea. You don't have to launch a corporation to see if you like cleaning houses, you can try picking up a few clients (obviously with the proper tax and insurance precautions) and see if you like it. If you feel too isolated, look for other employment -- you don't have to set your career plans in stone.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 8:14 AM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Become a bartender. You get set hours, plenty of tips, you can see clients on the side if you wish as a paraprofessional.
posted by parmanparman at 8:20 AM on February 22, 2014

I agree with the suggestion that you might look into community college teaching. You could test out teaching one course. Teaching college students is very different from teaching younger kids, and it doesn't have the on-all-day aspect since you'd only be "on" for a couple of hours when you're teaching. It would be a limited time commitment (and very limited compensation) and you'd get a little social time and a little intellectual exchange. If you wanted, you could then try picking up other teaching gigs of that kind -- maybe seminars for people in the service areas you worked in as a lawyer, for example. Or writing articles about your areas of expertise for a legal, or tribal, or local-area, newsletter. It's worth trying to make use of your existing expertise somehow, as you think about next steps.

You could do this kind of thing alongside another part-time gig like housecleaning.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:26 AM on February 22, 2014

Have you considered real estate?
posted by sparklemotion at 8:58 AM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you have a lot of experience in tribal law and working with tribal nations you could find a federal position with the government conducting outreach to tribes. memail me if you'd like I"ve seen a few recently on usajobs. Government jobs tend to have a start and finish structure and you could make a comfortable living.
posted by dmbfan93 at 10:15 AM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who is a lawyer doing estates and court-appointed probate court work. A few years ago, he got tired of it, trained up as a teacher and got a job at a local HS. He lasted two days. The lack of support on terms of textbooks, copiers, etc is in unbelievable to anyone used to a typical office environment. Its a good school district, lest you think it might be a bad example.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:19 AM on February 22, 2014

Yes, I find teaching young adults or even older adults a lot more fun than teaching schoolkids.

Do consider ESL. There is a specific market for Business English for business people (higher paid than ordinary classes), and I would think there might be a demand for Law as a subset of that.
posted by Idcoytco at 12:38 PM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I thought about teaching because it was my original career goal 30 years ago.

This isn't a good reason to do anything.

Seeing this as a "goal" that you will be falling short by not getting to isn't going to be helpful.

People grow and change, professions grow and change, and sometimes the ideas we have about what we'd like to have in our lives change.
posted by yohko at 8:07 AM on February 23, 2014

Seconding ESL/TESOL, there is a specific market for EAP (English for academic purposes) and English for Business Purposes. You can also teach this at a community college and make decent money or teach in a non-English speaking country.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 11:16 AM on February 23, 2014

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