Getting my foot in the classroom door
July 7, 2014 6:10 AM   Subscribe

It's time for a career redirect. I think I want to be a teacher. My previous jobs have always involved working with youth/young adults though with the exception of a few college classes it has been outside the traditional classroom. When I look back at my career the time spent teaching has always been the best part. How to best get some toes in the water?

I want experience working in a classroom before I pursue a full time teacher position, go to grad school or the like. A teacher friend suggested I become a paraprofessional because I would get to work directly with students in a classroom environment and get a feel for what being in a school without needing additional school/certification.

My main work experience was as tech support/technical education (I was a guest lecturer for professors who taught in the art/communications field). I have two BA's in art/technology. I have limited experience volunteering with high school aged special needs students.

I'm in my late-twenties in the Boston area and most interested in working with middle school students though I'm open to other ages.

Does being a paraprofessional for a year or two seem like a good idea given my background/goals? Are all the most desirable positions taken at this point in the year? What would a most desirable position look like?
posted by rip to Work & Money (11 answers total)
It might be worthwhile to talk to a teacher recruitment firm, such as Carney Sandoe. They definitely serve the Boston area, and they are always looking for teachers, especially in tech areas. They can advise you as to whether or not it's possible to work part-time (if that's what you're interested in).

But if you want to try it out full-time for a year or two, then yes, it's quite feasible. You'll want to look at working at either a private school (no teaching certificate required) or at some public schools (they can give you an "emergency certificate" if you sign up to take night classes for your education degree). Since you're not sure yet if you want to commit to this career, then I would recommend going the private-school route. I did this at age 23 (with no education degree) and it worked out well for a year, and we parted on good terms.

You can either go through a recruiter (see above) or start contacting the schools directly (which is what I did). Start today; plenty of schools should still have openings.

The pay is not great, but it's certainly enough to live on. And the boarding schools might also offer you free room & board if you agree to serve as a "resident advisor" or something (where you have to live in or next to the dorms). You'll also be asked to do coaching or after-school activities, but with your art background you should have lots to offer them for that.

Good luck!
posted by math at 7:32 AM on July 7, 2014

There's always the option of being an ESL teacher. Korea's private school system (at least now) does not require a TEFL certificate. All you need is a BA/BS from an accredited school and are a native speaker. You'll get little training (I literally got thrown into a classroom on my first day on the job, but other schools I taught at usually let you observe for a few days to a week). Flights are usually paid for. Housing is typically paid for. Korea has excellent health insurance and health care. Food is great. Why yes, I did love my time there :) I'd still be there if I didn't have health issues that prevent me from teaching.
posted by kathrynm at 7:46 AM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a teacher, and I think it's a decent way to just get a feel for being in a classroom again, and observing and helping kids with what they need. I would just caution you that this role really won't give you a feel for what it's like to be a teacher. It won't include the most challenging parts of teaching (classroom management, maintaining the energy to engage many large groups of kids every day, dealing with parents and admin) and it also won't include the most fulfilling parts of teaching (watching kids get really excited about your subject, the satisfaction of leading a really fascinating discussion, the intellectual stimulation of designing great curriculum). Also, do note that if you're placed in a classroom with someone who's not a good teacher, it may sap your desire to teach (being in a bad teacher's class can be really bleak). Again, I do actually think it's a good idea - I just want to make sure you're aware that it won't really prepare you to be a teacher per se.
posted by leitmotif at 7:57 AM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Something you might considering is getting a job as a substitute -- it's WAY easier in most places than getting a teaching license and it gives you the chance to check out different schools so when you're looking for a full-time teaching job you know what you actually want, plus you have your foot in the door with any principals you liked.

Subbing is really hard but so is teaching and, while there are additional challenges to subbing, you also don't have to deal with as much of the public school bureaucracy and stuff like high-stakes testing plus you're not as invested if it turns out this isn't the right choice for you. Good luck!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:52 AM on July 7, 2014

One job that literally gets your feet wet is working as a camp counselor. I did that during my summers through college to gain experience working with children so when I graduated with my teaching degree, I had something career related to put on my resume. Same for day care work or working at an after-school program. No, its not a classroom, but there are many commonalities like learning group dynamics, dealing with difficult children (and parents), planning, setting rules and boundaries, etc.

Depending on where you live and want to teach, other positions that would be good are a teacher's aide or substitute. If there is a nice suburban school district that you would like to eventually teach, this is really the only way to get your foot in the door with them (aside from being a student teacher there). If it doesn't matter to you where you teach, you can sub for a whole bunch of districts at once so you can keep paying the bills.

Also, when I was an aide, the school district paid for half of my tuition which was a nice perk and helped make up for the shitty salary. Not sure what your state requires, but mine requires all teachers have a PA State Police, FBI and Child Abuse background check - getting those clearances in order (for your state) is a really good first step because you will be asked for them.

My main work experience was as tech support/technical education (I was a guest lecturer for professors who taught in the art/communications field). I have two BA's in art/technology. I have limited experience volunteering with high school aged special needs students.

You really might want to look into teaching in a vo-tech high school. The school where I work has commercial arts, visual/digital communications, and networking technology programs. You already know the content material and have industry experience - you just need the teaching cert. I love working at "tech" because the kids know what they want to be/do and are really into it. EVERYTHING they learn they will use in the "real world".

In PA, the voc-ed teacher certification process is ass backwards: You get the job teaching in your field first and THEN go and take the teacher ed classes to get certified. (Personally, I think it is just awful to throw noob teachers to high school students like that, with hardly any teacher training at all, but that is the way it works - you really can't get a cert in voc-ed in PA unless you have a job first.) YMMV depending on your state's certification requirements. School districts vary, but again, many pay for at least half to full tuition.

Good luck!
posted by NoraCharles at 11:22 AM on July 7, 2014

I'm a paraprofessional. To be exact, I work full-time in a special needs (multi-handicapped) classroom. It has given me a very clear idea of what a teacher does. In part, this is because the teachers here are lazy as sin and I do everything a teacher does except write IEPs and meet with parents. I do a lot of teaching, but I realise not all people do. Some paraprofessionals work one-on-one with one student. I don't think these jobs give you as good of an idea because they are focused on one student and can have blinders on. I have to balance the needs of 8 students in a classroom (which is the cap in my state for self-contained special education classrooms).

Also, if you haven't looked, most paraprofessionals make shit money. I don't know about your locale, maybe it's better, but you might be shocked. I could make more at a number of entry level jobs. Even though I'm moving on after this summer, I truly love what I do. As a paraprofessional I know my students in a way pretty much no one (even the teacher) knows them.

In my location, this is just past prime hiring season, but there are still open positions. It may be different in Boston. But I also think you shouldn't just choose the most desirable position - it's good to work with kids of different ethnic, socioeconomic, religious, etc backgrounds. You're trying to figure it out, so the more experience you can get the better.

In my application for graduate school in a closely related field, my paraprofessional experience really impressed when I was interviewed. I really earned a lot of brownie points for having tangible, applicable experience. It makes a huge difference in education (where who you know can open doors more than people expect) to have those connections.
posted by Aranquis at 12:39 PM on July 7, 2014

I was you a decade and a bit ago. So I jumped in feet first as a teacher, and was eaten alive by high school Freshmen.

You need to get some education in Classroom Management before even attempting to be a teacher.

There are certification tracks for professionals going into teaching, alternative certification is a good searchable term.

Good luck, teaching was a very hard job that did not pay very well. It gave me stress and high blood pressure.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:15 PM on July 7, 2014

I lived in Boston and am a career-switching teacher (first grade). One thing to possibly keep in mind is there is not a ton of teaching jobs and the ones in New England are competitive because the benefits, pay and union stuff are so much better than the rest of the country. I got my Master's in teaching from Brown and was looking for two years before coming to NC, where I am currently. There might tend to be more IT/tech specialist jobs though. There's this. You can also make good connections through subbing and the per diem sub > long term sub > teacher route sometimes works out once you're certified.
posted by mermily at 2:22 PM on July 7, 2014

I started teaching high school via an independent school, which often do not require state certification. I moved out of it into teaching youth in a different environment.
posted by Stewriffic at 2:49 PM on July 7, 2014

There is nothing like being in a classroom. I worked in museums, summer camps, taught YMCA classes and swimming lessons, was a coach...and nothing prepared me for my first year in the classroom. I got lucky and got in the door before emergency credentials stopped being a viable option. So as a 21 year old I was thrown in front of 14-19 year olds with no real classroom experience.

And I loved it. But it was the hardest thing I've ever done. My credential school was fantastic, but that wasn't nearly as helpful as the first two years I spent figuring shit out on my own (with some great mentors, but nothing formal). That was the right way for me. But most teachers burn out in the first five years for the same reasons you probably know - lots of stress, long hours, inefficiencies and slow-moving bureaucracy, colleagues who retired without telling anyone, students who seem to make it their mission to make you miserable, administrators who have vendettas against anyone smarter than them...that's all really real.

So to answer your question: I would find a school that will let you come watch/be a classroom helper before committing to anything. Choose a few different classrooms and different subjects/grade levels. Most schools will allow this if you go through fingerprinting and show no evidence of TB. Alternatively, you can go through something like Teach for America, but you'll make zero money and be placed with little training in the most challenging schools.

Make friends with teachers in the area you want to enter the profession. Start building a Personal Learning Network on Twitter. Read good educational bloggers (memail me if you want specific suggestions - I don't want to self-link or promote people who are my personal friends, even if I think they're a badass in the classroom). That will be another good way to get inside a classroom and inside a teacher's head. Good luck.
posted by guster4lovers at 4:14 PM on July 7, 2014

I am a high school teacher, and I got started as a paraprofessional right after graduating from college. My job was in a college town, so I was able to take grad school classes, which were paid for by the middle school as professional development. It took me two years (I was limited to taking two classes per semester), but I got my Master's degree for free. In addition, in my first certification year, I got bumped to the second step on the pay scale due to my experience in the classroom. I would definitely recommend looking into schools that are linked to the many universities in the Boston area that would pay for your education.

On another note: I have been teaching for 12 years, and have no doubt it is what I was meant to do. I love the content, my colleagues, and more than anything, my students. Several of my former students have stayed in touch with me for over a decade, and I've been a teacher leader for three years. Overall, it's my dream career. However, the current field of education is far different from the one I entered. With federal and state initiatives driving education (and driving many teachers crazy, and many students toward anxiety attacks), it is starting to feel a bit like a business. My hope is that this won't last, and the heavy focus on standardized tests will decrease. Veteran teachers tell me this game operates on a 10-ish year loop... So I hope that you are encouraged by whatever experience you have before you decide to throw your hat into the classroom. We need good educators, but I worry that the current state of the profession is a wee bit discouraging to hopefuls, especially those that are in it for their love of students (which sounds like you).

Good luck, and welcome to the most rewarding, challenging, and eye-opening career there is!
posted by hippychick at 4:56 PM on July 7, 2014

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