In this article Lucas Allen, a former math educator from Illinois writes about his experience quitting teaching and the transition into the corporate world.
Why I Left
About 18 months ago, I quit teaching for a job in the corporate world. This wasn’t a decision I made lightly. I had been a high school mathematics teacher at a couple of different schools in downstate Illinois over the course of 13 years. Lest you think I was longtime disgruntled employee of the public school system, let me assure you that was not the case.
Over the years, I had thrown myself into numerous school activities, coaching the chess team, the volleyball team, and my favorite, the math team, eventually coaching my team to the 2012 Illinois 2A math team state title. I had launched our school’s successful AP Statistics program. In my spare time, I launched a blog, Tech Powered Math, where I wrote about graphing calculators, something I had become known for at my school.
On the other hand, in recent years, I found myself feeling unsettled in the classroom, finding it increasingly difficult to make peace with certain frustrations:
- A lack of enthusiasm in the system for innovation, change, and challenge.
- A feeling in myself that I was no longer pushing myself, and a desire to prove I could take on a new challenge.
- A loss of patience for the constantly changing requirements and regulations being lumped on teachers.
- A realization that my teacher’s salary was just fine when I was a single person straight out of college, but much harder to provide for a family of five.
After a few months of consulting with a career counselor, I decided I was interested in a career in data and analytics. In April of 2014, I became aware of the Johns Hopkins Data Science Specialization on Coursera and enrolled the next day. I spent 6-8 hours a day that summer taking the classes at an accelerated rate, using summer break, the one benefit my teaching job offered me that few others do, to the max. I treated what is supposed to be a set of courses that one would normally complete in their spare time like a full-time college enrollment.
It paid off. As my enrollment in the Coursera classes was winding down, I started hearing from headhunters who noticed the progress I was making on LinkedIn (much more important in the corporate world than the education world). I ended up leaving just before Christmas break 2014 for a job on a new data science team at a Fortune 500 company. It was less than ideal timing, but I didn’t know when I would get an elite job opportunity like that again when switching careers. Making a change from the classroom to a tech job at a big company was attention grabbing, both locally and beyond, and my jump was featured on the Coursera blog.
Advice to Those Who Leave
I’m not here to try to talk teachers into leaving education, but if you are planning to leave, or if you’ve recently made the jump, here are a few pieces of advice I’d like to offer you.
- You Are Not a Fraud
When I arrived at my new employer, I suddenly found that I was surrounded by a team of people with Ph.D.’s in computer science, ecology, engineering, astronomy, etc. I have what suddenly felt like a humble master’s of mathematics education, and I must admit that I was extremely cautious at first, questioning if I really belonged.Your circumstances will probably look different when you jump, but from the people I’ve talked to who have jumped or are considering jumping, the sentiment is the same, “What could I possibly contribute?” Do not buy into this lie. Just because you have something to learn does not mean you will not learn it and that you are not a valued member of your new team.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
Have you ever noticed that as teachers, we are expected to have all of the answers? In our American system of education, the teacher is an authority figure. This is true not only in a sense of maintaining order in the classroom, but in terms of being the ultimate domain expert on whatever subject matter is being covered.While I tried to be honest with my students when I didn’t know the answer to every one of their questions, I also tried very hard to not put myself in that position in the first place. There is a feeling that some students will begin to lose respect for a teacher if they don’t always “have all the answers.”I’m not defending this mentality, and it may not be universal, but I believe it is widely held.It is unlikely that your peers in a new career will expect you to be that same kind of authority. You shouldn’t have that expectation of yourself. Seek out answers and advice from your new colleagues as they are sure to be a treasure trove of information. You may be surprised to learn that you have a nugget or two to share with them as well. In my experience, corporate learning is often collaborative learning.
- Be patient with yourself
On my first day at my new job my boss offhandedly made the comment, “I expect you to be fully productive in 4 or 5 months.” Coming from the world of public education, this statement was mind blowing to me. Yes, of course, some allowance is made that new teachers will make more mistakes than when they have experience. Also, if you move from one school to the next, a teacher may not know how the lunch schedule works or what the absence policies are. More or less, though, you get a day or two of teacher inservice at the beginning of your career and then you are expected to be fully productive from day one. Those kids will be walking through your door on the first day of school, and there is really no way for you to “ease into it.”My experience in the corporate world has been different. There, a learning curve is expected. There is time set apart from your eventual duties to acclimate you to “onboard” you to your new corporate culture. I was assigned a mentor that helped me with tasks during the work day as they came up, not jammed into a planning period. But beyond the expectations set out for me by my management and my peers, I found that I needed to be patient with myself. I wanted to run at full speed from day one but didn’t know how to. With a bit of reflection, each month I could see that I was capable of far more than the prior month. I have truly had to adopt a “slow but steady wins the race” mentality.
- Live with no regrets
I just want to reiterate that I’m not trying to talk anyone into leaving teaching. I recently discussed career change with an old colleague of mine who’s been feeling frustrated in recent years, and she’s recently told me she’s not sure she’s ready to make the move. I encouraged her to wait until she is sure she wants to go and knows what she is moving towards.If you do decide to make a change, though, I’d encourage you to move boldly. Find that new thing that you are excited to go after, and pursue it with all of your passion. Yes, there will be a lot to learn, but if you are an educator, you almost certainly have a passion for learning as well as teaching. While there are things I occasionally miss about teaching, I have no regrets, and I feel affirmed daily about the change I made with the work I do today.