It might not seem like a big deal to change jobs throughout your career now, but it used to be more the norm for people to work for the same company for 30 or 35 years before retiring. And in teaching, it is still the norm for many.
I earned my Bachelor’s degree in three years and stayed a fourth year to get my M.S. degree. A few days after graduation, I was hired as a high school science teacher – just a month after my 22nd birthday. It was the fall of 1989 and my plan was to teach until I was 55 and then retire. That’s just what teachers did unless they moved out of state or changed careers.
In my retirement system tier, I’d have more than 30 years of service by then and I could collect my pension. The “golden handcuffs” keep many teachers tied to the same state and losing seniority, tenure rights, and your step on the pay scale often keeps teachers in the same district.
There are advantages to staying in one job for 30+ years. A few of them include building deep ties to your school and community, developing strong programs, and each new school year becomes “business as usual” – just with new faces.
But some of those same advantages can be disadvantages too. I taught in a school district that was similar to the one I attended. It was also similar to the college I attended, in terms of diversity of the population. You build deep ties to a familiar community which can limit your understanding and respect for those that are different.
You complain about the same things at work year after year too – because you don’t know what it’s like to work anywhere else. You might have more than most teachers in a similar position and not realize it or you might not have things others schools and students have. And this can be true even if you network with people in other areas. Business as usual might reduce stress, but it might limit your growth and potential too.
A Change of Plans
After 11 years of teaching, I moved buildings to become the lead science teacher at our elementary school. This was my first step in viewing my profession and our community in a very different light. As a high school chemistry teacher, I saw motivated students with few learning challenges. At the elementary school, I taught every student and I certainly found out I had a lot to learn from my elementary school colleagues.
When I started as an administrator at the primary school level, I learned even more. This time I learned to work with families that were very different than mine and those I had worked with in the past. I also spent four years in a doctoral program with inner city and rural school colleagues. This helped fill in some gaps in my understanding of the challenges and rewards of working in different settings.
If I stayed a high school teacher, I might be a very different person today. Less empathetic, less understanding, less educated, and less caring – not because I wanted to be those things, but because I didn’t even know how different it was to work anywhere else or be with people who were different than me.
Making a Bigger Leap
I left the school district I worked in for 22 years to become an Assistant Professor of Education at a private college. The shift from K-12 education to higher education taught me some important lessons too. I was still teaching – just older students. And there were still faculty meetings that could mostly have been handled in a memo.
What I learned was that I definitely couldn’t stand the private college “show” and how they spent money. I looked for jobs in public universities and felt much more at home in the two colleges I taught at over the next few years. I taught my first transgender students (that I knew of) there and had more diverse students and colleagues than I had ever had before. It didn’t make teaching any different – but it made me happy to be around people that didn’t all look and think like me.
More and More Learning
Now that I get to choose if I work and the places I work, I am excited to keep learning new things around new people. I just finished a 10-week short-term teaching job in a very small school district. With less than 200 kids in the high school, I got to know a lot of them in my short-time there.
Kids in this school seemed to look out for one another more than in the other schools I’ve worked in. I think that when you are with the same 40 kids for 13 years, getting along matters more.
I also do some work with high school students online. One of my students this year lived in a half-way house and had two babies. She was determined to pass her class and graduate to go on to nursing school. I loved her determination and late-night emails. Many of my other students are in alternative education placements (they don’t handle regular high school settings well or have discipline problems.) Online learning gives these students more options to take a variety of courses in a setting that meets their needs. Without this job, I would have missed working with older students in challenging situations.
Taking Something from Each Experience
If you haven’t had the chance to work in a different setting or with a different group of people, I hope you see how it can help you reflect and think differently – from both good and not so good experiences. It would have been fine to stay in my very first classroom and teach for 30+ years but I think I’m a better person for the job changes I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had.
What have you learned from changing jobs or careers? How did you grow?