There Is Life After Teaching

Jeff Selingo was an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, but left to become a book author and columnist, still  focusing on colleges. His new book is titled There Is Life After College. The title is not a question – Is there life after college – but a clear statement that there is an afterlife. That’s the way I view my lifetime of teaching. There is an afterlife.

Diana, who does the Those Who Teach blog, asked me if I would do a guest post about how I left teaching (my multi-decade secondary school gig) but stayed in education, or about the skills teachers have that work well in other fields.

Reading some posts on her blog, I was disheartened to see one about the fact that “I hate teaching” was the most popular search term for 2015 that brought people to her site.

I don’t hate teaching. But I left teaching. I had been teaching middle and high school for 25 years. I still enjoyed it – most days. I wasn’t “burned out.” I told my wife, also a teacher, that I felt like some days I was going to school in the morning, but on too many days it felt more like going to work.

25 is a magic number for teachers in New Jersey because it means you are entitled to your full pension after age 55. (A benefit that is no longer there for new teachers, thanks to one of my former students, Governor Chris Christie.) I decided that I was going to leave the way some sitcom show stars I admired (like Mary Tyler Moore and Jerry Seinfeld) had left – while the ratings and reviews were still good.

Red, yellow and blue parachute against cloudy sky (5278205683)I had no real plan for what would come next.

One of my colleagues was incredulous. “No one leaves without knowing what comes next,” he said.

“It’s kind of like jumping out of an airplane,” I replied “Pretty exhilarating at first. I just have to hope I have a good parachute.”

My parachute was that
a) I could collect my pension if need be (early and with a penalty, but in an emergency, an option)
b) my wife was going to continue to teach and was okay with me taking some time to find something else. And, most importantly,
c) I knew I had marketable skills.

You can find posts about that last part of the parachute from others: Skills Teachers Have that Employers Want, How Teaching Prepares You to Succeed in Business and What It Takes to Find Life After Teaching.

For myself, I knew that though I wasn’t a math or science teacher with those STEM skills that could work for me,  I was a very good English teacher. I am a good writer and communicator who had also gotten a master’s degree in film and video, started and fizzled out on the doctorate, but had picked up a good amount of computer and technology skills along the way.

One key moment in believing in my skill set had occurred a few years earlier when I first considered leaving teaching. A close friend worked for AT&T and said that if I was interested in applying there, I should look at their skills list that was used to sort résumés.  The list contained a good number of skills I’d never seen before.  Platform skills? What’s that?

Platform skills, I discovered, is the name for presentation behaviors that a trainer uses to transmit content effectively. They are a blend of skills you need to do training and make effective presentations.

“You have no problem getting up in front of a group on a platform and talking. Most of us are not comfortable with that,” my friend told me.

He  is correct. Many surveys show that speaking in front of a group is the number one fear of most people. As Jerry Seinfeld liked to point out, fear of death is number two.

Platform skills are more than just being able to get up in front of a group to speak. How many of these dozen skill questions can you answer in the affirmative?

  • Can you be in front of a group of 5, 50 or 500 and be calm and professional?
  • Can you clearly communicates the session’s topic, goal, and relevance to the participants at the beginning of the session?
  • Can you use humor, analogies, examples, metaphors, stories, and delivery methods other than lecture or PowerPoint to engage an audience?
  • Can you facilitate large and small group discussions?
  • Can you give constructive oral and written feedback?
  • Can you plan and deliver presentations that convey complex information in a clear, accessible way?
  • Can you use an appropriate variety of audio-visual technologies to present information?
  • Can you establish and implement grading evaluation criteria?
  • Can you respond to student and supervisor feedback in a timely fashion?
  • Can you work independently without supervision?
  • Can you write documents tailored for specific audiences?
  • Can you set and meet weekly, monthly, and yearly goals?

If you answered “No” to more than one of these, I wonder how effective you were as a teacher. Every good teacher I know has those skills. Sure, some of us have more of some skills and less than others, but we’re not missing any of them. Those twelve platform skills are a very good starting place for building a résumé and preparing for an interview.

Moving from teaching to training is no great leap. It is a fairly natural one. I know several teachers who went that direction or became involved in jobs related to education, like academic publishing.  But those skills also work for human resources and other business applications.

When I left teaching, I decided to take the summer off and not really look seriously for a job until the fall. I spent the summer working on a new résumé and sifting through the boxes of plans and lessons that I had taken from from my classroom “just in case I needed them one day.”

That August, I saw an ad for a position as a director of instructional technology at a nearby university. After I did some searching on what that actually meant, I realized that I had some experience with all the requirements, though no experience in higher education. I applied, interviewed and was in my new job before the summer was even over.

I have worked for that university, NJIT, in different capacities ever since.  Twenty-five years teaching in a public school system had prepared me well for ever-changing priorities, new programs and having to learn new skills while I was doing using them in my job.

Besides supervising staff and student workers, I helped design courses, ran faculty training in both tech tools and pedagogy, chaired committees, and even started teaching a few classes a year.

I also picked up new skills in web design, coding, audio and video production, social media and grant-writing. I was offered a job managing a large grant at another college and took it for five years. I started my own consulting LLC in order to do training for other colleges, and took on web and social media clients.

This year, I think of myself as semi-retired (or, as my wife describes it, “someone with poor retirement skills”). I’m no longer looking for any full-time gig. I have my pension and benefits and a new 401K from my higher ed years, and new projects keep finding me. They keep me busy and add some income, but I turn down as many offers as I accept.

I still teach a course or two each year. Often, those courses are graduate courses that are online, but I still get energized getting in front of a class or group face-to-face. That’s why it saddens me to read reports that a strong majority of teachers surveyed about the profession say they are “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to encourage graduates to become teachers. That means they are in a job that they wouldn’t even recommend to others.

If it’s the case that you aren’t as passionate, idealistic or excited about teaching as you once were, I think you should change professions. Of course, I would say the same thing if you worked as an accountant, landscaper or pharmacist.

I had a former student who had worked for three years on Wall Street visit me. He said he had loved my class, loved literature and writing, and was not happy in his work. “Is a love of literature and writing a good enough reason to become an English teacher?” he asked me.

Well, I love those things too, but I had to tell him No. That’s not enough to be a teacher, because teaching is, for better and worse, a lot more than just a love and knowledge of subject matter. Though knowledge and passion for a subject matters more and more as you move up the grades and into high school and beyond, all levels of teaching require so  many other skills, and much of your time will be spent doing things other than actually teaching your subject.

Maybe to a ninth grade teacher, college seems like an easier gig. Only a few classes per day. Self-motivated learners. High-powered content. But that’s as much of a misconception as the idea that a high school teacher is done with work at 2:30 pm, has lots of vacations and summers off, and can teach the same lessons a few times a day for only 45 minutes.  Teaching isn’t easy at any level or in any subject.

If you’re thinking that academia is making you miserable and you want to “escape”as if it was some gulag where you were being held against your free will, give notice as soon as possible. You can leave. You should leave. And there are other jobs that you are qualified to do. Prepare your parachute and jump.


Designing Social Media

I have been using “social media” since the term was coined to describe the networks that were emerging online along with “Web 2.0.”  In a time when wikis, podcasts, blogs and social media were all seen as a new form of branding and marketing, I began doing consulting for companies that wanted to enter the social media world.

It reminded me of early web development. In the 1990s, companies started to sense that they “needed a website”, but they weren’t exactly clear about why they needed a site.  It seemed like what everyone else (i.e. their competitors) was doing.  The Return on Investment (ROI) was not exactly clear.

In 1997, the Web had one million sites. Blogging was just beginning. let users create profiles and list friends and AOL Instant Messenger let users chat. Google was non-existent.

It wasn’t until 2001 that Wikipedia was started, and Apple started selling iPods. Friendster, a social networking website, was opened to the public in the U.S. in 2002 and grew to 3 million users in three months. The following year, MySpace. another social networking website, was launched as a clone of Friendster.

By them what company of any decent size would be without a website? None.  As with websites, social media began to be seen as “something our company needs to do” even if companies were not sure what the immediate return would be.

In 2006, MySpace was the most popular social networking site in the U.S. However, based on monthly unique visitors, Facebook would take away that lead in 2008. That was also the year that Twitter was launched as a social networking and microblogging site.

I started teaching about social media in my courses and by 2010 it became a course in itself.  “Designing Social Media” at NJIT, even at that time, seemed to some of my fellow educators to be a topic that was not worthy of an entire course. Interestingly, as other colleges also began to offer social media courses, a good number of the students who enrolled were equally from communications programs and from business programs.

That course requires a lot of preparation because it changes so rapidly that last year’s social media sites, the syllabus topics, and the readings (forget about a “textbook”) are largely useless except as historical content.

In 2013, I took on the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) as a social media client. The organization and its many affiliate groups realized that they needed to have a social media strategy and employees to implement it.

One of the big questions from the executive staff when I met with them at their headquarters in Indiana was still ROI – “How will we be able to measure the impact from using social media?” It is still the big concern and a very tricky question to answer. I would start by asking how you measure your brand without social media?

For NCTE, we offered these social media ways to share any page on their website

No one really disputes the significant role social media plays in the world – though they may debate its value.

Though social media use has fallen mostly over to the marketing side, I have kept my interest in non-profits and individual usage.