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Transitioning Out of Teaching Is Hard. Here’s What I’ve Learned (Opinion)

Nearly a decade ago, I left what I thought would be a lifelong career as an educator after just a few years in the classroom. Although there was much I truly cherished about my career as a K-12 teacher, I didn’t find the professional respect, work-life balance, and compensation I needed to thrive both personally and professionally.

I’m hardly alone in this. Even veterans of the classroom with decades of experience are contemplating an early departure from the profession, driven not by a lack of love for teaching but by a system that fails to compensate them fairly, protect their well-being, or set reasonable expectations for employees. In recent years, stories of educators asked to clean school buildings or restrooms on their off days or being involuntarily reassigned mid-school year underline the profound disrespect many teachers face.

The lack of upward mobility or opportunities for advancement in the teaching profession can also contribute to teachers’ desire to leave the field. I pursued national-board certification and then found a ceiling—there was nowhere to go in the school system. For professionals like me who desire continual career growth, this ceiling can drive us to look outside the teaching profession.

The professional journey of a teacher often lacks the lateral mobility enjoyed in other professions. For those working in other industries, professional boredom or unhappiness may mean moving to a new company or taking on a new role altogether. They have opportunities to build new skills and populate a robust resume.

In contrast, career-advancement opportunities for K-12 teachers are limited, primarily confined to administrative roles that do not appeal to many teachers. Furthermore, these positions require a different skill set than classroom teaching.

This lack of mobility within the profession, coupled with inadequate exposure to the culture of job-getting outside the education sector, can leave teachers at a disadvantage. When teachers are unfamiliar in the art of negotiating positions or adapting to new office politics, they lose out on these fundamental elements of professional growth.

The world of teaching alone also leaves many teachers feeling pigeonholed, their years of dedication to education paradoxically becoming their biggest barrier to exploration beyond it.

Teachers are often told that leading a classroom is the world’s most challenging and complex profession, but that sentiment doesn’t help them translate their teaching experience beyond the classroom. Many find the skills that define them as educators do not neatly translate into the resume language valued in the corporate world. Their expertise in people management, data analysis, and problem-solving, honed over years of managing classrooms and nurturing young minds, seems lost in translation when it comes to the corporate job market.

Instead, a teacher’s resume often reads as a static record of their employment history, devoid of the dynamic skills and achievements that could make them attractive candidates in other sectors.

For me, transitioning out of teaching required me to learn new skills. I took on volunteer and freelance work to broaden my skill set. Those experiences working outside the education space also gave me the opportunity to interact with a broader set of professionals in new spaces and apply the skills I had cultivated in the classroom beyond teaching.

Yet, hope is not lost. The pathway out of the classroom and into new professional realms requires a paradigm shift in how teachers and employers view teachers’ skills. The journey involves reimagining the resume not as a mere record but as a strategic tool that highlights the transferability of teaching skills to a wide array of sectors.

In my work developing a platform to support teachers’ career transitions, I help them understand how to translate their teaching skills into the language of various industries. It’s about recognizing the value in the competencies developed in the classroom—competencies that are desperately needed in the broader professional world.

I myself initially assumed that the skills I honed in the classroom were irrelevant outside it. This mindset kept me confined to education-focused roles for years before I realized the transferability of my teaching expertise and learned how to talk about the value I would bring to an organization.

We must also make systemic changes beyond what is in any one teacher’s control. First, districts need to create pathways for growth as teacher-leaders or other roles within schools that help them build a diverse skill set—and resume. No worker’s trajectory should flatten once they enter their chosen profession.

Secondly, schools of education could better support the professional growth of teachers by preparing education degree-seekers for an array of roles beyond the classroom. They should make students aware of the teacher-turnover rates, provide direct instruction around how to build skills valued in the workplace more generally, and advise on how to talk about their capabilities.

By offering courses that expressly focus on building transferable skills and building awareness of the array of career options for educators, these institutions can better equip graduates for the reality of their career trajectories. Teachers who end up choosing to transition out of education need to see how to translate what they’ve learned on the job.

Teacher-preparation programs can also support students by establishing partnerships between schools, businesses, and industry associations. These efforts—such as industry-sponsored projects, mentorship programs, or even guest lectures—would provide teacher-candidates with essential networking and skill-building opportunities.

Experiential learning opportunities, too, such as job-shadowing programs and internships can expose prospective teachers to the culture of job-getting in other industries. Such collaborative initiatives can bridge the gap between teaching roles and the broader landscape of available jobs for education professionals.

Teachers aren’t stuck, but they do face a Herculean task when they want to make a career pivot. It’s time we better support those who raise their hands to do the complex work of teaching and advocate a system that values their professional growth. We must recognize their potential not only in the classroom but in the wider world.

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