Teaching as a Second Career

A high-powered, lucrative career is what everyone strives for, right? Well, not always. While many professionals revel in being at the top of their game, others want to take a step back, switch gears, and find work that's fulfilling in a different, sometimes deeper way. For some, this career shift means a move into teaching, allowing these once high-flying professionals (or anyone in the working world, really) to use their expertise to help their communities through teaching, either at the K-12 level or in college.

As it turns out, those who have experience working in a wide range of fields have a lot to offer students who may have a lot of questions about what it's really like to work in a certain profession or wonder why they need to learn certain aspects of the curriculum. Getting into the classroom, however, isn't always easy nor is the path always clear for those who seek out teaching as a second career. Finding a place in education may not be as hard as you think, however, and there are many others who've gone before you who can share their expertise and insights, showcasing why teaching can be just as amazing as a second career.  

What Qualifies You to Teach?

While some might find it odd, even those who are leading experts in their fields can't just make the switch into teaching without some sort of qualification, at least not at the K-12 level.

The most basic way to get into teaching as a second career is to get a degree in education from an accredited college. Since most making the change to teaching will already have bachelor's degrees, the best way to do this may be through an master's degree program. There are a number of colleges that have programs catered specifically towards professionals making a career change, with classes offered at night or on weekends to make it simple to balance the degree with existing work requirements. These programs will require a set amount of courses as well as hours in the classroom both observing and student teaching, though the requirements for each of will vary by state. 

If getting another degree sounds like a lot of work, there are other ways to enter teaching that don't require a multi-year commitment to an educational program, though opportunities aren't the same in each state. The best place to learn about your options is through the Teach Now organization, which focuses on alternative forms of certification, or through, the Department of Education's teacher recruitment site. There, those looking to get into teaching can find out on a state-by-state basis what will be required to take their expertise into the classroom, from basic certifications to additional college credits.

Looking to learn what options you have? Consider Illinois as an example. In Illinois, those who want to work in the K-12 education system do not necessarily need a four-year degree in education or to have completed a master's in education. What they will need, however, is a bachelor's degree in another area plus at least five years of experience in that field. They'll also need to have passed the Illinois Basic Skills Test, which all new teachers have to take to ensure they have the requisite knowledge they'll need to work in the classroom. After that, aspiring teachers will need to take several courses in education theory and instructional methods and pass a test focused on his or her content area. After this, the teacher will be granted a provisional teaching certificate.

The process doesn't end there–it requires the help of a mentor, a full-time teaching position, and the evaluation of teaching performance to complete, which could take another year or more. Should a new teacher fulfill these obligations, he or she will be granted a Standard Teaching Certificate. While it's not easy, this method can take considerably less time than a full teaching program.  Similar programs exist nationwide and some states have far more options for alternative certification (California has 70 and counting). 

Some may even find employers who are willing to help in the change. IBM has a program called Transition to Teaching which offers employees of 10 years or more up to $15,000 in funding to earn teaching credentials.  While not every employer has this kind of program, programs of this type are not unheard of and can be a great way for professionals to seamlessly transition between their careers. 

For those who want to work at a college, a career change will necessitate advanced degrees. Many professionals may already have the master's (some degree programs terminate at the master's level, the arts being one prominent example), or more commonly, the PhD required to teach at the college level, but some may have managed to get ahead without these degrees or have pursued other professional degrees that, while challenging to obtain, don't always carry the same weight in academia.

Those who already have a PhD will have little difficulty qualifying for faculty positions at colleges and universities, but those who don't shouldn't count themselves out when it comes to working in academia. There are opportunities for professionals to work at institutions of higher education as visiting lecturers and adjunct professors. Those who are especially well-known or successful in their field may not need degrees either, as many colleges have invited notable politicians, businesspeople, and artists without degrees to teach a course or a series of courses for their students.

And for those looking to create a lasting career in academia without the credentials to do so? While some opportunities may exist at community colleges with those holding only a master's, there's always the option of heading back to school to get that PhD while working in less permanent positions in teaching in the meantime.

What Should You Teach?

For some professionals, it will be obvious which subject would be their best choice for a career in teaching given their area of expertise (a chemist would teach chemistry, for example). For others, their careers may not translate so directly into courses offered in high schools or major programs of study at colleges. That can make choosing what to teach a bit tricky. Ask yourself these questions before getting starting to make sure you're on the right track.

Are there qualifications required to teach certain subjects in your state? In order to teach certain subjects in high schools, many states require a minimum number of credit hours of courses in that subject and for aspiring teachers to pass a subject area examination. Check out the rules in your state to see if you meet the minimum or if you'll need to put in some extra educational investment to make things work. Those who want to teach higher education will need to make sure their credentials match up with what's expected of professors, generally a PhD in the field you'll be teaching, or at the very least a master's.

What are you most passionate about? If you're dissatisfied with your present career enough to leave it, you don't want your second career to simply be a repeat of the first. Sit down and consider what you're most passionate about in your current position. Consider ways to translate this into a future career as a teacher.

What's closest to your area of expertise? A former lawyer might not have any trouble finding law classes to teach at the college level, but at the high school level things get a bit more complicated. You may need to figure out which subject, be it government, public policy, or even the environment, is closest to the area in which you now work.

Will you be able to find work? Many teachers are fighting to keep their jobs these days and academic work can be hard to come by. That doesn't mean you have to rule out education as a career, but you'll need to be savvy about what you choose to teach. Those aiming for the K-12 level should look into in-demand fields like math, science, special education, foreign language, technical education, and business. Those in higher ed will likely find similar fields in demand, and should look for ways to capitalize on their professional experience when job hunting.

Do you know what teaching is like? Before you dive into teaching at any level or in any subject, make sure you know what you're getting yourself into. Volunteer to teach summer or after school programs offered through other organizations. This way, you'll know if you're suited for the classroom or if you should consider an alternate academic route like research.

Finding the answers to these questions should help to guide you as you make your way into teaching, ensuring that you're teaching the subject that you have the most passion for and have the most to teach students about. 

Teachers Who Made the Change 

A career change is a pretty big deal, and some may be left feeling a bit confused and alone during the process, and perhaps even doubting their choice to make the change in the first place. While not always easy, making the move from another career into teaching can not only be done, it can an incredibly rewarding new path to go down. And as luck would have it, there are plenty who have gone before you who can offer their guidance and feedback on the process.

Jerald Podair spent a decade practicing law in New York City before deciding to make a major career change. He had always wanted to teach American history but, put off by a dwindling job market in the 1970s for academic historians, he took the more practical route and went to law school. He says, "Even as I earned a comfortable living as an attorney, I felt unfulfilled. My real passion was history. And everyone at my law firm knew it. One day, a colleague blurted out, 'Jerry, why don’t you go to graduate school and get it over with?'" That was just the push Podair needed. He quit his job and enrolled in the history PhD program at Princeton.

Making the change from a career in law to one in academia wasn't easy, as it rarely is for those taking the leap into something new in their 30s. While getting his degree, Podair was taking heavy loads of courses, reading multiple history books every week, and working as a teaching assistant, leaving little time for leisure. That hard work wasn't without its rewards, however. "Every minute was worth it. I now have the best job in the world – I teach and write about American history here at Lawrence University, and every day I marvel that I actually get paid for doing it."

For those hesitant to take on the challenge, Podair urges them to follow the words of Thoreau and "live the life you've imagined," even though there will be some sacrifices and major lifestyle changes. Despite the hard work, Podair wouldn't change his career path now for anything. "The saddest word in the English language is 'regret.' Teachers rarely have to use it."

Not everyone who decides to become a teacher as a second career ends up working in higher education, however. There are countless professionals who leave their positions in industry and business to work in classrooms at the high school, middle school, and elementary levels. With many communities in desperate need of professionals in areas like math, technology, science, and special education, this can be an incredibly rewarding way to give back and get into the classroom. 

After getting an MFA in printmaking and an MS in graphic design, Robert Sabo starting working as a graphic designer for a mortgage company in Chicago. After a few years on the job, however, he started thinking that the career just wasn't the right one for him and decided to make the switch into teaching, something he had always considered doing that had fallen to the side in favor of a career in art.

While he didn't have to earn a PhD to get into teaching, instead getting a master's degree in special education through a certification program,  even at the K-12 level the path to switching careers wasn't easy. "I worked full time while attending school, then went to class for three hours, and spent most weekends doing homework," he says. "It was truly a grind, and I asked myself many times if it was worth it."

Luckily, the answer was and still is "yes." "Teaching took me from having a job to having a career. I used to gloss over telling people what I did for a living, but now I'll talk about it as long as anyone is willing to listen," Sabo says. "I love that my career offers me the opportunity to change lives forever."

For those considering making their own move into teaching, Sabo says it shouldn't be for the job perks (like summers off or a work day that ends at 3 p.m..) but because you are truly passionate about teaching, making a difference, and being in the classroom. For teachers, the workday never really ends, anyway. "If you're a committed teacher, you've never really satisfied with what you've done previously because you know there is always room for improvement. Even when you're not at work you're constantly looking for materials for your classroom and reading books to teach you new teaching methods," he says. "Even though it can be overwhelming at times to have a group of students depending on you to learn each year, when the day is done and I go home, I am always glad I decided to become a teacher." 

While it isn't easy to become a teacher after spending years in another profession, there's a reason that two thirds of teachers are "delayed entrants" into the profession, coming into the classroom sometimes years after graduation from their undergraduate programs. While teaching may not hold the prestige of a job in business, technology, or law, the reward for a job well done in the classroom is changing student lives for the better and helping the next generation get off to a great start in life. That's something no amount of money or success can buy. For those who've always wanted to try their hand at teaching, there's no better time than now to get started on a second career that could just be the fulfilling and challenging kind of work you've been looking for since you entered the working world. 

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