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Making a Career Change in Education
Whether it’s changing grade levels, switching schools, or leaving teaching—what a move might mean for you.
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
Jennifer Burgin was surprised when her principal asked her to move from second grade to kindergarten. She had been selected teacher of the year 12 months earlier, in the Arlington, Virginia, school district, and was adored by her students. She took the leap after her principal said she thought Burgin would create the kind of welcoming environment crucial for kindergarten, when most children encounter school for the first time. One of Burgin’s worries was that she’d have to give up student-directed instruction. “On that first day of school, they looked like babies,” she recalls. “At first, I felt I needed to control a lot. But then, I realized they are capable of problem solving and independence.” Today, Burgin is glad she took her principal’s advice, and she is excelling in her new role.
Matt McCullough made an even bigger change, going from teaching middle and high school into administration. “It was a matter of wanting to make a jump to help more students. I knew that 120 kids a day were learning in an equitable environment in my classroom, but I thought I could help even more of them if I moved into administration,” says McCullough, who now coaches K–12 teachers as the director of Innovation in Teaching and Learning in the Schoolcraft Community School District, just south of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Change comes in all forms. Some teachers happily stay in their classroom for years, finding inspiration and ways to lead from there. Others make a change at some point. They might switch grades, transfer schools, or take an administrative role. Angela Watson, an author and motivational speaker who taught in Maryland and Florida, offers this advice: “When you’re having more bad days than good, or getting really restless, trust your intuition. Look for ways to switch things up and try something new in your current teaching position, and consider a more drastic change if that’s not effective.”
Change Grade Levels
C. J. Bextel, who teaches at Meadowlark Elementary in Andover, Kansas, moved to second grade after teaching fourth grade for a decade. “I was kind of in a rut. I knew the standards, and I knew the projects I needed to do, and we came up with new ideas. But I felt it was time to try something different,” Bextel says. “This allowed me to reset, to learn something new, and to be in a position where I am asking the questions to learn new stuff versus people coming to me for answers.”
Jeffrey M. Young, professor of Practice in Education Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City, says it’s good for children to see teachers try something new: “We ask kids to make a change every year, and this turns out to be an interesting way of modeling for young people the kind of vulnerability associated with learning.”
Research on the impact of teacher transitions is limited. One study on teacher reassignments in New York City found that having a teacher who had moved to a different role within a school had a modest negative impact on student achievement. However, the authors noted that the data didn’t allow them to differentiate among decisions made strategically by principals to optimize teacher strengths; changes made to meet teacher-driven requests; or reassignments to deal with declining enrollment, retirements, etc. The researchers suggested further studies could yield more nuanced information around the impact of teacher moves, and the type of moves that might be beneficial.
Jewel Sanders, principal of Rosa M. Parks Middle School in Olney, Maryland, sees a big difference between moving a teacher without any input from her or him and thoughtfully working through a change. During her own teaching years, she had to move from ninth to eighth grade without notice or discussion; as a principal, she takes a different approach: “Making a decision about where to place a teacher needs to be collaborative.”
Sanders also notes there are times when principals should have honest conversations with teachers about a change, particularly when their practice seems stagnant or their style would work best in another grade. But dialogue is essential. She also advises teachers to be open-minded when trusted supervisors suggest a move.
Follow Your Kids
Looking for a change while still holding on to some familiarity? Looping with your students to the next grade could be an interesting option. You’d need to learn the new standards and curriculum, but you won’t have to get to know a new group of children. “If the kids are the constant, you are more likely to be tailoring things to their interests and needs. You know those kids well,” says Justin Minkel, a second-grade teacher at Jones Elementary School in Springdale, Arkansas, who has looped with his students.
Looping can also foster close relationships with families. One of Minkel’s students told him during their first year together that her mother didn’t feel comfortable coming to parent–teacher conferences. Minkel fostered a dialogue with the family and learned that the mother, an immigrant from Mexico, had difficult school years herself: “For this woman, school was not a happy place. But over time, we built up trust, and with that trust, she is now more likely to connect.”
Research shows looping can be beneficial. A 2018 study by researchers at Montana State University and the University of South Carolina found looping improves academic achievement, particularly for minorities. On the flip side, students can get attached to one teacher, making an eventual separation harder. And a teaching and learning style might not be a great fit over consecutive years. If you think looping would benefit you and your students, weigh the pros and cons, and talk with your principal and peers about how the change would work at your school.
Exit the Building
After 14 years in one New Jersey district, third-grade teacher Michael Dunlea moved to a new district in Tabernacle, New Jersey, in the fall of 2017. His seniority didn’t transfer, and Dunlea says he’s in a less stable position now. But he doesn’t regret the move, having found a district that shares his priorities and approach to instruction. He also predicts he’ll be more open to new opportunities in the future. “I’m up for change now. Once you’ve disrupted things, it’s so much easier to do it again,” he says.
Art teacher Miriam Cutelis moved to Claremont Immersion Elementary School, in Arlington, Virginia, after working in a nearby district. A Spanish speaker, she found the idea of trying bilingual education appealing. In addition, her previous school was overcrowded, and the administration was planning to move her art room into a portable classroom without running water, which Cutelis felt would limit what she could do with students. She advises teachers thinking of moving schools to visit first. “It’s a feeling you get when you walk into and around a school,” she says. “The atmosphere is so important.”
Look Into Leading
Many school and district administrators begin their careers as teachers, so moving into a leadership role can be a natural progression. Jaime Festa-Daigle is now in charge of personnel and technology in the Lake Havasu school district in western Arizona. She taught middle and high school before moving into administration, and had declined earlier opportunities to move until she felt that she had given all she could in her teaching positions. After leaving the classroom, Festa-Daigle first became an assistant principal, which allowed her to get to know a broader set of students. “The most important thing I kept from being a teacher that I brought to being a leader was the idea that you have to cultivate relationships. It’s all about the relationships,” she says.
Shenora Plenty, principal of Wheatley Education Campus, a K–8 school in Washington, D.C., encourages teachers to first test out their leadership skills by serving on committees, leading professional learning, and finding other ways to contribute to the school community outside the classroom. Teachers interested in a change should also talk to their principals. “All of it takes a lot of vulnerability,” she acknowledges.
Lead From Within
Growth can also come without making a drastic change. LeAnna Wolkis, a kindergarten teacher at Fireside Elementary School in Phoenix, has been teaching in that grade for 28 years, both at her current and previous schools. “Kindergarten is my life,” says Wolkis. But you would never say she’s coasting, or that her practice is stagnant. She has National Board Certification, coaches others, helped open her school, and has participated in adopting new curricula. She also attends and speaks at conferences regularly. “I just love sharing what I’m doing in kindergarten,” she says.
“I don’t think we need to define what leadership looks like. It takes on so many different forms,” says Nancy Routson, who recently moved from teaching middle-school special education to become the teacher evaluation specialist for Arlington public schools. She supports teachers trying to get National Board Certification, which she says is a great way for them to renew their practice while staying put.
The principal who tapped Jennifer Burgin for kindergarten, Lynne Wright, says some change is inherent in teaching, even without a move. “Every year, you’re going to have different children with different needs and different stories and different backgrounds.”
Photo: Jan Von Holleben/Trunk Archive