Considering a Career Change: Thoughts on Becoming a Teacher

By , April 19, 2003

PLEASE NOTE: This is the first of two articles; in the second article, I describe why I chose NOT to become a teacher.

(Updated April 19, 2003; original version posted June 2002, plus several intervening revisions and updates)

I have decided that I definitely want to become a secondary-school English teacher (that is, I intend to teach English or Language Arts in high school or middle school).

In the first 20 years of my adult life before this, I’ve had three “real” careers: journalist, attorney, internet marketing consultant.

Why teaching? It was actually a surprisingly easy discovery. Once I decided that it was time to stop working as an internet marketing consultant (after the dot-bomb collapse), I spent some time thinking about what I most enjoy doing. I did enjoy many aspects of the practice of law, and of being a journalist. But when I thought about the days I was happiest, I realized that they all involved “teaching.”


For a decade, I’ve enjoyed being a “guest speaker” in local schools, including talking about my career on “career day” and spending presenting the “Choices” program in local schools. I also enjoyed speaking (to adults) at internet marketing conferences, and organizing two small conferences myself. And as an attorney, I enjoyed speaking to groups of people about estate planning, including many times as a guest speaker before civic groups, volunteer groups, and senior citizens. I also conducted my own monthly seminars on estate planning (using a large conference room in my office), and I also taught an “adult education” enrichment class twice a year about estate planning.

As I reflected, I realized that much of what I most enjoyed about the practice of law and my work as an internet consultant, was actually “teaching.” I decided that it would be worth spending some time exploring teaching as a career.

Doing My Homework: Before making a decision, I knew I needed to learn a lot more about teaching. Of course, I talked to many teachers, from elementary to college, and I want to speak to many more. I need to talk to more people I don’t yet know.

I also knew I’d have to read a lot. Over the past year, I’ve read:dozens of books about teaching (and specifically about teaching English / Language Arts); plus many dozens of “young adult fiction” books, often at a pace of one or two books per day; plus many works of “classic literature”; plus texts on literary criticism, linguistics, and other topics needed to review for the CSET-English exam (required to teach English in California).

Substitute Teaching: I also knew that before I could decide if teaching is really a career possibility, I’d need to spend time “alone” in classrooms with adolescents. My visits as a “guest speaker” were usually under ideal circumstances, and it’s been nearly 25 years since I was a student in high school. And so I decided to become a “substitute teacher” in my local school district.

My first day as a substitute teacher was September 25. I have enjoyed nearly every minute — even the most challenging and frustrating classes and students.

On my second day in the classroom, a student came up and told me, “You’re smiling all the time.” At that moment, I realized that I really was smiling, inside and out. I’ve made the same observation myself on many days since then. I feel great when I’m working in the classroom. I’m continuing to enjoy this as much as any work I’ve ever done in my life.

Shadowing a Teacher: In January and February, I augmented my experience as a substitute teacher by spending many days “shadowing” an experienced classroom teacher. By observing this teacher and her students over a period of several weeks, I learned much more than I could from isolated experiences as a substitute teacher. The teacher also allowed me to grade an entire class section of student research papers, helping me explore my earlier concerns about grading student work.

Full-Time Sub: Then, in March, the teacher I was “shadowing” was stricken with a medical emergency requiring surgery, and I was asked to fill in as the full-time substitute during her absence. This was an extraordinary opportunity for me, as I worked full-time in this classroom for three weeks, and then half-days for a fourth week. I actually had to adapt and implement lesson plans (drawing from the teacher’s files, accumulated over 14 years in this classroom and 29 years of teaching), and I had to deal with parent communications, student discipline, and grade disputes. Of course, the emergency surgery and recovery was an awful experience for the regular classroom teacher, who generously advised me by email and telephone, and who also graded several major student projects while at home.

My Decision: I Want to Teach. I have applied for admission to a “teacher credential” program, starting next June.

But I still have some concerns and fears.

  • First and foremost, this is really hard work. Not only do teachers work long hours (counting both in-school time teaching, plus time spent planning, grading, and keeping records), but they must be “always on” while they are in the classroom. I’m not suggesting that working as a journalist, attorney or consultant isn’t hard work — in each career, I have spent a lot of time (sometimes 60, 70, or even 80 hours per week), a lot of mental energy, and essentially “invested my soul” in my work. But apart from relatively short spurts while covering major news events or trade shows, preparing for a court hearing, or rushing to meet a deadline for an e-commerce company, I haven’t faced the kind of steady, intense work that teachers do every single day. Nor have I often dealt than a handful of “direct contacts” during a single day or week. Indeed, I have rarely had to actually “engage” more than twenty people in any single day — perhaps just a dozen times in the past 20 years. Teachers must “engage” 120 to 180 students every day!
  • Next, there are the unique challenges of being a teacher within a system (school and district). For the past nine years, I have been self-employed, completely responsible for setting my work hours, practices, and activities. Of course, I’ve answered to other people (clients, judges, editors, and readers), just as a teacher “answers” to administrators, parents, and students. But ever since I quit my last law-firm job in May 1993, I’ve always been able to choose the work I do, and I’ve always been able to say “no” to the demands of others. But teaching will mean fitting into the rigid structure of a school bureaucracy.I’m also a very vocal guy, at times, especially when I see an issue that sparks my interest. I’ve often disagreed with clients and colleagues. Indeed, some of my clients hired me as a consultant because I am willing to say things that no employee would dare say. That’s a hard habit to break, and I’m not at all sure that I’d want to break that habit — but it could cause friction.
  • Of course, there is the challenge of teaching, period. I’ve read several books chronicling life in the classroom, including the unique challenges of teaching in the inner city (see the list, below). While neither I nor most of my students would likely face the kind of obstacles that are described in some of those books, teaching kids is a huge responsibility. I’d have to learn some new skills — and learn to accept limitations and ‘failures.’ In some very significant ways, teaching is a very different kind of work, and the classroom is a very different work environment, than I’ve ever encountered before.
  • When I started this process, I was concerned about whether I could actually become “qualified” to teach secondary English, because I wasn’t an English major in college. I was a journalism major, and thus I don’t have the kind of in-depth formal “English Literature” education that most English teachers have. Fortunately, I love writing and reading, prose and poetry, critical thinking, the process of learning and discovering from literature and poetry, and all the other things that I think matter most in an English classroom. But after working for seven months as a substitute teacher in dozens of different classrooms, and especially after spending four weeks in a single classroom, I am much more confident that I can do this. (I took the “California Subject Examination for Teachers” (CSET-English) in January 2003, and on April 19 I learned I had passed all four parts of the exam! 🙂
  • When I started this process, I was also reluctant to pursue the common “entry path” for many teachers, which was to accept a full-time position as a teacher under an “emergency credential,” thus teaching before receiving any meaningful training as a teacher. While I grew more comfortable with this possibility, the current recessionary economy has brought many credentialed teachers back into the profession, thus eliminating these “internship” opportunities in most districts.The alternative is to do “student teaching” while enrolled in the teacher-preparation college program, which I would surely find more comfortable. (However, the stock market has shrunk my financial “buffer” to the point where I may not actually be able to survive for the next 18 months without an income.)
  • Next: I was initially reluctant to “go back to being a student,” after earning both a B.A. and a J.D. I’ve “gone back” before: I worked for 3 years full-time as a reporter before returning to law school, but I finished law school 13 years ago. I think I’ve overcome this worry, and (assuming I am accepted) I don’t expect the teaching-credential course work to be terribly difficult, and of course I want to learn how to teach effectively and deal with issues that will arise in the classroom.
  • More hesitation comes from thinking about grading. I’ve always been somewhat resistant and rebellious about grades — not that I got poor grades, but I’ve felt that my grades rarely reflected the actual level of learning or knowledge. (That’s good, since the goal of education is to learn, not to get good grades, and I always saw learning as the real goal.) But school is, inevitably, about grades, and I’m really not very happy about the idea of assigning grades, nor about the huge amount of work involved in grading student work.
  • A related issue of concern, is the frequency with which I hear complaints that teachers must spend classroom time “teaching to a test,” in order to prepare students for state exams. This often means reducing genuine education time in order to meet ill-conceived bureaucratic goals.
  • I’m also worried about the enormous “load ” and the potential for a “triage mentality.” While I’ve read a number of “year-in-the-classroom” books, I’ve never read one that chronicles all the teacher’s work — generally the focus is on a handful of students, or a single classroom period, not the five or six classes of 30-35 students that each teacher must conduct. How the heck can I learn the names of 150 students, much less actually know them and provide each with adequate attention? Apart from the raw “work” involved, and the energy level to maintain my own focus and attention during every class each day, I wonder how well I can serve those students whose needs are different.
  • Ultimately, I keep coming back to the notion that I might not “survive ” in the classroom environment that I’d enter. I fear that I might develop the knowledge and skill to teach well, but then I might find that I am unwilling to accept the work that’s out there, because I might not be willing to do less than my best work, or accept more than the most workload I think I can properly complete.
  • Of course, this brings me around to another key issue: money . An entry-level teaching position would pay about $40,000, with no potential to ever earn as much as I could make doing the same “amount” of work as a consultant or attorney, or even as a journalist. And yet, apart from the depletion of my financial “buffer” while I complete the credential program, I don’t see money as a big issue. I don’t have a lot of money, but neither do I spend that much. I decided more than a decade ago that I simply would not let money dictate my work or my interests. In the end, the question isn’t whether I can accept the salary of a teacher: it’s whether I can accept the life of a teacher: the work, the schedule, the structure. Is this what I really want, and will it be what I expect?

I want to become a teacher.

If you have any advice, comments, ideas, directions, or criticisms, please write to me at MarkWelch@MarkWelch.com

by Mark J. Welch (updated and rewritten April 12, 2003; originally written in June 2002)


PLEASE NOTE: There is a second article in which I describe why I chose NOT to become a teacher.


Some of the Books I’ve Read (April 2002 to April 2003): During the past several months, I’ve talked to some teachers (not nearly enough), and I’ve been following several of the discussion lists of the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English), and I’ve been reading:

Year-in-the-classroom books (finished):

  • And Still We Rise (Miles Corwin) [Los Angeles] excellent
  • Educating Esmi (Emse Raji Codell) hmmm
  • Teaching Stories (Judy Logan) [San Francisco] very good
  • Holler If You Hear Me (Greg Michie) [Chicago] quite good
  • Will My Name Be Shouted Out: Reaching Inner City Students Through thePower of Writing (Stephen O’Connor) [New York City] pretty good
  • Class Dismissed: A Year in the Life of an American High School… by Meredith Maran [Berkeley, CA]
  • My First Year As A Teacher (Peal Rock Kane, ed.) light reading
  • I Expected to Be Fired (Jen Southworth) awfulPerspectives on Education (finished):
  • The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” (Alfie Kohn) excellent
  • Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls (Myra & David Sadler) excellent
  • Teaching (finished):
  • Time for Meaning: Crafting Literate Lives in Middle and High School (Randy Bomer) great
  • Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom (Lisa Delpit) excellent
  • Crossing the Mainstream: Multicultural Perspectives in Teaching Literature (Eileen Iscoff Oliver) great
  • I Read It, But I Don’t Get It (Cris Tovani) very good (and the full text is online!)
  • Urban Teaching: The Essentials (Lois Weiner) okay
  • Lifers: Learning from At-Risk Adolescent Readers (Pamela N. Mueller) good
  • In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning by Nancie Atwell very good
  • Seeking Diversity: Language Arts With Adolescents by Linda Rief quite good
  • It’s Never Too Late: Leading Adolescents to Lifelong Literacy by Janet Allen, Tom Romano good
  • Radical Equations (Robert Moses) interesting ideas, poorly expressed
  • Winning Year One: A Survival Guide for First Year Teachers by Carol Fuery okay

Started, but not yet finished:

  • Reflection in the Writing Classroom Kathleen Blake Yancey (on order)
  • To Teach (William Ayers) hmmm
  • What’s Going On (1982, D’Arcy & Kealy, editors) fascinating!
  • The First Days of School (Wong & Wong) some good, some bad
  • Tools for Teaching (Fred Jones) some good, some bad
  • Teaching With Love and Logic (Fay & Funk) some good, some bad
  • A Mind at a Time (Mel Levine) interesting, sometimes repetetive & long-winded
  • The Elements of Teaching (Banner & Cannon)
  • The Disciplined Mind (Howard Gardner) yawn
  • Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educational Underprepared by Mike Rose
  • Image Grammar : Using Grammatical Structures to Teach Writing by Harry R. Noden
  • Illuminating Texts: How to Teach Students to Read the World by Jim Burke
  • Mosaic of Thought by Keane and Zimmerman
  • Reading Reminders: Tools, Tips, and Techniques by Jim Burke
  • And many more !

As noted above, I’ve also read at least 100 “young adult” titles. (I’m compiling a “reading workshop” book list, currently posted at http://www.MarkWelch.com/workshop.htm and http://www.MarkWelch.com/workshop.xls – the latter file, in Microsoft Excel format, is smaller and more useful.)

And over this year, I’ve also read many works of “classic literature,” including novels, plays, poetry, and literary criticism.

If you have any advice, comments, ideas, directions, or criticisms, please write to me at MarkWelch@MarkWelch.com

4 Responses to “Considering a Career Change: Thoughts on Becoming a Teacher”

  1. Blah says:

    I have been a history teacher for 8 years. If you like your very life force being drained from you on a daily basis, go for teaching. I plan on going back to law school.

  2. Megan says:

    Hi Mark,

    I just stumbled on this entry as I’m beginning to consider a career in teaching, (and move away from the corporate graphic design/marketing world). It sounds like you had a lot of the same questions, fears, and reservations that I feel now. I’m curious as to how things have been working out for you? Was teaching all you thought it would be? Did your original goal of becoming a secondary-educations English teacher evolve at all?

    Thanks,
    Megan

  3. Suzi says:

    Hi Megan,

    I’m also considering a career change from the corporate marketing world to teaching. Did you end up pursuing a teaching career? 🙂

    Warmly,
    Suzi

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