Teaching isn’t just for education majors. If you’re graduating with an emphasis in any subject taught in elementary or high schools, a teaching position can broaden your career options while giving you a chance to pass on your passion to others. Still, teaching isn’t for everyone, and it takes a somewhat different set of skills than those needed for survival in the corporate world. It may take some time for you to know for certain whether you’re cut out to be a teacher – but keeping an eye out for green lights (and red ones) can help keep you pointed in the direction you want to go. So here, two education experts share the questions they’ve learned to ask prospective teachers after years of firsthand teaching experience.
Do you enjoy explaining things to people you don’t know well?
That’s what most of teaching comes down to: Parsing your advanced knowledge into words and ideas a child can understand, then making sure that a roomful of relative strangers soak up that knowledge and hold onto it for a whole semester – ideally even longer. This takes far more than just knowledge – it takes a genuine desire to help others understand your area of expertise.
“I’ve run across hundreds and hundreds of people who thought that because they knew their subjects front to back, that they could teach those subjects,” says Bob Kizlik, a retired college professor who runs the education resource website Adprima.com. “But there’s a big difference between knowing and teaching. To teach well, you need that wonderful combination of knowledge of the content and the ability to communicate your knowledge to others in a way that motivates them to learn.”
You don’t have to be a fiery speaker or a poet laureate to teach effectively, but passion and adaptability are both crucial for success. You’ll need a love for your subject that’ll keep you motivated to explain it to others day after day – and you’ll need an intuitive understanding of the topic, so you can answer oddball questions without creating awkward silences in the classroom.
One way to get a feel for this is to pay attention to your behavior in ordinary social situations. When someone has trouble understanding what you’re explaining, do you enjoy the process of walking that person through the details – or does the knowledge gap leave you feeling a little irritated? If you’re more like the former, you’re already a teacher at heart.
Do you like working around elementary or high school kids?
To state the obvious, being a teacher means spending about eight hours of every weekday surrounded by them, and several hours of your nights looking over their homework. If kids energize you and fire up your passion for sharing your knowledge, you’re probably cut out to teach – but if school’s an exhausting environment for you, you may find yourself tapped out long before the semester’s end.
If you like explaining ideas but aren’t quite sure how you’ll interact with a roomful of kids, another option is to try substitute-teaching for a semester and see how you and the school get along. “Sometimes just a bachelor’s degree is enough to get you a substitute position in a school system,” Kizlik says, “so you and the school administrators can find out if you actually want to be a teacher.”
Positions like these may even transform into permanent jobs if all goes well – and even if it doesn’t work out with one particular school, “developing a relationship with the school’s principal can boost your chances of securing a position at another school,” says Derek Jack, assistant director of career services at UtahStateUniversity. “A letter of recommendation is highly regarded by school administrators, and a letter from a principal often makes a significant positive impact on their view of you.”
What unique skills and angles can you bring to a teaching position?
Getting certified to teach will take some time and effort; same goes for finding a permanent job as a teacher. The experts agree that if you want a long-term teaching position, you’d better be prepared to fight for it. “You need to have what I call ‘hard bark’ – a thick skin,” Kizlik says. “You’ve got to know how to take criticism from students and administrators, and you’ve got to be detail-oriented. You can’t fly by the seat of your pants.”
Your teaching certification attempt will be the first test of your detail-orientedness. “Every state has very specific criteria for teaching certification,” Jack explains. “Each state has an examination that measures your level of credibility, and passing that exam is the only way to get licensed.”
While it’s true that some states greased the wheels of their certification processes during the first few years of the recession – especially for degreed experts willing to teach – today’s standards are stricter. “Occasionally we’ll still have a math teacher shortage, and an engineer can step in and fill that role, and usually the school district gives them an opportunity,” Jack says. “But most schools would prefer to hire someone with a traditional teaching certification.”
Still, you may be able to stack the deck in your favor by picking up some practical job skills. “ESL (English as a second language) is highly sought-after in a lot of schools right now,” Jack says. “And teachers who specialize in math, science and special ed. always seem to be in demand.” If you’ve got some useful skills like these, use your resumé as a canvas to emphasize your unique spin on the material you want to teach – to share the accomplishments and skills that make you uniquely well-suited for the job.
Teaching tends to be a polarizing career: Those who love it often find that jobs and accolades come their way naturally – while those who can barely tolerate it may find themselves wondering how they ever got into such a mess. The only way to find out where you fall on that spectrum is to ask yourself how you feel about it – and listen to what your intuition tells you.
Posted by Ben Thomas who writes about careers in teaching, among other job fields, for the Riley Guide.
NOTE: This post was written by a guest blogger and the content for the post approved by Oregon State University Career Services. We are not responsible for the content of the websites linked in the post.