HOW PLAYING TO YOUR STRENGTHS CAN HELP YOU LEAVE TEACHING

(This is part III of a five-part series. Readparts I and II.)

My friend Chad Robertson was an English teacher at the last school I taught at. He’s a rare blend of skateboarder, writer, teacher, and truth-teller.

In an industry filled with empty jargon and pointless acronyms, Chad always had (and still has) a penchant for cutting straight to the chase. Naturally, this is chaffing to some. I always find it refreshing. That being said, strong opinions lay ahead. You’ve been warned.

One of the first things Chad said to me when we first met, was “I don’t give a damn about kids. I care about teachers.”

Let me unpack that comment for you a little, before you stop reading. Of course, Chad cared about kids. He pushed them hard every day and they loved his classes. But what he’s talking about is the lack of teachers who are willing to stand up for each other and get beat down by a system that often pits them against one another. A bold statement for sure, but it’s a testament to the kind of guy he is. And the kind of work he does now.

Not only is Chad’s story a great example of putting your skills and passions to good use beyond the classroom, it’s also a refreshing take on the importance of listening to your deeper instincts.

It’s Not Teaching; It’s the System

Kids loved Chad, loved his classes, and loved his no-nonsense attitude. They read classics paired with graphic novels and took trips to local art museums as a way to analyze literature through different mediums. Chad liked being a teacher and he brought a raw truthfulness to the classroom many never get a chance to see.

But like so many, Chad grew frustrated with the system. Naturally, his take is a little different than the more common gripes you’ll hear about union busting and teacher tenure, low pay and long days.

“I was tired of being around people who are full of shit.”

He’s talking, of course, about people who claim to care for kids but served themselves first. He often felt like he was jumping through hoops to make others look good.

“I never had anyone hate me and I was never taken advantage of. To me, those are the marks of a good teacher.”

Follow Your Instincts

When Chad was fresh out of high school, he got a job driving a forklift. His gut told him to go to college. So he did. When he was 24, it told him to get married. So he did. When it told him to get divorced and move to Japan, he did that too. Every tattoo, every job, skateboarding…all of it was in response to his gut. Eventually, moving to Colorado felt right, too.

But becoming a teacher? “Teaching was the first time in my life I didn’t follow my gut. It felt wrong but I did it anyway.”

So why would a guy who seeming knew himself well enough to follow his gut more often than not do the one thing that didn’t feel right?

Because a guidance counselor once told him to do what he loved, what he was passionate about. Chad loved art, skateboarding, reading, and writing, so the most natural answer for him was to get an English degree and become a teacher. (Plus, his fellowship schedule allowed him to skate.)

Finding the Black and White

Chad notes teachers’ tendency to live in the gray.

“[Teachers] don’t know where they exist. They’re not sure why they do what they do.” He points to the mixed messages of people telling you to follow your passions and do what you love, but find something steady and reliable.

“Ask [teachers] why they like teaching and they say things like, ‘I’m a role model. I get good exercise by coaching. I get summers off. I love kids.’ A lot of [teachers] can’t stop talking in the first person. That’s a problem. Everyone says they love kids; it’s not enough. Don’t say you do it for your love of kids and then only talk about yourself. That’s about your ego. And it’s not effective for kids.”

Chad says he often felt a moral obligation to help “carry the load.” The longer he taught, the more responsibility he felt toward jumping through hoops and being told to do things that served administrators, not the kids in his classroom.

Shunning the outside moral obligation of “carrying the load,” Chad began to question what he valued. “I weighed my options and I realized I had gotten into the gray. Most of what I was doing was for other people.”

One day, a close friend mentioned to him that he was miserable, snapping him out of the cycle he found himself in. As he began to examine what he valued most in his career and compare it to what others valued, he started to move out of the gray and into the black and white.

“I realized my value was with adults. I could only make so much of an impact and that wasn’t going to be in teaching.”

At the completion of his eighth year of teaching, Chad was done carrying the load.

Play to Your Strengths

Chad quit teaching without knowing what was next. But he wasn’t worried.

He began writing as a freelancer while he interviewed for other jobs. The writing wasn’t fulfilling, but it helped him pay the bills why he looked for jobs in the nonprofit sector.

“I just played to my strengths. I know money won’t make me happy. I wanted to work to improve people’s access to opportunity, so I went after nonprofits.”

Eventually, he got his foot in the door at an organization through the help of a friend.

He had the competence and empathy he needed. He also knew he could learn the skills they were looking for. He played up his role in developing relationships with kids, getting results for administrators, and how to tailor his messaging to different parents.

“I told them, ‘I have the best soft skills of anyone you’ll interview. You might not think you’re looking for a mature adult, but a young kid won’t pick up these skills like I will. You can’t teach empathy.”

He got the job.

Lean into Your “Failures”

“In a lot of ways, it’s an old system that can’t keep up. They rely on me to bring a new perspective. And I do.”

A year ago, Chad was a Project Administrator. Today, he’s a Project Coordinator, connecting those in need with private philanthropic funds, giving others opportunities many desperately need.

When asked what advice he’d give a teacher looking to leave the classroom, Chad says, “You have to know exactly what you’re getting into. It’s not easy.”

As an example, he points to an early “failure” in his new career.

“I set huge goals when I started. By the time my deadlines came around, I didn’t even come close [to hitting them].”

He finally got a dose of the accountability he loves when he had to account for his shortcomings.

“I showed them exactly how I failed. My goals were too big. I asked for too much. People don’t want ‘way different.’ They need smaller changes to adjust. That was good lesson for me, but it proved my drive and my optimism.”

The result? He wasn’t fired, like he feared might happen. Instead, his bosses appreciated his effort, his lofty goals, and the event he managed to pull off despite being well below his projected numbers. In short, they were impressed.

The work ethic, the relationship building, the accountability and brutal honesty…all of those classroom skills were highly valuable in building donor/donee relationships. And his bosses noticed.

Today, he’s making twice as much as he ever made as a teacher, getting a 9.2% bonus and 14% pay increase his first year, nearly doubling the organization’s standard for both.

Chad’s gut feels right again. He’s devoting time to his greatest strengths and he’s happier than ever.

“So many people look at leaving teaching as a failure. It’s not. All of it is the lead up to something better.”

Have something to say about Chad’s story? Feel free to leave a response below. Or head over to Shift to get yourself unstuck.

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