A Nontraditional Success Story Close to Home

Guess what? It’s the morning golden hour and I’m drinking coffee. Coffee should be a theme of these posts. It’s the middle of December, just a few days to Christmas, and I’m forcing myself to slow down and get into the mindset of the holidays. This winter is quite special. Gabby, my wife, graduated college.

Gabby’s collegiate efforts first began at the University of Pittsburgh where she struggled with all the things that students often struggle with. After dropping and failing classes through her first three semesters, she decided to take a break and move across the country. She worked in the coffee industry for four years where she was a barista at some of Austin’s most well known spots. I worked in coffee for a brief period, too—that’s how we met.

A year after we began dating, Gabby decided to take her first class at Austin Community College. She slowly ramped up her workload. 3 hours in the Summer of 2015, 6 hours Fall 2015, 9 hours Spring 2016, 6 hours Summer 2016. Gabby transferred to Texas State University in Fall 2016 and took another 12 hours that semester. She averaged 33 hours per year at Texas State for 2017 and 2018. We even got married in the spring of 2017 while she was working part time as a writer. Throughout this process she had multiple internships, freelancing gigs, and picked up shifts at our friend’s coffee shop. No step of this was easy or effortless, but she made it seem so.

This winter, Gabby graduated from Texas State University with a B.S. in Mass Communications & Public Relations, Summa Cum Laude. This morning we sat down over a cup of coffee, and I asked her to reflect on her unique higher education experience.

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What was the main reason college was hard the first time?

It was two things. First, I lacked preparedness. Going to college requires a lot of skills. I was definitely smart. That isn’t the issue. I lacked the personal and work ethic skills that it takes to excel in college. Being out of school for so long and taking the path of getting back into it gradually taught me a lot of the skills that I lacked. It allowed me to explore how I can be successful. The second thing is that I don’t think I was studying the right subjects. Originally, my major at University of Pittsburgh was English Writing. I still love writing and it’s a huge part of who I am. I’m grateful for those classes—they were even some of the courses I did really well in. But those classes lacked the professional development that I needed. I think I could have been a writing major at Texas State and done fine, but after being out of school for a few years, I realized I needed something more connected to a professional track. When I was in college the first time, I had little concept of what was next. I also had little foresight about my own future, which probably connects to a maturity issue at the time. But taking a step back from school to allow myself to grow outside of an academic setting allowed me to prepare myself for reentry to an academic setting. Confidence was key. The first time I went to college, I lacked confidence to the point that if I thought about raising my hand to share a correct answer, my hands would shake and I wouldn’t raise my hand. It was really frustrating and discouraging. I would get low participation scores even though I felt engaged. I definitely had imposter syndrome and it was easier to skip classes and avoid confronting the issues.

What would you say was the initial challenge of going back to school as an adult?

Definitely regaining my confidence. When I was in school the first time, I knew I was capable, but lacked the confidence to forge ahead, make mistakes, and accept the things that come with learning. There is a lot of humility that students need to have. I am admittedly a perfectionist and that enabled me to finally graduate with a 4.0, but I had to be open to making mistakes along the way. Being humble in a learning environment helped me with that transition.

What is a challenge of being a full-time, nontraditional adult student?

There were so many bureaucratic hurdles I had to jump to even get into Texas State. This is why schools oriented around access for transfer students are so valuable. When I first started classes, I was enthusiastic, engaged, had a home, two dogs, and had a part time job. I had a lot going on that many traditional students don’t have yet. The challenge of juggling those challenges with being a full time student made me even more motivated. It made every win more meaningful. I’m fighting for something now. Having the support of Texas State really helped me in my journey.

What was something that Texas State did for you to help you finish?

The path from advising to instruction to being able to track my path to graduation helped me because I thrive in environments that are consistent and cohesive. I know Texas State works really hard to make sure students have access to advisors and can see the same one every time they go. The faculty in the SJMC program also worked to build lasting relationships so they could help you with your career outside of the classroom. The program I graduated from was a special one and I think it has the respect of the entire university for what it does.

What do you think would have made you successful when you attended college the “first time”?

That’s hard to say. I think it would have been better for me to not have gone the first time. Now I have student loans for something that went nowhere. I went to a great university to start and I wasn’t ready to accept the fact that I simply wasn’t prepared. I don’t think I was even ready to accept it until I went back the second time. It’s a hard thing to accept. I think the definition of college readiness is very abstract, and the ‘system’ is there to help students believe they are always college ready. I simply don’t believe that’s true. I had tons of support at my first university. I had access to healthcare, coaches, therapists, professors who helped me get through academic probation. So I really don’t know what could have been different, except that I shouldn’t have gone.

What advice would give to traditional students who think they aren’t ready?

Stay humble and know there are many paths to graduation. A traditional four year path isn’t for everyone. I totally benefited from taking a break. It’s ok to take a step back if you need the break. If you do take a break, be productive. Get a job. Get experience. If you aren’t sure yet about taking a break, talk to people. Talk to as many people as you can. Talk to advisors and people who know you. Get unbiased advice. One of the most important things is opening yourself up to those conversations. In my head initially, it was a major failure to leave school, but now that I’m on the other side, it was exactly what I needed.

What advice would you give an adult who is considering going back to school?

All prospective non-traditional students are coming from different backgrounds so that’s difficult to answer. I would say, it’s worth it. It’s hard. While the students are mostly younger than you, you’re still there for a common experience. Be patient. The time will really fly and you’ll be walking the stage before you know it. When I first started at Texas State as a nontraditional student I was frustrated with my classmates and the gap in engagement. They just didn’t take things seriously. Student apathy was (and still is) a big deal. Being too cool for school was definitely a thing in those classes. Something I realized later on about that mentality is that most of those students were like me the first time I went to college. Many were afraid to raise their hand, and would get quietly frustrated when they knew the right answer but didn’t speak up. Being a nontraditional student allowed me to move past the fear of not being right. I realize I’m in class to learn and find out where I’m wrong. As you get into the higher level courses, nontraditional students can be comforted with the fact that your peers are just as motivated and driven as you are. Being surrounded by people who have a common end goal of graduation means you can inspire each other, even if their experiences are different or they are younger than you or if they don’t have the same household responsibilities.


2019 is going to be interesting because for the past 3 years, 100% of every day was about education. Home and work carried the same themes. Gabby and I were asking the same questions. What can we do to help students get through school? What are the institutional barriers that we created that are harmful? What types of psychology do we need to understand to instill grit and growth mindset in struggling students? What are the early signals we can find to tip us off to a problem and better yet, which types of problems are actionable? Which questions even have answers? I’ll be back in my office January 3rd and hopefully my data scientists will have figured it out.

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Preventative Practices Work for Homelessness, So How Can They Work for Student Success?

I’ve been thinking a lot about education lately. Well, “lately” makes this sound like it’s new. In some capacity, it’s all I really ever think about. But what I’ve been thinking this time is somewhat depressing. The nature of improving education is so inherently directly tied to improving people that it’s exhausting. Every teacher is, in some capacities, also a social worker and a therapist.

Teachers aren’t trained to do that, but the best ones excel in those roles as well. We spend all of our days trying to help individuals while thinking of sweeping policies that would be good for all. I was reading this article about Austin’s population who experiences homelessness (shout to one of my best friends and favorite people Taylor Cook who is on the iTeam). iTeam is an innovation group focused on evaluating and coming up with new strategies to address Austin’s growing homeless population. I couldn’t help but draw the parallels of what iTeam is accomplishing to what education hopes to accomplish. In particular:

When we brought all the different departments together, that was really our aha moment,” says interim Austin Assistant City Manager Sara Hensley, who oversees the newly coordinated city effort called for in the audit reports. “The most important part was us recognizing who was spending what and how much and when. Internal departments were all spending dollars on important things, but not everyone knew who was doing what.”

Another article referencing the impressive success of University of South Florida mirrors this saying:

At USF, as with nearly all universities, student services like health care and residential life had been kept on one side of an administration/faculty demilitarized zone, with academic affairs on the other. So [our vice provost for student affairs and student success] created a new body called the Persistence Committee.”

That shouldn’t be a shocker. Areas with identified need often have multiple groups identifying the need. The separate and individual efforts often compound to an improved outcome but at the end of the day it feels impossible to know which dollar fixed which problem.

In the case of Austin’s homeless population, some of the iTeam’s way to track success are: Which problem did we fix? Is our homeless community less hungry? Do more of them have a bed to sleep in at night? Are more of them getting substance abuse treatment?

Educators tend to track success with questions like: Are our students passing more courses? Are our students attending tutoring? Are our students more engaged in student activities? Which dollar for each student changed the trajectory of an otherwise grim outcome?

Hensley attempts to capture this process by looking at the impact of funding. “There’s a lot of questions we’ve been asking,” says Hensley. “Is it working? Have we been giving out money and not getting results? We also realized we have a lot of different funders, and we pulled them together to ask what they were doing. If we could agree on what needs to be funded first and pool our resources to their highest and best use, we could have a big collective impact.”

This strategy is possible at scale, with data rigor, in higher-ed. If we know which intervention was most impactful, we can call the right plays for each individual student.

This is one of the hardest parts to incorporate into education. The siloed nature of departments and colleges means that the pooling of resources is often not on the table. Even in smaller private K-12 spaces where I have worked, I never had visibility into what anyone else was doing. I just needed to teach my curriculum and care about my students and make sure they were fed, happy, and educated.

“We started, as an IT company would, by talking to the users,” says iTeam project manager Taylor Cook (who is also coincidentally one of my best friends and favorite people ever). “Which had never been done in a deliberate and systematic way before. They have a lot of knowledge of what leads to homelessness and what allows you to exit, and why a lot of people do fall back into it. Even those who’ve been housed, there’s a lot of stress there. Your landlord may change their mind. There’s not much of a safety net there. The best indicator of future homelessness is past homelessness.”

If we reword Taylor Cook’s statement and swap out some terms for education buzzwords, we get this:

We started, as an IT company would, by talking to the users. Which had never been done in a deliberate and systematic way before. The students have a lot of knowledge of what leads to non-persistence and what allows you to persist, and why a lot of people drop out. Even those who’ve been successful academically, there’s a lot of stress there. Your home life may change. There’s not much of a safety net there. The best indicator of future struggle is past struggle.

This business process Taylor speaks of reminds me of a presentation I saw from the Registrar and Research Analyst at Brazosport College at this past year’s American Association of Community College conference. They had a feeling that certain business processes at their community college created obstacles for students.

Ever try to make a doctor’s appointment and you were on hold for a minute longer than you wanted to be and so you hung up only to forget for weeks that you still need to go to the doctor? Imagine that situation but the act of forgetting to call back for weeks meant that you missed the registration deadline. This registrar’s efforts to find the gaps in their process was facilitated by a data visualization company for community colleges called Zogo Tech. Imagine finding out that roughly 40% of your students who don’t persist were held up by a hold that theoretically has an easy resolution. Kudos to Priscilla Sanchez and Cindy Ullrich at Brazosport College for figuring this out and reducing dropouts by 5 percentage points in one year.

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 3.00.46 PM Diagram courtesy of Brazosport College, 2018.

People who go into education, social work or homeless prevention were drawn to those areas because they wanted to serve a human problem. The idea that we can fix it if we throw our hearts into it is only going to be good for one person at a time and sadly does nothing to cure anything at scale.

I think this feeling is what got to me at the end of my teaching career. Every year I would see the same problems and have to start all over again. I always wondered, if I had taught a grade younger, would I be able to fix the problem before it was too late? I have a feeling if I carried out that experiment, I would have begun a journey that has no end.

The reason I find this so difficult is that most interventions are reactionary. It’s waiting for something big to happen so the person or entity in power can respond. USF’s approach is to find the signal in the noise before the catastrophic event. It’s picking up on vibrations 100 miles from the coast and signaling a tsunami warning. It’s changing information at scale. It’s analytics at a whole separate level. It’s causing change at scale.

About a third of universities I speak with on behalf of Civitas Learning have a newly formed Student Success Task Force/Retention Committee/Student Success Council or some other cross-functional group that is attempting to do for students what the iTeam in Austin is doing for homelessness: view every current effort, identify duplications, establish priorities, evaluate the user experience, and then go. My job at Civitas Learning is to learn about schools and their initiatives and help guide them to their success by making recommendations and guiding them through their decision to change. 

In the face of knowing that improving education means agreeing to tackle the social ills that have and sadly will always permeate humanity, we must set up business practices to create systems that correct the core problem and provide opportunities to intervene individually with potential to scale. We will always have these problems, and these problems may persist over time in new, creative ways. It’s our job to always have the solution.

Confessions of a Scholarship Interview Panelist

I’ve found myself to be in the fortunate position to sit on a scholarship interview panel that gives away $1 Million every year.

To be more specific, I get a vote in choosing 15 high school seniors who will receive a full ride from the Terry Foundation to either the University of Texas at Austin or Texas A&M. By full ride, I mean the cost of attendance. There are stark differences between what schools and governments consider tuition/fees and room and board and the actual cost of attendance. For the best perspective on this, I’d recommend Sara Goldrick-Rab’s book “Paying the Price.”

The aim of the Terry Foundation is to meet the student’s need for cost of attendance. That means we calculate the full cost to attend their respective university as well as graduate debt free. This is a different concept than the Bernie Sanders-style “tuition-free” public college. Tuition-free still means the student must pay for the cost to live and eat, which are financial matters that the Terry Foundation covers. The Terry Foundation wants the student to focus 100% on their academic goals and not be concerned with loans or part-time jobs.

The Terry Foundation has three pillars: Academics, Leadership, Need. Academics and Leadership are self-explanatory, and Need is relatively subjective to the family’s situation. My goal as an interviewer is to understand how all three of these pillars relate to the student in thirty minutes. Here is a documentary about the organization — you can see my face at 10:48.

I’ve been blessed to be part of the Terry Foundation for over a decade and I’ve been involved in 5 years of conducting interviews. This year, for the first time, I’ve been asked to be the chair of an interview panel. Every April, you can find me pouring over their applications. This blog entry contains my thoughts on what high school students, their families, and their high school teachers/counselors should be thinking about with this process.

These are my thoughts alone and do not reflect any official opinion of the Terry Foundation.

What is your why?

So you’re an all around great student and people seem to like you. But why are you a great student? Are you just following the rules? Are you making good grades because that’s what good students do? Do you run for officer positions because your school needs someone to do it and you stepped up? Why did you step up? Why do you care if you’re a good student?

Every year I read profiles of students, their essays, and their letters of rec and I’ll summarize many of them simply as “small town hero.” That’s not intended to be a good thing or a bad thing. I was the lead in my first grade play. Why? Because my teachers knew my parents would make me memorize the lines. I didn’t want to be an actor nor did I demonstrate any skill to qualify me for that role.

I’m always trying to figure out if the student has an incredible resume because they sought out opportunities or if their community defaulted to them being the leader. It’s 100% OK if that’s the situation. But what did you do with it? Did you take on the President of the NHS role and then the historical status quo of the organization was maintained? I don’t care if you were president. I care what you did when there was an opportunity to make something happen. So instead of saying things like “Leadership was demonstrated when I became president of X, Y, and Z organizations… ,” why not tell me about the thing that needed someone to step up and what you did about it.

Calling out your lack of a sob story is a cliché in and of itself

It’s perfectly OK to grow up in a white, middle class family with parents who are still married and to not have overcome a life threatening disease. I think people hear the tragic stories of their peers and then internalize their lack of a sob story as some sort of weakness on college applications. A frequent occurrence is for students to directly draw attention to the fact that they haven’t had anything horrible happen to them.

I’ve read the subtle plea for help in former students’ letters when they said, “Because I’m not a minority many scholarships don’t apply to me.” I understand where that sentiment is coming from but it’s really unnecessary to point out and personally it makes me feel uncomfortable. And to be honest, I don’t really care. What I care about is what happens when you are given an opportunity. Students who have overcome a lot to get where they are can more directly demonstrate what they do when the going gets tough.

What do you do when challenges arise? I want to know how you’ll respond the first test you bomb. I want to know what will happen the first time you realize you’re not going to be a doctor because most students are going to have a fixed (and incorrect) idea of what success looks like. When that idea changes, I want to know how you’ll come out of it better and stronger.

Don’t claim a passion that isn’t demonstrable

Every year I read a student say they want to be a doctor, vet, environmental champion, lawyer, etc. And then when I dig into their activities, I see nothing to connect their major or professional goals to their daily life.

A student once claimed to be really into environmental activism and was interested in pursuing environmental science as their major. As I am academically trained in that field, I asked for some examples of ways they connected to the topics. The student couldn’t come up with anything. If you want to be a vet but have never volunteered in an animal shelter, I’m going to question if you’re just trying to play the part of “ambitious teen.”

But at the same time, I’m not giving you the scholarship so you can become what you put down on paper when you were 17. In fact, I doubt 50% of my candidates end up with a career in what they wrote down on their application. I’m not voting for your ability to become a doctor. I’m voting for your ability to be successful in whatever it is you pursue. I want you to be flexible in your success.

If you go to a private high school, explicitly explain how that is possible

I’ve worked in a few private schools and I understand that not every student who attends pays full tuition. If your parent works at the school or you’re on a scholarship to attend, call that out directly. It helps me understand your situation. Otherwise, your financial need in regard to the scholarship’s requirements will be in question. This also applies to expensive hobbies. If you horse race or play in club sports you may want to explain your funding for these activities in your essays.

If it’s in your resume/transcript, I don’t need to read about it in your letter of rec

Attn. high school teachers and counselors: this one is for you.

I don’t need you to reiterate the clubs for which the student is an officer. That’s already in their resume. If your entire letter is filled with things I already know about, then I’m going to either assume no one trained you on how to write a letter of rec or that you don’t know the student that well. In either case, you didn’t help the student.

I’m looking for an adult perspective of what the student does when the student faces a challenge. I’m looking for your ranking of the student relative to their peers and relative to your history in the profession. I’m looking for anecdotes that clearly describe the student in a way they themselves cannot explain yet. I want to connect the dots of their historical success to the investment I’m trying to make in their future potential.

I care about you holistically

I generally make note of your core academic performance, but I don’t care that much. I personally don’t make note of your GPA or your SAT scores (but some other interviewers do). As long as they’re above a certain threshold, I don’t care anymore.

If you scored 1400 on the SAT and someone else scored a 1300, it doesn’t really change anything. I will, however, take into consideration your upbringing and access to resources. The only time I really take note of SAT/ACT scores is when a student comes from a place where no resources exist and they still get above a 1300. But in general, I don’t really care. I’d much rather read an essay about a thing that you care about deeply and dedicated hours of work to. That “thing” you care about can be ANYTHING. Just demonstrate to me that you know what it’s like to dive into something and make magic happen.

If you don’t get scholarships, it doesn’t mean that you’re not deserving

Students and families so frequently confuse scholarships as their reward for their success. Truthfully, their reward is getting into their college and major of choice and the intrinsic satisfaction of reaching that goal. For some students, scholarship money is the difference between attending and not attending. It’s the difference maker in changing the entire trajectory of their family.

Finances are a particularly painful subject for many people. It’s deeply personal. I don’t want students to associate the scholarship to their personal worth or what they deserve. My main hope is that when I meet students for their allotted 30 minutes, they can show me who they are. I am looking for students who have the ability to reflect upon their life and draw mature conclusions about how they will operate in this world. I want to the scholarship money to accomplish two things: 1) change the trajectory for the student, and 2) benefit the trajectory of the Terry Foundation.

You can rake your own yard, thank you very much

Once you’re a teacher, you view the world in a different way. Even though I’ve been out of the classroom for a year and change, I still view real life experiences as motivation for a lesson plan. I’ll be saddened by the day that this stops (but I don’t think it ever will).

I was raking my yard today because, as winter encroaches upon the lives of everyone else in the northern hemisphere, it’s just now autumn in Texas. As I was wrapping up my front yard I saw that my neighbor’s yard was yet to be raked as well. I wondered if I should help him.

This is a moment I would want all of my former students to embrace. This isn’t a situation of “I wonder if… guess I’ll never know!” NO. It’s a moment where you can actually figure it out. Or at least estimate.

I had a recent conversation with my dear old friend Jenna about this. She works in her district’s office for math coaching and curriculum development. We had an in-depth conversation about the word “numeracy” and what the definition should be as a statement and goal by the district. Her team was almost settled on “numeracy is the proficiency to use numbers and mathematical concepts with flexibility and confidence to develop reasonable solutions to relevant, real-world problems” but neither of us liked “proficiency.” It sounds like it’s something that can be right or wrong. We both liked the idea that numeracy is a natural inclination to use math to address a problem. And that’s what I did today.

There is a classic old algebra problem that everyone hates. Mary can paint her house in 2 hours but Sue can paint her house in 3. If they paint together, how long does it take? How often does this even happen? Problems like this are most definitely written in Comic Sans.

But today, as I was raking my yard, I thought about this contrived and overused problem. I realized it could help me with my dilemma of deciding to help my neighbor.

I estimated that my plot had 5000 square feet of rake-able yard and my neighbor has about 6000 square feet of yard. I estimated that I can do my full yard by myself in 1.5 hours, therefore giving myself a rate of 3300/square feet per hour. My neighbor is a strong guy with a determined work ethic that doesn’t get distracted by possible math situations so I gave him a buffer and said he could do his yard in 2 hours giving him a rate of 3000/square feet per yard.

Rate 1 + Rate 2 = Rate together. So together we could do 6300 square feet in 1 hour.

Since my yard is 5000 square feet – 5000/6300 * 60 minutes in an hour = 47 minutes to rake my yard. Hey that saved me 43 minutes. Things are looking good.

Since his yard is 6000 square feet – 6000/6300 * 60 minutes in an hour = 57 minutes.

Combined, we would take 104 minutes to rake both of our yards. Excluding the potential benefit of friendship, the cost of this engagement is 14 minutes extra than it would if I raked my yard in contemplative isolation. That 14 minutes could be spent writing this post.

Sorry dude.

How To Get Out Of Teaching

So now that you’ve gotten into teaching you want to know how to get out. Teaching can feel a little bit like one of those expensive, fancy haunted houses that pop up around Halloween. You want to go into it because it seems exciting and different and your friends say it will be awesome and then a small child runs at you with a knife and you scream and look for the exit.

If you’ve kept up with this website at all you know I was a dedicated classroom teacher that made the huge leap of faith and entered the tech world. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t mean that flippantly. I truthfully mean that it was as difficult as a breakup. In fact it felt just like that. When people ask me how my teaching is going a year after I left, it’s like they’re just finding out a friend is newly single and they give you that look like “Should I high five you or hug you?” My entire identity was about to change (or so I thought) and I had no idea where to start. I felt the need to do something different creep over time until it was simply time. The hard part was that my internal metric of when it was time did not align with the rest of the world and I had to navigate a lot. I didn’t know where to start. I went to friends for help. And now friends are coming to me for help. So that’s where the advice for this comes from. I’ve had about a half-dozen educator friends talk to me about my process and about twenty strangers reach out via the Internet. This is that initial advice.

  • First things first- stop telling yourself “I’ve only ever been a classroom teacher. My resume is nothing compared to people that have been doing other things.”
    STOP IT. STOP IT RIGHT NOW. You need to start looking at the bigger picture here. Most jobs that are entry level have a ramp up process for new hires. No one expects you to hit the ground running and know everything on day 1. I’ve also heard the following stupid sentences “But my degree is just in History. They wouldn’t care about that.” “I only taught basic subjects like Algebra I. You taught Statistics!” We should all stop comparing ourselves to the fictitious competitor to our perfect job. It matters less than we think it does and our stupid brains should never be the reason we don’t reach our goals. You will get hired because you have soft skills beyond compare.
  • How do you get your soft skills noticed? Well, the first thing I did when I started to look was show my resume to my sister. She lovingly tore it apart and told me nothing in it made sense to her. I had to translate my teaching resume into world resume. My teaching resume had something to the effect of:
    • Geometry and IB Math Studies
    • Created Problem Based Curriculum
    • Committee Member – Head of School Search
    • Committee Member – Strategic Planning

      Which translated to: 
    • Develop problem-based learning curriculum for Geometry and IB Math Studies
    • Member of Head of School Search Committee – Interview Head of School Applicants
    • Member of the Strategic Planning Team – Dream and plan future of the school, develop 5 year plan

So look at your resume and see where you can further explain your soft skills. Teachers lead and organize anywhere from 3-6 meetings a day with groups of people that need to be inspired. They plan and deliver presentations. They think big picture while somehow still having the ability to pick up on the details. They can read rooms and understand human connection. They can cater content and think on their toes when the situation changes. They can handle pressure and intense situations. WHO WOULDN’T WANT TO HIRE THAT PERSON?

I had to explain to the rest of the world what I did using verbs that connect to the jobs I wanted.

  • How do you know what jobs you can do?! Well that’s a really good question. I didn’t start with that so much as “What companies fit with the reason why I want to get out of teaching?” If you haven’t read Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why?” I highly recommend it. You’re more likely to get hired when your application makes sense. When you say “I taught for X years until I realized _____ and that’s what led me here” then people think of you differently. The mistake a lot of people make I think is the _____ part. They think it has to be deep and grand and poetic. You know it could be as simple as “I realized I never worked much with adults and as I developed things with my team I realized how much joy I get from leading and developing with my peers. I think it’s time I give myself the opportunity to grow in that realm.” Find a company that interests you and monitor their jobs until something fits with you.
  • Explain yourself in a cover letter even if there isn’t one required. According to government statistics there are 3.2 million teachers in America. That includes the bad ones. Assuming you aren’t a bad one you’re going to want your future employer to know the difference. A cover letter makes all the difference. The cover letter should address why you are looking for such a big change.
  • It’s whom you know not what you know. I had coffee dates with around a dozen strangers in the process of getting my first job out of the classroom. One of them claimed to have plenty of “recovering teachers” on his team. That phrase struck me. All teachers need someone to stand up for them and say “This person deserves a shot at something new.” I would HIGHLY recommend finding people on LinkedIn that used to be teachers who now work in your prospective industry. I hit up tons of strangers and each of them helped me out in some way. Reaching out and saying “I saw you were a teacher but now you do X, I’d love to hear your story. Can we meet up for coffee?”
  • You won’t have to completely start over. I was worried that I’d have to get a job for the same teacher pay but now work 12 months out of the year. I will say that’s not what happened at all. I’m extremely lucky but people need to know that it’s possible to double your salary in your first job out of the classroom. It may not be possible at your geographic location but simply knowing that it’s possible to have a rewarding job that improves your quality of life can be encouraging. You can do it too.
  • Be patient but get over the idea that the timeline will be favorable. I know a lot of teachers who say “Yah I look for jobs every April-May but nothing really ever works out.” The part that made my job transition so difficult is that I had to quit 3 weeks into the school year. I went to the Meet the Teacher Night with my replacement and then started my new job the next day. That was incredibly stressful and I felt like I was abandoning my students. But I tried looking for a job in April through June and got no bites. The job I ultimately got and love didn’t get posted until mid July and by the time my final interview came around I had to start class the next Monday. If you’re open to the idea of moving on but don’t open yourself up to the idea of quitting mid year, you may be missing the best opportunity. Businesses aren’t going to operate on a May-August hiring calendar. If you really want a new job you may have to accept that the timeline will be less than favorable for both you and your school.

So that’s it. My story is just an anecdote and I have no idea how replicable it is. I’d love to hear from others. It took me 4 months to get a new job and I applied to well over 30 positions. I got about 6 phone screen interviews and only two in person interviews so be patient. I think the most important take-aways are that you (the teacher) deserve a job that fulfills you and you can make it happen. When we (teachers) spend all of our energy wishing the best for our students and wanting them to reach their maximum potential we can sometimes forget that we deserve the same. Sometimes that means teaching for 50 years. Sometimes it means leaving.

But no teacher can be great with one foot out the door. Good luck.

How To Get Into Teaching

I get two questions all the time. The first comes from non-teachers -How would you recommend I get into teaching? The second most common question comes from teachers – How would you recommend I get out of teaching?

I figured it would be a useful resource for those people to come here to read and then we can have a more in-depth discussion about their specific life and goals. So here it goes.

How to get into teaching:

Most people ask this are in 1 of 3 life stages. The first is that they are in college and are thinking of how their degree or major fits into education. The second is you already have a degree but you want to get into teaching. There are two options for this situation. One involves going back to school and the other doesn’t. I’ll address these options in that order so you can skip down to what applies to you (except the 3rd could use the advice for the 2nd).

  1. You’re currently in college and majoring in X and you want to teach upon graduation. The problem is your degree is not in education. What to do? Well in Texas if you want to teach 8-12 you have to major in your content area. But what if my major still isn’t in my content area? There are a few options for you. Most universities recognize the need to produce educators and have options for how to get certified without changing your major (or maybe it’s as simple as adding a minor). At the University of Texas, where I went, there was a program called UTeach. It provided training for current UT students majoring in things besides education to become certified in STEM fields along with their degree. This is a great option because you get the more dynamic opportunity to major in something besides education. If you really want to keep your major and it’s not what you want to teach (like engineering but want to teach physics like as was my situation) then you can always do option 2 or 3. So wherever you are in school, ask an advisor for how this works at your school. There may be an option for you.
  2. You have your degree. What to do now? There are two options but the one I see often for the more recently graduated is simply going back to school. However, this option is open to anyone. The thing to google is “Post Bacc Teacher Certification Programs at (insert school in my area).” Almost every university has a masters program or post bacc program that involves one year of classes and one year of “training.” Often the training is you being a classroom teacher but with a mentor that guides you through the year. Your lessons and projects for class and your classroom are intertwined. Sometimes the courses for the Post-Bacc can count towards a M.Ed if you choose to continue. This is a great option for getting extra credentials and building your resume, especially if you’re competing for social science/humanities teaching jobs. I thought about getting certified this way at UTSA but decided against it. I don’t really remember why to be perfectly honest. I was 23 and I don’t know why I did half the things I did.
  3. Last option is to do a private certification program. This is what I did. There are tons of options for this from for-profit certification companies that have billboards asking you “when you can start?” I don’t know how these operate because I did mine through the regional education service center. This is a branch of the education realm that holds records for certifications, school evaluations, general data holding, etc for the state. I felt like this was a good option because it was a branch of the education system that was well connected to the school districts. I don’t know how this works in states beyond Texas but I imagine there are similar opportunities. I took night classes twice a week from 6-9 pm that prepared me for curriculum content and one class every other weekend that covered classroom management and teaching pedagogies. I liked this option because I was working during this time. It was about 3 months of this in the spring of 2010 before schools started looking for candidates. The agency helped us prepare our resumes and for interviews and even had a career fair. It only cost about $800 upfront and the rest was taken out of your paycheck only if you got a job (Something like $2000 over 12 months).

To be honest, a lot of the content in my program felt like a waste of my time but as far as hurdles go – it was pretty easy. I didn’t mind that this is what it took to become a teacher and it proved useful in that it helped me get my first teaching job. I wish I had done the M.Ed program as it would have been more valuable to my long term career. I already had an MS in Engineering so I think that’s why I didn’t bother.

This is a very unsexy post but all career changes or decisions are scary and even the bold require some assistance, hand holding, or high fives.

A year out of the classroom

Well, it’s been one year since I left the classroom. I have people in my life that missed the memo and ask me how my school year is looking. The most awkward part of this exchange is the recognition that my friend and I have done a poor job of keeping in touch. But hey, that’s what the internet is for, and if he missed my post then maybe that’s not my fault. What am I supposed to do? Text everyone, “New job. Who dis?”

Now that I have a year out of the classroom I have some thoughts and reflections.

  • Once a teacher, always a teacher. This comes in lots of forms. I still view opportunities as “teachable moments.” I still have 23-year-old former students reaching out to me for life advice. I still see a gaggle of teenagers in public places and pray none of them are students I left behind four weeks into my last semester of teaching. I got carded at the grocery store the other day and the cashier looked up at me and asked, “You Mr. Frasier that taught at McCallum?” Yes A-Aron. Tis me, your Algebra 1 teacher from 2013.
  • Education is a giant complicated mess and everyone is wrong for putting so much pressure on the K-12 system. Now that I work in the higher-ed space, I realize just how messy it is. From Complete College America initiatives to performance-based funding and budget cuts to articulation agreements from two-year to four-year colleges, it’s one big giant mess. I thought for so long that if we could accomplish certain things in middle/high school, we could pat our students on their graduate cap, send them off to college, and the teachers could pull out a pint, cheers each other, and celebrate a job well done. This montage of a fantasy is incredibly satisfying – yet the reality is disappointing. Only 70% of the class of 2016 went to college or university, and of those 70%, 55% of the students we send off to college don’t graduate. So some basic math here says that if I taught 100 students from the class of 2016, I’d be really lucky to have 40 diploma holders when I check back with then in 2020. So, what’s the problem? That’s the million-dollar question our education system has been trying to answer for decades. Is a non-completer leaving because they got the job they want without finishing? How do we track that? Are they leaving because of a major issue in their family, like a parent’s death, that requires them to work while supporting their siblings? Are they leaving because they were simply too immature to handle living on their own? Did drugs and alcohol get in the way? Were they academically unprepared? It’s hard to say which of those types of issues are failures of a system. If we want to improve the system, we need to think about what the system can correct.
  • The higher-ed system can be improved by treating it like a true continuation of K-12 space. Yes, Prof. _____, your 20-year-old college student is technically an adult, but when they were 18 only two years ago, their high school teacher took attendance and called their parents and held their hand. I’m not suggesting that this is a professor problem. When I left my PhD program to become a high school teacher, I remember stating that I wanted to teach students who hadn’t figured out life yet. I assumed by the time the students got to college, their lives were figured out. Higher-ed wasn’t initially created as a continuum of education for all types of students. The reason this continuum isn’t an inherit part of higher-ed is because, prior to 60 years ago, it wasn’t necessary. Before WWII, only 1 in 20 Americans had a college degree. Today, we’re looking at about 1 in 4. If only your educated elite go to college, you don’t need retention programs and academic success centers. The good news is that a lot of 4- and 2-year regional access institutions are figuring this out and starting to put the infrastructure in place. The hard part is the scale at which the work needs to be done.
  • So what works at the K-12 space? Well that’s a whole dissertation but in short it means knowing the students and having everyone be accountable. Parent teacher conferences, department meetings, counselor interventions, attendance checks, 6 week grade checks, weekly homework quizzes, mandatory LMS usage, and whatever the school has found to work for them like providing laundry and free meals on campus. Did I ever feel like any one of these things actually made a difference? More often than not, I found them to be annoying and a waste of time. But they forced me to confront each individual student. That’s what higher-ed needs. How can we get a view of each individual student that provides us with enough intel on which to act? This part will sound self-promotional, but that’s what my new job is about. My company, Civitas Learning, is using data science to customize strategies, communication, interventions, degree planning, and scheduling so that we can maximize intentions at a large scale while minimizing time. In the last HS I taught at, we had “student-led conferences” where we cancelled classes for two days and each student came with a parent for a 30 -minute summary of their life. It was run by the students and was always incredible. It provided me with information like recent family issues, medical diagnoses, strained relationships, or on the positive side students falling in love with new subjects and gaining admittance into prestigious summer programs. The problem with that? IT TOOK 2 FULL DAYS TO DO 16 CONFERENCES. That’s the opposite of doing things at scale. We need a way to cut through the noise and have high yield practices. The good news is that people are starting to figure that out (and luckily for me that’s my job). It is just moving a lot slower than I would like.

In summary, the next 50 years of education will be about adjusting the strategies of the higher-ed space to be about student experience and action at scale. It’s messy, but no messier than when I had to teach middle school PE. And this definitely smells better than that.

So I’m not a math teacher anymore

My absence here is because of something huge. I did it. I pivoted my career and left the classroom. But I didn’t leave education. That’s something I couldn’t do. I’ve thought a lot the past two years about where my path in education would take me while the distant future is still unknown, I know what I’ll be doing for the short term. And it’s exciting.

I took a job with a company called Civitas Learning. The purpose of the company is to find the students who would otherwise slip through the education cracks. The goal is to have a million more students graduate every year. We do this by using math. And I like math.

My job is to talk to presidents and provosts about what we do and make traction in an area that has never had a company like us before. Higher Ed is one of this country’s oldest institutions and that means sometimes things move slowly.

I’ve been attempting to put into words what it’s like to leave the classroom, what skills are transferred, and the process of the emotional transition. This is my modest attempt.

  • If you’re a teacher, most likely your work ethic is beyond what’s necessary for most jobs. I don’t mean that other people don’t work as hard as teachers but teachers are ON. Seven hours a day we are the leaders of meetings, organizers of work, and the curator of materials. And that’s while the kids are at school. I’ve been at my job for one month and I have yet to work on a night or a weekend. That energy transfers to me working really hard at work and really hard at play. I’m exercising more. Hanging out with my fiancée more. I’m less stressed. It’s weird getting used to the number of moments in the middle of the work day where someone says, “Hey did you all see that SNL skit?” and then everyone crowds around a computer. Maybe I just work in a cool place. Moments like that don’t happen with ease in the classroom.
  • If you’ve been in the classroom, your organization is impeccable. I’m juggling a lot at my new job yet it’s still easier to manage my time than when I taught. For me, that means less stress.
  • The amount of emotional stress and fatigue from the classroom will translate to you not complaining about anything outside of it. I was told some people at work can get annoyed when their favorite La Croix runs out. I’m still mouth agape at the fact that I can leave my work whenever I want to get the company provided snacks. I’m so used to not being spoiled that now that I am, I almost feel guilty about it. Again my company is awesome and I recognize that not everyone gets the perks I get.
  • Everyone wants to know if I miss the kids. The truth is that I miss moments of discovery with kids but I don’t actually miss the classroom. I don’t miss the job. I thought I would. I was scared that I would. But really I just wanted to make a bigger impact than my few students per year.

Overall, I made the right move. I wasn’t happy in the classroom anymore. I was needing personal, professional, and intellectual growth that was stunted by spending 90% of my day with teenagers. Maybe everyone else got their personal growth at other times or they went into the classroom at an older age so they were already developed but I went into the classroom right out of grad school.  This winter will by the first winter of my life where I work between Christmas and New Years. Not once in my life have I not had a spring break. I needed to leave the classroom to find my future potential. I’m open to everything but one thing is consistent and that’s my dedication to student success. I’ve been appointed to the Terry Scholar Advisory Board and promoted to the Texas Boys State Dean of Lead Counselors so I still have lots of interaction with high school and college students. I don’t think that will ever change.

Efforts to Increase Engagement

It’s the summer. And for me that means spending many hours caffeinated and thinking about math. I’m in LA currently at a coffee shop. Yah it’s supposed to be my vacation, but math is fun and therefore I will sit, caffeinated, and mathematical. As always. Funny and true story: last night at a comedy show I got the entire audience to chant “MATH MATH MATH MATH.” Why? Uh well it’s a story that’s easier to explain in person.

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I want to find ways to increase the mathematical engagement of my students. If I want to increase engagement that most likely means I need the time to do cool things. If I want time to do cool things, I’ll have to cut some of the questions from the current book. I’ve cut it down to 65 pages of problems and some of these pages are very light as I’m hoping they line up with when assessments will occur.

I want assessments and efforts to be catered to the students and their levels. My current ideas for new things to try next year:

Dissertation Style Defense – Some students LOVED the summative journals I had them do last year. The kids that put lots of time into it ended up doing really well on their exams. I do have a handful of students that struggle with writing for various reasons and I felt like forcing them to do essentially a 5 page paper was unrealistic for some students. I even had one parent tell me “I don’t think my son is capable of producing this work” when I showed her an example from another student. The reason she said that is that a combination of learning differences makes writing for some students such a task that beginning the assignment feels impossible. What I learned from working with some of these students is that they can talk about math way more easily than they can write about it. My solution: give them the same writing rubric but tell them to make PowerPoint slides instead of writing it. They can present it to the class or to me during office hours. It will be an option and we’ll see if it works. I’ll also use this as an opportunity for high achieving students to push themselves and essentially lead class reviews of entire topics.

Math Art Show- I would like my students to curate their own art show for public display. They could make any piece of art and tie it to math. Every student at my school is either in an amazing studio art, photography, film, or music class. They can weave math into any of their existing projects for their other classes and then we’ll use our school studio to put these on display. The Dean of Academics at my school is the one pushing for this so I feel like it’s doable.

These are ideas for now and we’ll see how well they can be implemented!

Amortization Scheduler

Today on the first day of summer I woke up to a beautiful sunny sky.  I looked at my solar panels and thought “That’ll do pig, that’ll do.”

Last month I made a big payment towards my solar panels and I wanted to know if I should be aggressive in the coming months to finish it off.  I wanted to know if making a big payment now would do enough damage to where I could just ride out the rest of the loan with the regular scheduled payments.

So I figured it out.  Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 9.02.03 AM

It turns out my $2500 payment 7 months in saved me near $1400 in interest.  I made a few mistakes in my first iteration but after posting to a Personal Finance forum I tweeked it and decided to make it publicly accessible.  It can be used to figure out the advantage of any financial loan payment decision. Let me know if I need to make any edits!

Try it out here!