How do you know if your worldview is based in reality…if your expectations are well-grounded? You need reliable perspective. And how do you get solid perspective? You step outside of your comfort zone to see how others live.
In my fourteenth year of teaching, I was also leading a number of professional development offerings for Spotsylvania County Schools. And like so many of us in ed tech, I was being pushed more and more to train colleagues on technology. It was at this point in my career that the husband of one of my workshop attendees approached me. “I hear you’re really good. Why not do what you do well for more money?” He worked for a consulting firm that contracted with government agencies and corporate firms. They needed a technology trainer.
With a young family, more money caught my attention…that and the offered title of Senior Technology Trainer made it tempting. After all, there weren’t many options for upward mobility within K-12 other than building and district administration. If I accepted the offer, I would be working at the Department of Housing and Urban Development right in downtown DC. My kids weren’t even in Kindergarten yet…so I asked for an assurance that I wouldn’t be doing a lot of traveling. It was June, the end of the school year…the perfect time to make the move. And I did.
What a different world! Starting on day one I hit the ground running, meeting with HUD staff, learning every application used within the agency, developing documentation and delivering training. I was also on call for technology user questions, and happy clients sent “atta boy” letters of commendation that my consulting firm valued and would use to pay bonuses and raises. What a different model from public education!
I was in the fast lane and on the fast track. Everything moved quickly. I would login on any given morning at my desk and a message would pop up saying “Joe So-and-So no longer works here. Please send all requests for assistance concerning his projects to Kathy Such-and-Such.” I quickly learned that no one was indispensable and you’re only as good as your last success. I also learned that once you’re in, you’re in for whatever the client needs. So even though I had been given an assurance from my consulting firm I wouldn’t be traveling much, within a few months I was being asked by the client to travel to HUD field offices around the country: Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle. No time for hesitation. No room for questions. So I started spending time on the road.
At the same time I was taking a course in instructional design with a brilliant professor who worked for the Arlington, Virginia Public Schools. The course gave me a lot of tools for my work at HUD, but it also reminded me of everything I loved about working in education. Over the course of the semester it was a source of substance and sustenance. I needed to keep learning and growing, even as I met the rigorous demands of government contracting. We got through the Y2K scare, spending New Years Eve into the next morning manning phones in the event any of our systems went down as a result of the number 2000. Then came the change of administration in the White House, which meant changes for every federal agency from the top down.
Talks of shake-ups and turn-over started in January, and my more veteran consulting colleagues had been talking me through everything coming into play as the change in the air was palpable. I kept my head down and my eyes on my work. Rumors circulated and the pressure ratcheted up as workers worried what the change would mean for them. We had huge meetings in packed rooms where HUD administrators spoke cryptically about what lay ahead, offering equal doses of caution and reassurance as nervousness turned to anxiety.
Finally in April the announcement came down immediately and all at once. A large number of workers were being let go and the new Secretary would be looking at major reorganization within the agency. My supervisor and all my tech-training consultant colleagues were let go. Inexplicably, I was the only tech trainer left standing. I was stunned. How was this possible? Why was I spared the axe? What do I say to all these people I had been working with closely who were coming in that day to clean out their desks and be escorted out by security? It was a very tough, very real-world lesson, rattling so many of the assumptions I brought with me from public education. Job security, seniority, loyalty…nothing is guaranteed. I was so grateful to still have a job but so shaken by the reality of the shake-up.
Later that year, after much soul-searching, my instructional design professor suggested I apply for a job as an Instructional Technology Coordinator with the Arlington, Virginia Public Schools. I missed education, and even though the job and the money as a consultant were good, when Arlington made an offer I accepted. I knew I was an educator at heart and I needed to come back where my instructional background and technology expertise would make a difference for children.
Over the years, I moved on to become a technology director and ultimately an assistant superintendent for administrative and instructional technology. And I owed it all to the perspective I gained working outside of education for that one segment of my career. It was a reality check. It changed me. I no longer feel entitled to anything. I am grateful to have meaningful work helping teachers and students. And I understand that giving my all in that work is the true definition of being a professional…even as I have moved from K-12 to working for the world’s leading professional education association. Everything else is secondary, and in some cases, a distraction. We can lose our way…our sense of what’s important…important to us personally and professionally.
As you rest and rejuvenate this summer and prepare to move forward in the fall, I encourage you to gain new perspective. Even if it’s volunteer work, summer work, or a sabbatical…whatever options you might have…get out there and experience the world outside of education. Get new perspective. It will change how you see your work and how you view yourself as a professional.