Speaking in front of groups of students eight hours a day, five days a week, for six years removed any trace of fear Katie Bridges once had of public speaking.
“You have to learn on your feet,” she says. And that’s true outside the classroom, too.
She took the confidence she developed as a French teacher to her current job as editor-in-chief of Arkansas Life magazine. Now, she has final say on which stories get published and manages a staff—which requires giving feedback to writers and presenting in various settings.
If you’re looking to break out of teaching, but are hesitant because you’re not sure how your skills might translate to another industry, have no fear. There are things you learned in the classroom that you can easily apply to other positions outside of a school.
How do we know? Because, like Bridges, many former teachers have done it and lived to share how their experiences prepared them for new careers. I spoke to five former teachers about skills they honed and took with them to publishing, law, tech writing, corporate insurance, and priesthood.
Teachers Know How to Break Down and Communicate Complex Information
Nearly a decade after ending his career teaching Spanish, Hunter Bridges (Katie's husband) helps federal agencies in their crime investigations as an assistant U.S. attorney. On the surface, his role as a lawyer looks totally different, but he says his ability to communicate knowledge effectively to groups of people has come in handy.
It’s one thing to know complicated information. It’s another thing completely to understand, synthesize, and relate it to others in a way that’s both coherent and compelling. For him, teaching students how to conjugate verbs or explaining why noun-verb agreement matters pushed him to find creative ways to express information that were digestible and attention-grabbing.
Now he draws from that experience to craft winning arguments and present parts of the law that may be confusing clearly and persuasively when he’s standing before a judge.
But you don’t have to spend resources on law school to put those communication skills to good use. Eric Feingold went from teaching high school English and literature electives to a new career as a technical writer—first at his friends’ Colorado-based startup, which created a database to track telecommunications equipment for phone companies, and later at several other companies.
“I had no experience tech writing,” he said. “But because I could write, I could come in there and learn my way around the technology.” At every job he’s had since he pivoted into a new career, he’s started by studying an application or system. He then creates the materials needed to teach the software to users, a process that’s not too different from making lesson plans.
“Ultimately, that’s what you’re doing with your documentations,” he says. “You’re creating a curriculum almost for the end user or developer.”
Teachers Know How to Tell Stories That Engage Audiences
Katie Bridges, the French teacher turned editor-in-chief, always preferred to go beyond the textbook. She immersed her students in the language as much as possible by sharing her own real-world experiences. For example, when teaching her students verb tenses, she tried to connect with them by playing a song by French pop singer Claude Francois. From then on, students often walked into her classroom and requested she play the YouTube video on the projector.
“In order to be a good teacher, you have to have passion, not only for your subject but also for the kids, for your students,” she says. “I think that that’s kind of similar in publishing—that you’ve got to get into what your subject matter is. For me now that’s Arkansas.”
And you have to figure out how to use that passion to make the topic appeal to a diverse audience. Whether she's writing a 50-word blurb about an upcoming event or a 2,600-word piece about the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman Wilson House, she tries to do it in a conversational, engaging style—a tactic she says earns her positive feedback from the magazine’s audience.
Teachers Know How to Prepare for the Short and Long Term
When Emily Spencer was a high school math teacher, she had to not only prepare annual lesson plans, but also be ready for a range of issues that could arise in the moment, from anticipating her students’ questions to dealing with a jammed printer right before the morning bell.
That ability to plan simultaneously for the short and long term helped her when she moved to the private sector. As a client consultant in the insurance industry, she must now be similarly organized and prepared for meetings with customers, making sure she has foreseen any possible questions or issues.
At the same time, she has to think ahead. She used to consider the entire school year and then break it down into semesters and smaller chunks. Now, she imagines what the coming year will look like for specific clients, then maps out what she needs to do today as well as down the line to help them accomplish their goals.
Teachers Know How to Empathize With People and Practice Patience
Patrick Friend taught chemistry and English at the high school level for a year. He realized that students are motivated in different ways and pushed himself to be receptive and adapt to diverse learning styles.
“Teaching and seeing this vast group and array of young minds gives you patience,” says Friend, who’ll soon be ordained as a Catholic priest. He realizes that not all of his eventual parishioners will learn about the Church the same way. “As a priest I’m going to have to be open and patient and understanding, and I’m going to have to find many different ways to preach.”
As a consultant, Spencer’s aware that what makes sense to her might not to her clients. When she describes health benefits to employers, she often asks them whether they follow her presentation. She has to be patient as she tries to gauge what explanations will resonate best with each client and adjust her approach.
In the courtroom, Hunter Bridges needs to think about the different perspectives of the judge and jury members from various backgrounds as he figures out how to make a set of facts come alive for that small but significant audience.
If uncertainty about a career transition is holding you back from making the leap from teaching into something new, try not to feel doubtful. Remember that even if you leave the industry, you’re not starting from scratch.
All the skills outlined above are ones that you likely have—and are applicable to almost every industry out there. So instead of worrying that you’re not qualified to embark on a new career path, focus on figuring out which profession interests you (and you can read this if you’re truly unsure).
Once you have an industry in mind, the next step is highlighting those transferable skills using this formula and showing just how applicable they will be to the role you’re applying to.
Remember: You’re not the first teacher to transition out of the field—and that means it’s not only possible, but 100% doable.
Photo of person leading a lesson courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.
Michele Gorman is a reporter based in New York City whose work has been published in Law360, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, and Williamsburg Greenpoint News+Arts, as well as on MSNBC.com and Boston.com. Michele graduated from Northeastern University with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism. A two-time marathoner, she is always looking for her next race.More from this Author