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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

Ask an Expert: How Can I Switch From Teaching to Working at a Nonprofit

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Dear Victoria,

The one thing I’m currently struggling with is how to change careers. I’ve been an educator for 18 years. I’m burned out and tired of all the politics involved. I’ve taught in public, private, and charter schools.

I’m 41 and have no idea how to take my skills as an educator into another profession. I hold a B.S. and a master’s degree, both in the field of education. I still have 20+ years until retirement and can’t imagine spending them in a classroom.

How do I enter another industry? I don’t want to head back to college for another degree. I know I’m trainable and feel confident I could learn almost anything if given a chance. Your advice would be greatly appreciated!


Dear Mara,

As you probably know, the urge to transition to a new career is quite common; it can happen several times in one’s working life. After talking to friends or acquaintances, you may have discovered many are frantically trying to figure out how to balance work and family responsibilities with school so they can get a new degree and change careers.

This belief, however (that going back to school is a requirement for making a career change), is definitely not one to take to heart! In fact, I’d say you’re in a great strategic position, as teaching is a profession that allows for the honing of several different transferable skills.

Your Classroom Experience May Be Far More Relevant Than You Imagined

It’s just a matter of thinking about your experiences in broader terms. For example, in your current role, do you (or have you):

  • Manage a group of people?
  • Administer and analyze assessments?
  • Provide feedback and constructive criticism?
  • Communicate to a large group?
  • Coach individuals toward improved performance?

Most likely, you’ll respond “yes” to all of the above. However, it may look a little different on your resume as it currently reads.

So, one of the things you’ll want to do is make it more palatable to an audience outside of the teaching profession by omitting the words that deal with it explicitly, and filling them in with substitutes.

The reader of your resume may not see a connection between your abilities and the work at their organization if your resume is laden with words like “classroom,” “student,” and “Parent-Teacher Association.” Remove the teacher-specific terms and share your career narrative in a way that allows an employer to see your skills (and your fit at their organization) more clearly.

Shannon Linton is a teacher who made the transition to a nonprofit career and now works in the operations department at Big Thought. She credits flexibility as an immeasurable benefit when you’re making the switch. While teachers may have a lesson plan and pre-determined schedule, what occurs in the classroom can result in a needed switch at any moment. In addition, you can use the flexibility you have in communicating with different constituents.

Having to switch your communication style frequently depending on your audience—students, administration, and parents—and being adept at communicating with each group can be quite an asset.

Shannon also became strategic in the ways she would share her career story to employers. For example, she recalls that during interviews, she was frequently asked about project management: “If I was asked how I handled 20-30 employees, I realized I could put a different lens on the question. When I first moved into nonprofits I thought I’d never had employees before. But I did manage those numbers in the classroom.”

Once you start thinking in broader terms, you will more clearly see the potential matches as well as articulate your abilities in a way that will engage an employer, too.

Try Reflecting on the Reasons You Wanted to Become a Teacher in the First Place

I had a chat with my colleague Brian Chester, Community Support Associate at Idealist, who said, “One of my main reasons for wanting to become a teacher was so that I could help people, specifically children. Teaching was a great way to accomplish a very specific goal as far as educating future generations about the world and how to succeed.”

He later discovered that at nonprofits, the goal can be much wider and he was surprised he hadn’t made the connection sooner, that there could be a great fit for him in the social impact space.

What do you do when employers ask you why you want to make the switch? Here’s what Brian had to say:

I had limited experience in nonprofits and volunteer work, so I actually had to really solidify my reason for making the switch. Interestingly, by being asked these questions, I was forced to answer them for myself, too. I knew I was drawn to and wanted to become a part of the nonprofit community, but I hadn’t quite verbalized why. After and even during each interview though, I learned things about myself and my answers became more developed than simply, ‘It just feels right’ (which it did and still does even now).

Once he was able to understand his own reason for making the switch, it became easier to explain that to potential employers.

Brian also recommends speaking with people you know who are already working at nonprofits and asking for advice. Practice your answers to interview questions with them. Brian recalls practicing his response to the question, “Why do you want to make the transition?” and shares:

“At first, my friends didn’t completely believe me because my response was too vague and general. I would give them my answer, leave, reflect a bit, and then come back with a better answer. Remember that your reason for transitioning may make sense to you and people who know you well, but you’re making a case to people who have dedicated their lives to their passion, and they don’t want to hire someone who isn’t earnest in that passion.”

Mara, I wish you much success in your transition.

To your success,

This article was originally published on Idealist Careers. It has been republished here with permission.