From the Zoo to the Classroom

OCTOBER 2, 2012

Photo: Emily Long

A few days ago, I found myself sitting in a group interview with three other young women who wanted to be teachers, just like me.  The superintendent asked us to tell him about our teaching career.  All of the others recounted stories of a Kindergarten teacher they aspired to be like or how for as long as they could remember, they just knew that they belonged in the classroom and teaching was the only career path for them.  When the administrators on the panel turned their eyes to me, I was honest and told them that although I had always loved working with children and one summer had even set up a school for my brother, teaching was not my first career path.  In fact, up until about a year ago, I was on a completely different journey.

Like those other women in the interview, I had an aspiration for as long as I could remember: I wanted to work with animals.  First I wanted to be a veterinarian, but during an internship I realized I could not handle how depressing the work could be.  That, and I fainted every time an animal was opened up on the table.  So that was slowly becoming a less viable option for me.  I went to college in Washington, D.C. and decided to volunteer at the National Zoo.  I learned there that I loved being in a zoo setting and that I was very passionate about conservation and environmentalism.  I set my sights towards working in a zoo and was lucky enough to land a full-time position right out of college at a zoo near my home in New Jersey.

I was fond of working at the zoo for a while; it was certainly an exciting job and the animals were a blast to work with.  However as time went on, I began to doubt whether or not this job was my “forever” thing.  At times, the manual labor and the long hours were beyond exhausting, and I could not see carrying this job out into my adulthood.  However, during my first summer at the zoo I had the opportunity to work with the campers.  I loved educating them about the world around them; teaching them about the animals, their place in the world, and what they could do to help protect our fragile ecosystems.  I realized something I should have noticed back in college: I was passionate about teaching others about conservation and environmentalism, not about the study of the fields themselves.  Right then I knew I needed a change, and I began looking into Post-Baccalaureate teaching education programs.

One thing I learned from all of this is that it is never too late to change.  I thought that just because I had graduated from college and embarked on one life path it was too late to go back and choose another one.  That is completely false.  I believe many of us were trained to think that by the time we graduated from college we should have it all figured out – where we are going to live, where we would work, who we would marry.  But that is not the case at all.  Unless you have taken the time during college to explore all of your interests and spent countless hours trying different jobs and internships, you cannot be expected to have an ironclad stance on how your life is going to turn out after graduation.  Your twenties are a pivotal time for trying on different hats, growing enduring friendships, and discovering the person you are going to grow into.

The second piece of advice I would give is to never give up, especially when it comes to sometimes tedious tasks like finishing school or finding a job.  There are always a million reasons not to do something, and it takes everything you have to be able to resist all of those reasons.  As someone who wants to go into the teaching field, I hear, “There aren’t any jobs!” all of the time, and I’m sure many of you in other industries have heard the same.  It is not true.  Of course there are jobs, you just need to go looking for them!  This is when it is important to step out of your comfort zone and go after that job that may seem out of reach or would require you to move away.  I do not think I understood the term “networking” until I interviewed in many different schools and asked my parents to reach out to friends in the industry.  Do not undervalue the power of a good word.

This spring, I sent out approximately 75 applications.  I remember spending the entire month of May agonizing over how fruitless my job search was, and I was letting myself become discouraged by others who were looking for teaching jobs and not finding success.  But I kept applying, I kept scouring the newspaper and the Internet, and I became friends with the postman because I saw him almost every day during the week as I handed him manila envelope after manila envelope.  And now, I have a position as a long-term substitute in a local high school.  The person I was in college would have been disappointed that this is not a more permanent position, but now I can see the value in this small bit of experience and hope that my professional network and my competence as a teacher will grow through this position.

Over the course of this transition, I have learned it is never too late to make a change, whether it is a change in location, in your job, or in your relationship.  This is the time to take chances and explore every opportunity life has given you.  I can safely say that making this career change, even when I thought it might be too late or too difficult, is the one decision in my life that has left me with no regrets.




  • Pat 5 years ago

    Very wise! The journey is all about the process. Or is it the process is all about the journey? Whatever. This is a great piece!