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EP 23 Jason Sizemore: From Teacher to Vegan Business Owner

In this episode of the Teacher Career Coach podcast, I chat with former teacher and current business owner Jason Sizemore. After 21 years serving as a public school teacher and administrator, Jason shifted his focus to another one of his passions: vegan cooking. Follow along as Jason reveals what pushed him to turn his vegan-based side hustle into a full-time business and his realization that being an educator can translate beyond the walls of a classroom. We talk about the mindset challenges he faced throughout his transition, the strategies he used to overcome them, and how he stays connected to schools despite his new role. If you’re someone who has considered the idea of leaving education to start your own business (or are curious about veganism), this episode will provide great insight for you.

Recap and BIG Ideas:

✨ You can love and appreciate what you do and still desire a change in your career. There’s no shame in exploring your passions beyond the classroom. 

✨ You never know where your passions might lead you. Dip your toes into your passions to test the waters before taking the big leap of turning them into a business. 

✨ Many teachers face feelings of guilt when considering leaving, but it’s okay to put your needs first. You can still make a positive impact in professions outside of the classroom. 

✨ There are other ways to stay connected and supportive of education in your community if that’s a big piece of what’s holding you back. 

✨ It can be overwhelming to think about starting over in a new career or starting a business, but the key to success is believing it is possible

Teaching doesn’t have to be confined inside the four walls of a traditional classroom. There are aspects of teaching in many different professions. 
✨ The benefits of adopting a plant-based diet, even if not 100% vegan, extend to animal welfare, personal health, and the environment.

Listen to the episode in the podcast player below, or find it on Apple Podcast or Spotify.

Jason recalls feeling a yearning for change, despite his favorite aspects of education.     

Daphne: Hey, Jason. Thank you so much for joining us here today.

Jason: Hi, Daphne. Thanks for having me.

Daphne: Since you’re a former teacher who started their own business, I wanted to bring you on here because I know that many people have thought about taking this route. They likely have a lot of questions. But before we dive into that, I just wanted to hear a little bit of your experience working in education.

Jason: Sure. I worked in public education for 21 years before I left to pursue this business full-time. I taught in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for years, then I was in New York City for a few years, but I worked most of my career in Allentown, Pennsylvania. 

My primary focus was elementary education, but I liked the variety of moving to different districts, responsibilities, and age levels. At the tail end of my education career, I transitioned into administration as an assistant principal for three years before becoming a principal for three years. 

Daphne: I think a lot of people can resonate with that desire for change. Teaching varies daily, but I think that overall, having the same responsibilities and using the same curriculum can start to feel a little bit stagnant. 

Did you feel like changing cities, districts, and grade levels, helped keep you refreshed and excited about your position?

Jason: For sure. When you’re in the same building or the same district, it can be great to find your groove and find your group and support systems. I always appreciated where I was but knew there was more out there. I’m not a one thing or one place forever kind of person. My drive to teach always came down to the social-emotional aspect of helping kids learn and grow. I was continuously looking for opportunities where I could make a difference. I was definitely motivated by a desire for something new, too. 

Daphne: I didn’t realize that I was the type of person who craved change until I started to experience it. It was really scary at first, especially when I changed districts after two years in the classroom. While it ended up not being a good fit for me, I realized I was actually craving change once I started to explore different opportunities. 

So, it’s great that you were aware of that and continued to pursue those changes throughout your education experience. Did you feel yourself constantly thinking of starting a business, or was that kind of at the tail end of your career?

Jason: There was always a little entrepreneur voice in my head. I had entrepreneur experience in high school and college running a little landscaping business on the side. I enjoyed creating something out of nothing. I liked the pressure of being responsible for everything and the joy of controlling things like my own schedule. So, no matter where I was in education, there was always this feeling that something else exciting was coming.

Even though I was moving around within the education world, I was operating within the structure where I knew what to expect. Taking that leap was definitely a big one, but I would say the desire was always in there. 

There’s no harm in exploring other passions while you’re teaching (you never know where they may lead). 

Daphne: Did you start pursuing your restaurant business while you were still in the school system so you could dip your toes in and feel out how secure or stable the income would be?

Jason: I felt it out and gained experience working in the industry on the side while I was in education. I worked in the evenings and volunteered to do event planning for nonprofits and found so much joy in that. My business started by offering vegan cooking classes in our home to small groups of people, mostly friends and family. They were always asking how I made this or that. 

One summer, after returning home from vacation with my husband, I felt really depressed that the vacation was over and just started listing these menus when I realized that maybe I could teach these recipes to people someday. I have no idea where the idea came from, but it got me to start thinking about how event planning, food, creativity, and teaching could go together. 

The first thing I offered was teaching a vegan Thanksgiving series. I didn’t tell anyone we knew and just advertised on Facebook through vegan Facebook groups to help figure out if this was actually a viable thing. It ended up selling out. So then I did winter comfort foods and then Italian foods. I didn’t start thinking it could become a business or anything, I just needed an escape from school, and it kept growing and growing.

I still wanted to offer my best at school, but that required all of my time. I realized I needed to give up one of the two in some way. I was just loving teaching the cooking.

Daphne: So, were you looking for an exit plan to leave education? Or did this just kind of fall into your lap? 

Jason: Can the answer be both? Because I was never really that person who saw myself teaching in one grade or one classroom forever. I never really saw myself retiring from teaching, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing I needed out of. I just didn’t see myself as the type of person who had a single career path. 

I think I was subconsciously feeling out different options, and then the classes really started to take off. People wanted to buy the products I was making, and a local vegan cafe encouraged me to do that, offering to carry the products if I went that route. The business continuously evolved week after week, and there were more and more opportunities in the vegan space. It was very much a manifesting thing where the more I put it out there, the more it was coming back to me.

Jason explores the guilt and stigmas he faced when considering leaving education and how he pushed past them. 

About six months into running it as a side gig, I realized it could be my next career. So, I seriously started considering leaving education, which came with a lot of emotions. I loved all of the vegan stuff, but there was a lot of guilt around leaving education, the kids, and the teachers I was supporting. 

Daphne: Let’s dive into that a little bit because it is very common. I also experienced that guilt. Nearly every former teacher that I’ve talked to experienced that same feeling because so many of us go into the profession wanting to impact the community. If you decide to leave, you feel like you’re taking away that resource and support from the kids and your co-workers. It’s really hard for us to put ourselves first when we’ve been in a career where others’ needs come first. 

Did you deal with those struggles? 

Jason: That was such a great summary of what I felt and struggled with. I’d put decades into hoping to positively impact these lives. When I was deciding whether or not to leave, I was a principal, so I was giving everything I had to improve the lives of those kids, their families, the teachers, and the support staff of community partners. It was all about making that positive impact and providing that support. 

When I thought about leaving all of that, a lot of abandonment issues came to mind. I was always drawn to the social-emotional aspect of teaching and wanted to help the kids who needed support in that area the most.  So I worried about who would take over my position and how they would support and advocate for those kids and teachers. 

I believe therapy is very important, and I have this wonderful therapist I go to. I remember sharing my concerns with her, and she basically said, “So you’re saying nobody else can do what you can do?” Thinking about that was a huge moment for me, and just realizing that if I made the impact that I think I made, I’d have fostered some of those same belief systems and energies into the people I worked with. They could carry on that leadership. That was a moment that really helped me realize I could move forward and everything, everyone, would be okay. 

Daphne: Since I’ve been working with so many former teachers, I feel like I have the greatest hits compilation of the moments therapists finally got through to them and helped them realize what their next step needed to be. Some of the ones that really resonate with me are the times that therapists have just sat down and quietly said, “You’ve been telling me for the last two years that this job is killing you. Why can’t you go somewhere else? Why do you not believe that you can go to a new career?” 

Now, it doesn’t sound like you were in that situation because you weren’t as burnt out. But in general, teachers are givers who just want to do good and change the world. That takes a toll on us. I always say it’s as if teachers signed this invisible contract tying us to the position forever so we can impact the kids. So, thinking about leaving breaks our brains in a way, and it’s hard for us to realize we can do good and make an impact outside of the classroom, and we’re not bad people if we break that contract. 

You can find ways to stay connected to and supportive of education in your community. 

For example, I know you’ve continued to support students and teachers since you’ve left the classroom, just in a different way than you used to. Can you talk a bit about what you do there? 

Jason: Sure. There’s definitely this weird societal expectation for teachers. They are totally underappreciated, but at the same time, society makes you feel like once you’ve chosen that path, don’t you dare do anything else. I understand those people who work in the schools and feel stuck in that weird space. 

So, that actually leads me to what I do in addition to the vegan business. I work with a foundation that brings mindfulness into schools. When I was a principal, we actually did a pilot of the program at my school with our K-5 students. The learning was for all of the people tied to the school, including everyone from the families down to the cafeteria workers. 

When I decided to leave, I knew I didn’t want to give up that piece of helping kids with the social-emotional aspect because that’s always what drove me throughout my career in education. So, I decided to connect with the foundation on a different level. They welcomed me as an instructor at first. I was going into the same district I had left and mindfulness to 4th and 5th graders. Now, with everything with COVID, I’ve transitioned into a role where I support teachers with self-care through zoom workshops and retreats. Teachers, as you know, work in one of the most stressful jobs, so my role is to provide them with little skills to help them take better care of themselves. In turn, that will benefit the kids. So, I still love that piece of education, and I’m happy to be still involved in it. 

Daphne: A lot of teachers listening are probably really interested in those mindfulness classes. Is that something that is just within that one school district? Or do you do it nationwide?

Jason: Our goal is to do it nationwide, and we’ve actually recently crossed state lines with another school district. We can offer what we do via Zoom, so ultimately, we can do it anywhere. It’s actually our newest initiative where we offer a six-hour training to teach school staff how to lead some basic mindfulness practices in their own life and their classroom without us having to come in and teach their kids ourselves. It’s a way to spread mindfulness without being there in person. 

For Jason, leaving teaching gave him back the power over his time and energy, allowing him to explore other passions and, ultimately, turn a side business into a full-time job. 

Daphne: Okay, so let’s talk about starting your business. It sounds like even with starting a business, you have extra energy and resources where you can still give to the community. I want to address that for a second because I think it’s really important. When I left teaching, I was leaving an atmosphere where I did not feel like I could not take time to enjoy my weekends or even vacations. After I left, I started realizing I had time to start additional income streams. I had time to volunteer at an L.A.-based nonprofit organization that hosts creative writing workshops for kids. There’s more that I can give now that I’ve taken the overwhelming things off of my plate. 

Did you also feel like you had a renewed sense of energy that allowed you to do more?

Jason: Absolutely. Before finding joy in my cooking classes, I was actually removing joyful things from my life because my schedule was just so busy with school-related things. Taking that leap to pursue this business surprisingly opened up more time, and I’m just more in control of my time in general. This venture has led to opportunities I never knew existed or, if I did know, I didn’t have the time for. 

And when you mentioned the weekend and the vacation thing, it reminded me that within a couple of months of leaving, I was finally able to decompress in a whole new way. I mean, I thought I was doing that on the weekends and vacations, but I didn’t really realize how much I actually wasn’t until I left.  

Daphne: Teachers are always talking about how they don’t want to lose their summer breaks if they’re considering leaving, but I don’t remember my summer breaks being that cool. I was always unwinding from a stressful year. As soon as I felt in a good place, I started getting stressed about the year to come. 

Now, that’s not universal to all teachers. There are so many teachers out there who do have systems and time management strategies in place. They might not be struggling in the same way that you and I were. Not all teachers are burned out and a lot are really finding their groove in the industry.  

It can be overwhelming to think about starting over in a new career or starting a business, but you have to believe it is possible. 

But when it came to starting a business with your cooking classes and creating products, do you feel like your passion for being a lifelong learner inspired you to learn the ins and outs of the industry? I can imagine that there was quite a bit that you didn’t know as you were getting started. 

Jason: It did. I had no idea what I was doing. Even with the first cooking class, I remember thinking, “What am I doing?” as people were about to arrive. Along with that question, however, there was an excitement and sense of adventure that kept pushing me forward. 

Honestly, in the beginning, it wasn’t really a business. I was hosting cooking classes to feel it out, but there was definitely a steep learning curve when I wanted to make it more official. I had to work with a lawyer and learn what an LLC was. I needed to learn the state regulation for preparing, serving, packaging, and selling food. There were so many things I didn’t know. At the same time, I was comforted and reassured by the sense of excitement I felt around those questions. I figured it out day by day. 

Prior to this experience, there was always a sense of stress around learning new things because there were always too many things to do. Leaving education allowed me to clear that space and learn something brand new. 

Honestly, in many ways, I’m still teaching. I’m using so many skills I used as a teacher, principal, and leader. There was this whole new world opened up to me with all these brand new skills that I knew nothing about. I knew the ins and outs of public education, but I didn’t know much about the food industry. There I was considering leaving this career filled with security to pursue something that I’d never had training in. I’m not a trained chef. I didn’t go to school for Culinary Arts or anything, but this journey has been really fun. 

Daphne: I think one of the biggest roadblocks people run into when they’re trying to figure things out is they hear about all of the different steps it takes to make the transition and learn something new, like starting a business, and they start to feel overwhelmed.  If you’re already burned out, hearing all the things that you have to do can be so overwhelming that you don’t want to move forward. I mean, I get it. I’ve been in situations where there are just too many things on my plate. 

One of the mindset shifts that has been really impactful for me in these moments of overwhelm is believing that the end result is possible and you can figure out how to make it work. If you don’t think it’s worth figuring out taxes or don’t believe it’s possible to make X dollars, you’re going to block yourself from the possibility of running a successful business altogether. 

I think a lot of people who are just getting started in business don’t realize that they’re already shooting themselves in the foot when they don’t believe something is possible for them. What if, instead, you believe you are going to be successful? Would you put the effort in then? Would you be willing to figure it out if you thought that this could be your full-time income?

Jason: Definitely.

Teaching doesn’t have to be confined inside the four walls of a traditional classroom. 

Daphne: You talk a little bit about how you’re still using your teaching skills and education components in your business today. I feel every single teacher needs to hear that teaching can look different than the traditional sense. You’re going to be a teacher in whatever industry and role you go into. It’s in your nature to want to help people, so what does teaching look like for you in this new career?

Jason: When the classes are in person, I’m there teaching, demonstrating, and modeling these vegan recipes for my audience. Just like in a classroom, they are there to learn. They even ask questions. It’s a very interactive learning experience. 

I always say the big difference is that everyone who comes to my classes wants to be there and wants to learn everything they can. It’s a lot different than leading a group of kids, or even adults in some cases,  who are not in tune with what is going on for whatever reason. People who come to my classes sign up because they want to come in. Being in an environment where everyone’s there to learn together is incredible. 

Then there’s all the work leading up to the class. I’m planning menus, tweaking recipes, advertising, marketing, sending shopping lists, etc. There are all these different steps that feel like lesson planning and prepping in a way.  The classes are usually between an hour and two hours, and I love mapping out what we’ll be doing with that time. 

So there’s that in-person connection to education, but then there’s a whole component around teaching what vegan food is, what the health benefits are, and what the reasons are for people going vegan. This education piece has opened doors for new opportunities for me, too. For example, I’ve been invited to teach different high school home economics classes.  I was never comfortable with that age group as a traditional teacher, but with this topic, it’s been great. Another thing is I’m teaching at local libraries, so it’s just been great reaching different audiences.

I always tell people to come to the class if they’re vegan, vegan-curious, or just hungry. It doesn’t matter who you are or why you’re coming. Honestly, most people aren’t vegan, which I never really thought about when I was starting out. So, it’s cool because people are there for many different reasons they’re there for many different reasons, and I just love getting people excited about food and comfortable with cooking. I’ve realized cooking is a big fear for a lot of people, so I try to work through that by making everything accessible in the way I teach. I just want them to discover new ways to look at food and they always ask about why I went vegan and what not.  

Daphne: You are speaking my language because both my fiance and I are vegan. We took a vegan cooking class with one of the restaurants around here, and one of the things he explained was why he used one type of nut over a different kind of nut while making nacho cheese. By the end, I felt like he taught me a lot about why certain ingredients are used over others to add more nutritional value to their recipes. So, even as a vegan, I learned so much from that class. 

Jason and I talk about the benefits of plant-based diets, including what led Jason to get serious about being vegan. 

I really wanted to bring you on here today because I knew that this was an opportunity to not just talk with a teacher-turned-business owner but how you can translate a passion for something into a lifestyle. I started out as a vegetarian because I struggled with giving up dairy altogether. The main reason why I went vegan was climate change. It’s my way of doing what I can to help alleviate some of the pollutants that are sent out during agriculture. 

After going into vegetarianism and then veganism, it was easier for me to kind of scale back and realize the impact that my decision had on animals and animal rights. So, what was your reason for becoming vegan,

Jason: I went vegetarian before going vegan. I started by slowly giving up meat and then went strictly vegetarian for the sake of animal welfare and food safety. And I hadn’t thought much about veganism, but my dad and grandfather both died at a very young age from the same heart condition I live with. My dad was an extremely healthy bike rider and thought he was on the path to beat this condition, but then he was suddenly gone. 

That kicked both my husband and me into gear, thinking about what we could do to make sure we’re caring for ourselves. That’s when we watch the amazing documentary, Forks Over Knives. Check it out if you haven’t already. It’s not in-your-face visuals of awful things happening to animals, but more about looking at the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet, including why it’s better for your heart. So, my heart was the reason that we decided to dive into veganism. 

People always say cheese and dairy, in general, are the hardest things to give up, and I’ve been there. But honestly, there are so many things now that are great replacements for those things you think you’ll miss. So, for me, the leap to veganism was the health aspect, but it’s also about compassion. But it’s honestly about all of the animal welfare, health, and the environment. They’re all so important. More and more people are coming to my classes with curiosity and concern around the environmental aspect, which is great. 

Curious about getting started with veganism? 

Daphne: I actually receive many DMs on Instagram when I share what I’m eating or cooking, and people are curious. Even though I’m not 100% vegan, that’s not something that should be shamed. Nobody has to be 100% vegan to want to share recipes with them or share advice on helping take things off of their plate. 

The first piece of advice I give to people who want to start implementing more plant-based recipes into their diet is to think of the things that are non-negotiable for you. What is it that you can’t, or don’t want to, give up? Then, see how you feel if you scale back 75% of the other things you’re consuming besides that non-negotiable. 

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing thinking, but something does have to give. If you look at what’s happening to the environment, we all have to do our part and figure out what we can do to help move forward if we are concerned about climate change.

Jason: It’s your journey, so you just have to make changes along the way. You’ll get there in the way you can. With most of my classes, I’ll try to make them vegan versions of non-vegan food. If you like the taste of this vegan taco dip just as much as your non-vegan tacos, then why would you not choose to make the vegan one? It’s better for you and better for the world. I love when my guests, even those who aren’t vegan, carry on those substitutions in their everyday lives. 

Daphne: I always tell people who have tried a vegetarian burger or vegan cheese in the past to try it again because things have gotten so much better. This is the time to try those products and make those substitutions. 

Don’t miss out on Jason’s incredible cooking classes!  

Jason, thank you so much for coming on to share your story and everything about your new vegan-based business. This episode is coming out in March 2021, so for my live listeners, what types of events do you have coming up that they may want to get involved in?

Jason: Check out my website, butterheadkitchen.com. That’s where I have all the classes listed. We have some Easter and Passover vegan classes coming up, as well as our popular Italian series where we make some vegan cheeses from scratch. There’s always an option to contact me, and I can build a class specifically for you and your friends or family. I can do them online, so location isn’t a problem. So you’re not limited to the public classes I offer. You can always message me to figure out a private, personalized class. Definitely check that out because the classes are really fun, and you get the shopping list ahead of time, so you can cook along at home if you want. You can also just watch and then cook them in the future. That’s cool, too.

Daphne: My fiance and I will definitely be joining some of those online classes. Thank you so much, Jason. I really appreciate you coming on today.

Jason: Thank you, Daphne. You’re doing amazing work for teachers. It was an honor to be here. 

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