96 - Leah Dawdy: From Education To Non-Profit - Teacher Career Coach

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From education to non profit - Teacher Career Coach

96 – Leah Dawdy: From Education To Non-Profit

TeacherCareerCoach

In this episode, I am talking to Leah Dawdy, a former teacher who left the classroom after wearing different hats for four years and now actually works as a program and volunteer manager for a non-profit.

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

From Education to Non-Profit with Leah Dawdy

Daphne Gomez:
Welcome to the Teacher Career Coach podcast. I’m your host, Daphne Gomez. I want to start with a quick thank you to this audience. Thank you so much for all of the love we are seeing and receiving on social media recently. We appreciate getting tagged and anytime that teachers are asking for support finding new careers outside of the classroom. We appreciate every time you share that you’re a former teacher and that the Teacher Career Coach podcast helped you get there. We just appreciate every single time you help other teachers find this support by sharing that we even exist. We could not be doing this without your support, and we just appreciate it so much. So, thank you for being a listener, thank you for helping others, and thank you for just being you. Now, I am very excited about the interview that I’m sharing today.

I am talking to Leah Dawdy, a former teacher who left the classroom after wearing different hats for four years and now actually works as a program and volunteer manager for a non-profit. I know so many of you out there are looking for something that is intrinsically motivating and still helping others. And I love anytime I get to interview someone who works at a nonprofit because I know so many of you are interested. So, I will get straight to the interview. Now, make sure you listen to the very end of this interview where we share all about her new role and tips for other people who are looking for similar types of work.

Hey Leah, thank you so much for being here today.

Leah Dawdy:
Thank you for having me. This is awesome.

Daphne Gomez:
Leah, I always start off with kind of the same question. And I know that when I read the bio about you, you talked about how you wore all the many different hats in education. Do you mind sharing a little bit about your history and education and what you did prior to leaving the classroom?

Leah Dawdy:
Yeah, so I actually had a bit of a short stint in teaching. I got my masters and my teaching credential all at once, and then I taught first and third at a brand new school. And then when I moved from California to Washington, I taught all K-6 computer lab as a para. And then while teaching too, we had to do all of the duties and things, and so different hats there. But yeah, and it was a STEAM school so we had to do a lot of Lego robotics and things like that, so it was really stretching me out of my comfort zone, and then kind of shoving me back into a new place.

Daphne Gomez:
How long were you in the classroom total before you started thinking of leaving?

Leah Dawdy:
I was in the classroom for four years, five if you count the student teaching, because we student taught the entire school year. And I started thinking about leaving after year two actually, mostly because it was, like I said, a brand new school and everything was kind of messy in that. It was K-8, it was STEAM, it was Inclusion, it was GATE, it was AVID all in the first year, with more than half our staff being brand new teachers and a brand new principal and a brand new librarian. And it just was very stressful because the veteran teachers wanted to support us as best they could, but also, they had to get their stuff done and it just became this imbalance of wanting to do what was best for the new teachers and also wanting to do what was best for you.

Daphne Gomez:
Personally, when I left the classroom my very last year, I had the GATE cluster. And I loved working with the GATE cluster. It was my first time doing it as far as the students went. I was a GATE student when I was in elementary school. I was just so excited to do all the different lessons like project based learning, but the expectations and the demands from the parents were often very unrealistic, and that was something that I did not anticipate. And I could imagine probably with the demographic that you’re talking about with your new school, and potentially with people who don’t have experience setting very firm boundaries, especially the admin, the teachers who are newer, they may have been a little bit steamrolled. Was that something that was an issue at that school?

Leah Dawdy:
I think for the new teachers especially, yes. The veteran teachers were so great about trying to help us set boundaries, especially I think because it would help them with their boundaries they were trying to set with us. But yeah, definitely, GATE parents had really high expectations for this school, especially because it was all about STEAM too. And then at the same time, so I had… My second year teaching was in third grade. I had been moved from first… And that was the other thing too, is there was a lot of shuffling. So, my first year teaching, I was supposed to teach kinder. All of the teaching stores and got all the center supplies and I was super ready. And then the week before school opened, I was told, “Oh, you’re teaching first grade.” And so I had bought all of my things and had to make this shift and felt very off kilter. And then on my team, only one teacher had taught first grade before, and only two of them had teaching experience, period. And there was five of us on that team.

So, it was just a lot for our one teacher who knew how to teach first grade. I feel like I’m losing track of what question you were asking me. Oh, GATE. We were talking about GATE and parents. So, with the shuffling, I went from first to third. She had asked me, my principal had asked me if I wanted to teach seventh grade, and I said no thanks because I want to want to baby steps up to middle school because I was terrified of middle school. So, teaching third grade was a totally different experience because I had the GATE kids and the kind of expectations that come with that from parents, and I had the Inclusion kids at the same time. So, I had reading levels from pre-K all the way through seventh grade. And reading groups were impossible because I had one kid in seventh, one kid in fifth, most kids in third, and then five kids in the pre-K to grade two range. So, it just felt like a lot all the time.

Daphne Gomez:
I think the word that you use to describe that, impossible, is something that many teachers have put on their plates and are kind of told, “No, you can figure this out.” But many of the times, it is truly… This is a little bit of an impossible ask.

Leah Dawdy:
Yeah.

Daphne Gomez:
This is unrealistic.

Leah Dawdy:
Exactly. It was definitely… It felt like an impossible ask. And we were trying so hard as a third grade team to balance. You try to do the balanced classrooms. And at a certain point, it tips either direction a little too far, and then you just don’t know what to do for the kids. And then after year two, well at the end of year two, COVID hit, and actually, going online was the best thing for my class because I had a lot of leaders, a lot of kids who didn’t know how to hone their leadership skills in particular.

And so they kept trying to be like, “I’m the boss in this room.” And I would try to encourage them to use that leadership and develop those skills, but it turned into arguments with each other all the time. And so going online, they didn’t have the same understanding of the space, and so we got to start from scratch all over again. And that was another thing that I had to do all the time, was just remember our classroom rules. We are a family. We work together to solve our problems. And it was like every week, I was having to do these interventions. So, we’re going back to basics. Week one, set the expectations. And it just never felt like it quite sank in until we went online with COVID.

Daphne Gomez:
That’s interesting that you felt like going online actually solved a lot of the problems. So, let’s move forward to now you are starting to actually actively look for roles. How did you start to find roles outside of the classroom?

Leah Dawdy:
So, I used the teacher career coach courses. I used a lot of the lists actually that you shared on social and in the courses of these are the kinds of things that teachers go for. So, I started by looking into the program management side and development side with tech careers in particular, educational tech and things like that. Spruced up my resume using that part of the course and really tried to keep it… One of the things that I loved about my teacher resume was I got to keep it playful. I had little cartoon kids on it and it was just very poppy outy, very fun.

Daphne Gomez:
And then you get into the course materials and I tell you that you don’t get to use it anymore.

Leah Dawdy:
Yes, but I did get to use a fun color that was still professional, so I really appreciated that. Yeah, it’s just such a different process applying to teaching jobs. I mean, when I was applying to teaching with a master’s, I applied to 36 different school districts, because in California, at the time, I don’t know if it’s still the same, but you applied to the districts, not to the grade level, not to the school. And I got three interviews.

Daphne Gomez:
Yeah.

Leah Dawdy:
And then from there, one person picked me up. I didn’t even have a choice. It was just kind of like, okay, well, you’re who wants me, and so I will go there. And I was very grateful for that and it just was very stressful. But outside of teaching, it doesn’t feel the same, because I applied to three different jobs and got two interviews, and then fell in love with what I’m doing now.

So, it just was such a different experience. And that is not a normal story either. I feel like that timeline is very rapid that you only for three jobs outside of teaching, because the norm is, especially when you’re applying for roles that you don’t have any formal experience for, it is going to be more challenging for you to get a foot in the door. And that’s why it’s so important to translate your resume and make sure that you’re identifying the roles that you’re truly qualified for by reading job descriptions, which I know you did when you were inside the course as well.

Daphne Gomez:
What types of roles were you the most excited about applying for? And I know you only did three total before landing your position.

Leah Dawdy:
Yeah, I was scouring the internet, to be fair, but I was so… The reason it was only three is because of what you said about formal experience. I didn’t feel like, because I had only ever worked with kids and because I had done the master’s right out of undergrad and didn’t have any time in between… So, I worked at a movie theater and that was the only time I had ever not worked with kids. I babysat and did LA Fitness Kids Club, and then taught. And so it was all that I know as a real career, air quotes, was teaching. So, I felt like I didn’t have anywhere else to go, which is another reason why the podcast and the courses and everything really gave me that boost that I needed so that I could see other teachers are breaking out, other teachers like me who don’t have a whole lot of teaching experience.

But that experience, even though I didn’t have a lot of years in it, I learned so much from all of my failures and all of my successes, and it all just kind of built into this thing. So anyway, I was scouring the internet looking for a bunch of different jobs and so I ended up with a list of 20. And I told myself, okay, looking at the deadlines, which one would I be crushed if I missed? And I didn’t want to get into a situation again where I was applying to 36 different places and having a hard time keeping track and sending an email a week later saying, “Hey, just checking in on my application,” because that was exhausting. I felt like I’m comfortable enough as a para that I could continue to do it the following year. And I was actually pushing to be an art teacher as well instead of the tech, because we could only do one or the other at my school, but that’s a whole other story.

So, I chose my top three, applied to those, and then got a second interview with one, and ended up getting that job so I had to pull out of the other options. I feel like I’m losing your question again.

From education to non profit - Teacher Career Coach

Daphne Gomez:
Let’s keep moving from there. So, what is your new role outside of the classroom?

Leah Dawdy:
Yeah, so now I am a program and volunteer manager at a nonprofit. I never had any volunteer experience except for, “Hey parents, we’re doing this activity with students, come join us.” And so it was a very… I did a lot of research before that interview because I knew it was going to come up. And when it did, it was kind of like, yes, I’ve done research, look at me, I know what I’m talking about, very vaguely surface level Google. And so that gave me, I think, a little more of a leg up because it showed that I cared about it, that I really desperately wanted this job because I believed in the mission and the things that they were trying to do with kids.

And that’s the other thing, is it was working with kids. We target the low income youth in our area because we really want to give them opportunities that they don’t otherwise get because of barriers to cost or barriers to high quality items. We have iPads in our station and Apple pencils, so if they want to be a digital artist, they can come be a digital artist. If they want to write a novel on a laptop, we’ve got laptops. They can do that. We have a makerspace with clay and paint and pastels and all sorts of really fun stuff. We used to do… Before the pandemic, before I signed on, it used to be also adults workshops and things like that. But with the pandemic and volunteer shortages, which I have inherited, which is terrifying, we had to really pair back and say, what’s the core of what we do?

And at the end of the day, it was helping the kids. So, we put on programs like summer camps that are so vastly different. We had a Lego robotics camp. Girls Rock Lab is one of our famous camps, well, famous in the area. The girls all formed bands and they play at the library, and there’s a whole concert and everyone’s invited. It’s super cool. It turned out so beautifully this year. Yeah, we do all sorts of really cool things that just span art, writing, STEAM, all that stuff, and it was exactly what I didn’t know I was looking for.

Daphne Gomez:
Yeah, that sounds like a really perfect role, especially for a former teacher. I think one thing that many teachers would potentially be nervous about is whether or not this is a huge pay cut from your teacher’s salary. Do you mind sharing whether or not you took a cut?

Leah Dawdy:
Yeah, so I took a pay cut when I came to Washington from California. In California, as a classroom teacher, I was making in the fifties with a masters. And then when I came out here, I wasn’t ready for a teaching job because of just all of the things I’d been feeling. I mean, I started going to therapy. It was a whole thing from California, just first year teacher, second year teacher, all of that stuff I’d talked about before with the mess of a first year school with all these different things it was trying to be and do, and it just fell apart for me. Other teachers were wildly successful. I just didn’t find my footing. And so I was carrying that nervousness, that anxiety with me into Washington when I moved here. And so I was actually trying to break out when I moved, and then I talked myself out of it because it’s all I know how to do and it’s all that I’ve ever done. And what else am I qualified for?

And so I decided to go for a para position. So, I took a pay cut and started making, I want to say it was 20,000 a year as a para full time. And then when I came to the nonprofit I started making 40,000. So, it doubled since that, which is so nice.

Daphne Gomez:
Do you see room for growth within this really great organization that you are working for you personally?

Leah Dawdy:
I think yes and no. I see growth in terms of the internal, I’m doing something great for my community, and this means something. That’s what I need out of a job. I can’t just do a job that I don’t believe in because I just shut down. I can’t. But so with career growth, it’s a team of six, so it’s very, very small, and it’s so centralized to where we’re at. It’s not like other nonprofits like Habitat, is gigantic. They’re global. But there has been shifting in the past and they try to promote from within. One of my supervisors ends up leaving the position, then I could potentially take that spot. I would just have to think really hard about whether or not I want to because the part that I love about my job is putting together these programs, the summer camps and the family and community events and the volunteer drives. I really enjoy putting these creative spaces together and telling families and kids, “Have at it.”

Daphne Gomez:
With the role itself, have you seen any changes in work life balance?

Leah Dawdy:
Oh, massive, yes. As a teacher, a regular classroom teacher, I had no work life balance. I even joined that 40 hour teacher work week, whatever that… I think it’s the 40 hour teacher work week. It’s a mouthful. And I joined that and I was like, “Yeah, yeah, all of this makes sense. All of this is great.” And actually it was one of my coworkers who said, “You need to take a look at this,” because I was spending a stupid amount of time just trying to get the next day planned, but that’s the life of a new teacher. And so anyway, I joined the 40 hour teacher work week.

Daphne Gomez:
With the change into this new position, did you see any changes with your work life balance?

Leah Dawdy:
A hundred percent, yeah. So, I, as a teacher, had no time control. It doesn’t help that I also have ADHD, the inattentive kind, and so I just generally have no sense of time that’s accurate. I’m like, oh, dishes take a whole hour to do. Oh my gosh. But it gets worse when I’m teaching because it’s like, oh, I have to get the lesson plans for tomorrow done. Oh, I have to make sure that it crosses over for the whole week and makes sense. Oh, I have to make sure that it flows. I have to make sure I do science. I have to make sure I’m building in all these other things that are expected because we are an AVID, STEAM, Inclusion K-8 school.

And so my work life balance absolutely sucked. And I’m married to him now, thank goodness, but my boyfriend at the time kept trying to pull me out and say, “You need to do something for you. You need to go to bed. You need to just stop staring at the papers.” And I’m so grateful for him for that, because if he wasn’t there to tell me to take breaks and to leave it for tomorrow, and if he wasn’t there to say your to-do list will never end,” I never would’ve stopped. I would’ve run on four hours of sleep and five cups of coffee and all of that. So, becoming a para was interesting because someone else was lesson planning for us. So, we had a teacher on special assignment assigned to us and she would do the lesson plans. And so all I had to do was teach.

So, even though I took a massive pay cut, I really appreciated what it did for my mental health because I actually could leave work at work. I wasn’t expected to grade anything. I had no room on the report card because I wasn’t a teacher. I was a para. But at the same time, I missed the freedom to say, “This is what I want to do and this is how I want the kids to experience these standards.” And I wanted to do more project based stuff. And we’d fallen into this rut with computer lab where we were watching videos and doing PowerPoints or watching videos and doing some project on the iPads. And I pointed it out to our teacher on special assignment. She’s fabulous. She was like, “Yeah, I hear you. I totally see it.” And so she started to make changes to it, but that was as I was on my way out, and so I don’t know what that came to be.

And then as the nonprofit, I think my work life balance is kind of forced in Washington to be good because I am legally, without permission from my boss ahead of time, not allowed to exceed 40 hours in a work week. So, I try really hard not to answer emails. And it’s the same thing the teachers say, “Don’t answer emails on spring break, don’t answer emails on the weekend, leave it for…” But then for teachers, for me at least, if I left it for the next work day, I would never get to it because it was always go, go, go. You’re with the kids all the time, and inside recess. Oh my gosh, there’s no time for anything. So yeah, it’s definitely a lot better now.

Daphne Gomez:
I want to go back to some of the questions that maybe they asked you as a non-profit trying to figure out whether or not you would be a good fit because this job on paper sounds like it’s the perfect fit for a teacher and of course you’re going to be qualified, but it did sound like you did a lot of homework to alleviate any concerns that they had. Were there parts of your teaching job that did not translate on paper to this job? And how did you help alleviate any of those concerns?

Leah Dawdy:
So with the volunteer side of the job specifically, aside from just Googling what can I do, I was also talking with my mother-in-law who works with a bunch of different non-profits already. And so she gave me a lot of really great advice. And so I just took all of that into the… I actually had a whole page of notes that I was ready to reference if I got too frazzled and lost my train of thought, which happens every time. And so I had my little bulleted list of, look into companies that pay their employees to volunteer and look into churches and look into LGBTQ groups and look into all of the local pockets that want to serve the community, that have the same goals that we do to ignite creativity and imagination and innovation through project based learning. The volunteer side was really hard in the interview. I was even very transparent about it. I straight up said, “Listen, I don’t have any volunteer or managerial experience. I’ve never been in charge of people before except for little tiny kids running around a classroom.”

That said, I also said that I was going to be the hardest worker for them in terms of learning how to do this the way that they want me to do it and targeting the populations out here that maybe they hadn’t thought about before, or maybe they had. I didn’t try to sound very like, “Yes, I know all of these things.” I was very transparent about just, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m here to learn it. And I think they really respected that. And so when I got the job, my boss, the executive director of this nonprofit even said, “Obviously…” She said, “Obviously…” And I’ve like got cold and sweaty, and I was like, oh God. “Obviously, volunteering is the hardest part for you because you don’t know what you’re doing, but…” And she said it very nicely, but she said that all the other things I had said about program managing and my experience as an educator and what I believe education should be, she said that was what sold her.

Daphne Gomez:
It aligned with their company mission, their nonprofit mission?

Leah Dawdy:
Yeah.

Daphne Gomez:
That is so amazing. With those interview questions, I love that you knew someone that had similar experience that you could go pick. That reminds me a lot of the networking piece of helping you figure out the gaps that you may have with this next career choice. It sounds like you were using some parts of the course where I was talking about going into your network and seeing who has similar experiences. Your mother-in-law having experience in nonprofit is just such a huge win for you to be able to ask those types of questions. There’s parts of the teacher career coach course where we always share the top questions that human resources or people in hiring are asking teachers when they come in. And one of those questions is, why are you leaving teaching? Did they ask you this question?

Leah Dawdy:
They did. They asked it I think in a more subtle way, less direct. I don’t remember the exact, “Why are you leaving teaching?” But it was definitely like, “Why would you leave that job for this job?” So, they phrased it more like, “Why do you want to be with us?” But I did speak to why I wanted to leave teaching, and what it just boiled down to for me was I was just more excited about being able to do these project based learning experiences with the kids. And I didn’t feel like I was getting that where I was at. And I didn’t really know for sure if I wanted to go back into the classroom, but I also knew that the classroom would always be there. And so I was just very upfront with them about, I’m just excited about what you guys are doing here and I feel like I fit in really well, and I like the vibe of the website. And I’ve been into the space and it just feels right.

And so I talked a lot about being, in some ways guided, and in some ways constrained by the standards and wanting to be able to give kids these messy, fun experiences and help them learn something from it instead of just, read a book, what did you learn?

Daphne Gomez:
Being able to confidently answer that question is such a game changer. And it’s much easier if you are absolutely in love with the job in front of you, but there are some people who struggle with this question, especially if they say something like, why are you leaving teaching but you’re applying for jobs that you haven’t done your homework, that you’re not necessarily excited about? They are going to sense that energy, and that is potentially going to be the red flag that… If something on your face is, oh, because I dislike teaching but not about the job in front of you, that could be the reason why you don’t get a call back. But this one sounds like you knew that you loved it and you did a great job answering it. Thinking about your future, what do you feel like would be your next five year goals as working inside nonprofits? Where do you see yourself going from here?

Leah Dawdy:
I am just so satisfied with where I’m at right now, that my five year goal is just to keep it up. I want to stay where I’m at with the people that I’m with, if they choose to stay. I know that things change, people move, everyone’s five year goals look different, but I just really appreciate the team that I’m on because we are so willing to change hats and support each other. If our donor and event coordinator needs help with something, okay, suddenly, I’m the donor, my donor hat is on, my event coordinator hat is on and I’m in there with her. And it’s not different from teaching in that way, but it feels, having only been a new teacher, I don’t feel like I ever became a veteran teacher because I was never in the same grade level two years in a row.

It felt different in that I didn’t have to lean on the people that I work with too much because I know that I’m good at my job. And that was an experience that I didn’t get to in teaching. I felt like I was good, but I didn’t feel like I was good enough, if that makes sense. And so I just want to stay with it. I want to keep doing… If not program and volunteer manager, it would just be great to keep doing programs for the kids, or if I ended up leaving this nonprofit or found something different that was still in line with that, just all of the experiences that I can bring to kids who don’t get to do it, like summer camps that maybe even camping camps that kids don’t get to do because it’s all paid stuff. I just really want to continue to bring that to the kids in my area.

Daphne Gomez:
So, I know that you mentioned that you have a very small team, and I know that means there’s probably no openings at your company, but for any teachers who are listening who just might be in the same area as you are, that are interested in either volunteering or giving parents a resource to understand where these volunteer activities are for their students, do you mind sharing a little bit more about the actual non-profit that you’re working at?

Leah Dawdy:
Oh yeah.

Daphne Gomez:
Or what the name is.

Leah Dawdy:
Yeah. So, my nonprofit is called Spark Central. You can visit us at spark-central.org. We have a couple of minor openings. They’re more internship things, but they close in about a week, so I don’t know if they’re really worth by the time this goes live.

Daphne Gomez:
And also, the internships are great ways for you to get something on your resume. So, if you are volunteering, make sure you always put that on your resume. But by the time we do this, don’t know if there will be something listed on it. What neighborhood is it located in or what city?

Leah Dawdy:
We are in Spokane, Washington. We try to target West Central since that’s where we’re located and that’s historically where the most need has been. But because of a recent housing boom in Spokane and just everybody moving and new families coming in, we are more expansive. We’re going out into the schools to provide programming for after school kids. We are trying to find new places to go out and bring programming to other folks and really just trying to find the community that we want to serve the most, which is those low income families who you don’t just need something creative to do.

Daphne Gomez:
So, if any teachers are listening and you’re in Spokane, Washington, make sure to check out that website. We will have it linked in today’s show notes as well. Leah, thank you so much for coming on the show. I want to end with one question. What did you learn about yourself during this entire career change process?

Leah Dawdy:
Yeah, that’s a really good question. I learned that I’m not restricted to where I’ve been in a way that I thought that I had been. I thought that all I could ever do was teach. And in a lot of ways, I am still teaching, but I learned that it doesn’t have to be in the same capacity, and just I’m a lot more resilient than I thought that I was to change.

Daphne Gomez:
I love that. Resilience is something that I feel like we don’t give ourselves credit for. And it’s scary, but I’m just so happy for you. It sounds like you found a perfect fit, and so grateful for you for coming on and sharing your story. So, thank you so much, Leah, for being here.

Leah Dawdy:
Yeah, thank you so much for having me. This was awesome.

Daphne Gomez:
I want to give a huge thank you to Leah for coming on and sharing her story with this audience. If you are looking for more resources to help you find work in non-profits or just to learn from someone else, we actually did another interview back in the past. It’s episode 53 where we talked to another guest who worked in non-profits. So, you may want to go back and check out episode 53. Now, thank you so much for being a listener, and thank you for continuing to share this resource with others who are looking for this type of support. And we’ll see you on the very next episode of the Teacher Career Coach podcast.

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