89 - From Special Education Teacher to Recreation Coordinator
Special Education Teacher to Recreation Coordinator: The Teacher Career Coach Podcast

89 – From Special Education Teacher to Recreation Coordinator

TeacherCareerCoach

In this episode, I talked to Katt Merillo, who is a former special education teacher who currently works as a recreation coordinator for adaptive and inclusive recreation with her city’s parks department. This is a great example of some of the ways that your qualifications as a special education teacher will help you stand out for roles outside of the classroom as well. Listen in as we talk all about her journey and how she found this role in our interview.

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

From SpEd to Recreation Coordinator – Transcript

Daphne Gomez:
Hi Katt. Thank you so much for being here today.

Katt Merillo:
Hi, thanks so much for having me.

Daphne Gomez:
Do you mind sharing a little bit about your experience working in the education system?

Katt Merillo:
Yeah. I was a SPED teacher for six years, and I worked as a special education educator for a year before entering my special education teaching program. All told, I was in special education. I spent a year as a para educator, then my year of students teaching, going through my teaching program. And I taught for six years.
I have been in pretty much a relocation from resource room to self-contained. I spent the biggest chunk of time in self-contained placement. I taught in a self-contained high school for a year as my first year of teaching. And then I spent five years teaching in a transition program, which is post high school serving ages 18 to 21 students with IEPs.

Daphne Gomez:
What made you ultimately start looking for other careers outside of the classroom?

Katt Merillo:
I don’t think I was ever one of those teachers who knew their whole lives that they wanted to be a teacher. I had an experience where I worked with actually adults with disabilities in Chicago in a theater. I actually worked in a recreation setting with people with disabilities, and that was kind of in my gap year after college.
So when several years later I had a career transition opportunity, I thought back to that experience and just kind of asked myself, how do I do more of that? How do I work with people with disabilities like that? The answer that I ultimately came upon at the time was special education, so being a teacher, because it seemed like a pretty stable job. People always need SPED teachers. Seemed like a cost friendly job. The program wasn’t too terribly expensive. I could be teaching within a year. My husband was a teacher. So schedule wise seemed good.
I ended up going into SPED just kind of out of convenience. I knew the population I wanted to work with. And my first year was hard. I’m surprised I went back for day two, let alone year six. It started hard, and it was hard throughout. There was a lot of great, there was a lot of good in it. I’m glad I did it, but I think I always knew it wasn’t my ultimate place, that I was going to eventually end up somewhere else.
I really enjoyed the transition program I was in. I thought perhaps I could have done that as a career, but COVID really accelerated my burnout. Trying to teach this program online, a community-based program online, trying to teach special education online, I exhausted my creative outlets on how to rethink the job. I rethought the job over and over and over and over again in a short period of time.
We had kind of some structural problems we were trying to solve in the program that by my sixth year, I was just worn out on trying to solve them. I didn’t have any more ideas left in me to reimagine that job. And I was burned out. It was time. It was time to move on to something different.
Those were sort of the major factors. I also had two small children. I was pregnant with my second in my sixth year, and I was experiencing a lot of inflexibility just with the job in general, not being able to do things like comfortably take the kids to daycare drop off and make it to work on time and having that be a thing that people were willing to work with me on, and not being able to leave for a couple of hours for a doctor’s appointment and come back.
Just having this system not be family friendly for my family, we were reaching a crux where I couldn’t do it anymore. I needed more flexibility. I needed something that was going to be friendly for our family schedule, something that was lower stress. Just needed a change, and it was time. It was time.

Daphne Gomez:
So, you were actually pregnant while you were job seeking?

Katt Merillo:
I was, yes. I was pregnant through pretty much the entire experience. I started casually looking for jobs the spring before I ended up getting this job. And I was nine months pregnant when I did my final interview for the job that I now have.

Daphne Gomez:
That’s one of the questions that I get asked a lot for people who are pregnant when they’re looking for different jobs. They’re wondering what is the amount of maternity leave you’re going to get. And a lot of jobs actually don’t let you take maternity leave until you’ve served 12 months within their work environment. Was that something you were able to talk about having maternity leave after entering in your new position?

Katt Merillo:
Yes. I ended up being in a position where I wanted to negotiate my start time so that I got my maternity leave taken care of before I started the job. I was able to do that, and that was kind of one of my first signs that this job was going to be much more flexible and understanding and friendly of my needs and my family’s needs, because actually it worked in my favor in some ways to be a teacher because they assumed I wasn’t going to be available until the end of the school year. I happened to be having my baby in May, so they assumed already through the kind of middle of June, I would probably not be available because I was a teacher.
And so, when they were offering me the job, I hadn’t yet said that I was pregnant because you don’t really need to. They’re not allowed to ask. And I didn’t say anything until I was getting the offer phone call of, when are you available to start? I’m like, “Well, I’m actually nine months pregnant.” They sounded surprised, but I had one in-person interview nine months pregnant, so they couldn’t have been that surprise. But I think they knew legally they couldn’t really comment on how, oh yeah, we knew. They couldn’t do that.
And so, I was able to say, “I was really hoping for a July start or end of June start not mid-June because I’m taking my maternity leave.” They were hoping for mid-June for me. I was hoping for July. We both said, “Well, let’s go off for a day and talk to our people and see what we could do,” because neither of us really wanted to lose this match up because of a couple of days or a couple of weeks difference.
So, I went and talked to my HR people to make sure that there wasn’t going to be any issues of me starting potentially another job before the end of the school year, even though it was on my maternity leave. They went off and talked to their people. And when we came back together, I said, “Well, I talked to HR and they said it’s not really going to affect my benefits if I have my end date be before the end of the school year, so I could potentially start earlier.”
And they came back saying, “Well, actually we decided to move our camp date. So you can start later, and it’s not going to interfere with your school year or your benefits or your leave.” Seeing that they were willing to change the date of their camp to better meet my schedule and let me take my maternity leave that I wanted to take was a big sign for me of, oh wow, okay, they really are willing to work with me and really want me.
That was a great kind of first introduction. And I was very nervous about it the whole time that I was interviewing and going for jobs. What if I get the job but they want me to start right away? I have just given birth. I can’t really go into a job in this moment. So I was happy to see.

Special Education Teacher to Recreation Coordinator: The Teacher Career Coach Podcast

Daphne Gomez:
That is a very real possibility. When you’re applying for positions, most of the time, the inference is within two to four weeks, you’re going to be ready to go. So, what a great fit. I’d love to just really quickly ask if you could share, what is your job title that you ended up actually getting this job in?

Katt Merillo:
Yeah. I am a recreation coordinator, and I am working specifically in a department that’s called adaptive and inclusion. Mostly what I’m focusing on is supporting individuals with disabilities in our community.

Daphne Gomez:
How did you end up finding this position? It sounds like it’s a really great fit for a former teacher, especially one with special education experience. It also sounds a little bit like a unicorn job. What was your process of finding roles like this with your special education experience?

Katt Merillo:
Yeah, it was absolutely a unicorn job. I am so lucky. Halfway through the first interview, I had that memory of thinking back to Chicago and wanting to work with people with disabilities and recreation and suddenly realizing, oh my God, I’m interviewing for my dream job. So definitely a unicorn job.
I came about it really luckily. I was out at the zoo actually with my kid and they were advertising about job openings for a tour that they do at one of our local zoos. I was at the point where I was just desperate to find something else, especially before the baby came. And I was like, sure, why not? I’ll look at that job. I could be a tour guide at the zoo. That sounds like fun.
I looked at their website, and I ended up seeing all their postings listed on the website. I saw this posting, and it happened to close at midnight that day. I found the job the day it closed and was like, oh my God, and rushed to apply to it.
That was mid-February, and I wasn’t even planning on doing my application aggressive cycle because like you were saying, most people are expecting that you’re going to be starting soon. And I knew that I had the baby and maternity leave coming up. So I really wasn’t even expecting to apply then, but it was just too good of a job to not go for.

Daphne Gomez:
And I know that you were part of the Teacher Career Coach Course. So I have to ask, had you been already taking the modules? Did you feel like applying to this job on a time crunch was something you were prepared to do because you were already getting ready to start applying?

Katt Merillo:
Yeah. Well, and I’d actually had one application experience just before this one that got really, really close. I’d gone through the first two modules at least by the time I was applying to this job because I had just finished applying for the other kind of job that I thought was the dream job, which at the time was disability support at the college level. So, since I was already working with young adults with disabilities, I had coworkers giving me the feedback of, “Wow, you should really look at colleges. The population you work with here and are really good with here, you would translate really well to disability support in colleges.”
So I found a local posting for one of the local colleges that was that exact position. And those jobs don’t come around often. I happened to have a couple of friends who were professors there. This was November, December that I found this, and I was thinking, okay, I could start a new job and then go off to maternity leave.
There’s kind of a sweet spot of either right after your maternity leave or when you’re kind of at your second trimester or so that you could start, get a little established, then take your leave and come back. I had some applications going out on the early side of that when I was kind of early pregnant, and this was the big one. I made it all the way through to the final interviews. It was between me and another person. I felt like I got it. This is my job. This is the dream job.
I got the phone call from them while I was at work. And I tapped out with another teacher and ran into my office. I’m like, “This is it. This is it. This is it.” And they told me that they went with the other candidate, who ended up being an internal candidate and also an alum of the college. I had no idea. And I didn’t know until I looked at it afterwards.
I was devastated. I was absolutely devastated. I felt like someone had died. It felt like there was a death because it was the death of that dream that I had. It felt so sure. I felt so confident.
So, because I’d already had that experience, I already had an application pretty much ready to go. It wasn’t too hard to just send it off that day, thankfully. And I’d already gone through an interview process, so I think I’d gotten a lot of the jitters out for this one.
At the time, I was of course like, “There’s no way you’re going to tell me that this was meant to be, that something else is better is coming. This was it. Jobs like this don’t come around. That’s it for me.” And then, yeah, something better to come around. So it worked out.

Daphne Gomez:
What types of questions did they ask you in the interview for your recreation coordinator position?

Katt Merillo:
Because I applied for a specific job that supported individuals with disabilities, they asked me about my experience with individuals with disabilities. The second interview was kind of the best one. That one ended up going an hour and a half, and none of us really even noticed. But they were asking me about how I would handle different kinds of emergency situations like problem solving, working with staff.
All of it really spoke to as a supervisory kind of position right now where I do have people working directly under me and I’m supervising them. A lot of what I am doing there is very familiar because I had paraeducators SPED teachers. So you have managerial experience as special educator. I also had experience with crisis management. They gave me scenarios like, “Say you’re playing hide and seek in you’re camp and you get inside and you realize one kid is doing a really good job of hide and seek and they didn’t make it in and everyone’s freaking out. How do you handle that?”
Well, actually that same exact situation almost happened two weeks ago, and I lost a [inaudible 00:16:32] or someone else did. We went out to the bus and so-and-so is not there, and oh my gosh. The student was found and it was all okay, but I’m very familiar with that oh no panic moment.
It was funny to see how those moments as a SPED teacher that feel so unique to SPED, you could run into those kinds of situations. That experience really benefits you anytime you work with kids in particular but also individuals and disabilities, just the public in general, like the crisis management you learn, the dealing with difficult, unhappy customers, like working with families. So many skills transferred over. That interview was really just a walk in the park. I could tell them about all these things that had happened just a couple weeks before. And it applied to what they wanted to know.

Daphne Gomez:
When it comes to working for the city, is that something where they do ask for letters of reference? Because I know working for state departments, sometimes they do actually ask for letters of reference, which is not as common when working for a company or a corporation.

Katt Merillo:
They didn’t ask me for letters of reference. I did have to provide a list of references, and they did actually call them, but they didn’t need letters.

Daphne Gomez:
Oh, okay. So they did actually ask for references. Who did you choose as your references, if you don’t mind me asking?

Katt Merillo:
No, I don’t. I chose a co-worker, so co-teacher who knew I was leaving. My co-teaching team is very close knit and they all knew that I was looking for jobs. So I asked one of them. And then I also had a supervisor in admin who I had in previous years who was no longer my current admin. He’d actually went back to teaching. And we clicked really well. I had a really good rapport with him, so I asked him as well so he could serve as kind of my supervisor reference.

Daphne Gomez:
Are there other types of roles that you’ve seen for the city or in the parks department that you think would make a really good fit for former teachers?

Katt Merillo:
For SPED teachers in particular, if you want to continue working in disability support, which I knew I did. That’s why I entered teaching. It wasn’t as much about the teaching for me as it was the population. Other jobs I was looking into and I had applications out for at the same time or was getting ready to apply for, there was disability support at colleges.
Also, there’s disability support and kind of more case worker type positions through the state’s health department. Here it’s the department of social health, human services kind of department. They have job support jobs. So you can be kind of the vocational rehabilitation sort of position, so helping people get and keep jobs. There’s kind of developmental disability support for families, where you’re helping families get resources like respite care and therapies and all that sort of stuff.
Most states I believe would have those kinds of positions. So finding those sorts of positions would be really relevant, especially for a SPED teacher. Figuring out what disability support is in your state or city or county. There’s like three different places you can look, and there’s probably something out there that has a high need.

Daphne Gomez:
Katt, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your story. I usually end the podcast by asking people what they learned about themselves during the process. But I feel like you did a really great job of just answering that right now. So I want to take some time to just thank you for coming on, because I know that this isn’t easy either, but the process that you went through was not an easy one. It is one that is very challenging.
You’re someone who, it sounds like you went through a much shorter application process than other people, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t scary or challenging. And I just really appreciate you coming on and sharing this.

Katt Merillo:
Yeah, absolutely. Thanks so much for having me on. I think that it’s really important to just get the message out there that if you’re a teacher and you’re feeling burned out and you’re feeling like you can’t do anything else or what you have to offer isn’t of value, that that’s just not true, and there’s so many other jobs out there.

Daphne Gomez:
Yeah. It’s something that I feel like so many people really need to hear. And teachers coming on, like you, to continue to reinforce that help motivate others to really believe that it’s true. So, thank you so much, and I appreciate your time here.

Katt Merillo:
Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me on.

Daphne Gomez:
I want to give a huge thank you to Katt for coming on and sharing her story with this audience. Now, if you are a specialty teacher, like a former special education teacher, and you’re thinking about leaving the classroom, you may be asking yourself right now, what are some good jobs for teachers with my subject matter expertise? We actually have written a blog all about the subject, which I will link in this episode’s show notes, so you can find it there.
Thank you so much for being a listener and for continuing to share this free resource with other teachers who are looking for this type of support. We will see you on the very next episode of the Teacher Career Coach Podcast.

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