In this episode, I interview Heather Gavrish, an educator and mom who currently lives in Minnesota. Heather’s worked at a nonprofit in New Hampshire, a science museum in Australia, and a zoo in Minnesota, before she left and took her most recent job as a middle school science teacher. Heather and I talk in detail about her work at museums, nonprofits, and zoos. This is a great interview for anyone who’s interested in learning more about any of those specific paths.
Heather’s Journey In and Out of Education
Daphne (Williams) Gomez: Hi, Heather, how are you doing?
Heather Gavrish: I’m doing great. How are you?
Daphne: Great. I’m really excited that you’re here today. I wanted to share your story of working in informal roles and education, which we’re going to dive into throughout this entire episode.
I’d like if you just first started off sharing your story, just a brief overview of who you are and your history working in and out of education.
Heather Gavrish: Sure. My name is Heather. I live in Minnesota, I am married, and I have a one-and-a-half-year-old son. I spent the last three years working as a middle school science teacher at a very small, low-income private school. It was a lot. It was one of those things where each year, I was hoping it would get easier, and it kept getting harder.
The first year I was hired pretty much right before the first day of school. I only realized after I got the job that I had no curriculum and four grades to teach. So, I spent that first full year just trying to build the plane as I was flying it, as they say, and make up my curriculum as I was going.
The next year I was pregnant and went on maternity leave. The day I came back from maternity leave was when we started distance learning because of COVID. Then, obviously, last year with COVID, with the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis, and I taught in the Twin Cities, and with a lot of our staff leaving, I just had no support at my school.
Really, children were having a really hard time and nobody to really help us out. It was a really hard year. I decided at the end of the year that for my family’s sake and my mental health, I needed to quit. Then found out about a day or two after that I was getting laid off anyways, they were cutting the science teacher position.
So, it’s been an interesting rough couple of three years. I love the kids, and I learned a lot about myself, and I learned that I really do like teaching, but the school I was at was difficult.
So now, I’m just trying to figure out, do I want to go back into the classroom later when my son’s a little bit older, do I want to go get a master’s in between, or do I want to look back into some more informal science ed like I was doing previously? So that’s where I’m at.
Daphne: You and I actually met on…. there was a live Zoom call with teachers who were thinking of leaving the classroom.
That’s where I’d heard you mention that you worked in a couple of industries or experiences that I know teachers are looking into nonprofits, museums, and zoos. I think you touched all three of those in your past career.
Heather Gavrish: Yes. I had an internship, actually, at a nonprofit in New Hampshire where I grew up. They focus on marine conservation, so they did a lot of really cool stuff. They actually went out on whale watch boats to do research and to do outreach to the public that were on the boats. They did a bunch of beach cleanups, they did school programs. I did an internship with them.
Then the following year when I graduated from college, got a job with them afterwards. It was really cool. Just a really neat experience. I got to actually be the naturalist on the boat, so the one on the microphone being like, “On your right, there’s a humpback whale,” which was really cool.
I found the school programs I really liked, which guess should have been a clue back then that I was into teaching. But I was a programs assistant, I think was my title, so I helped them coordinate a lot of the school programs or community programs, and then would also go out and sometimes deliver those programs as well.
So I’d go to the local schools, give them a presentation about conserving the ocean and the different animals that the nonprofit studied and did the same thing sometimes with community outreach events as well.
Working at a Nonprofits
Daphne: As you were working at the nonprofit, did you find yourself writing some of the curriculum that you were presenting to the schools as well?
Heather Gavrish: I did. They had a standard presentation that they would usually do, but we did have schools that would call and say, “Hey, our high school biology classes learning about Marine mammal physiology, can you come up with a presentation?”
Or, “We are connecting this with Earth Day, so can we focus a little bit more on actionable items that the students can do and tie it in with a beach cleanup that the school can do for a field trip?”
I didn’t do a ton of writing from scratch, but I would do a lot of modifying of the information they already had to make that fit the school’s request.
Daphne: For teachers who are interested in pivoting actually from the classroom into nonprofit, do they need to take an internship program or do you think with their experience they’d be able to just go directly into that nonprofit role?
Heather Gavrish: I think with their experience, they’d definitely be able to go into a program’s coordinator. Every nonprofit calls it something a little different, but outreach coordinator, programs, coordinator, even maybe a volunteer coordinator, things like that.
I think with the experience from teaching, obviously, if you’ve been a teacher, you have to be organized, you have to be well-spoken, you have to be, at least to some extent, a people person and be able to relate to other people. So I think that they’d be able to jump right into that, honestly.
It’s a little bit different because you are sometimes speaking to the general public or mixed ages, or maybe even a bigger group of children or a bigger group of people. So it’s a little bit different.
I would say there’s also probably more administrative tasks than teaching in terms of like… A lot of my job was coordinating ahead of time, so I would email with the teachers or call them to pick a time and make sure it was scheduled and make sure the equipment was ready, and half the time, even bring my own car and drive myself there.
It is a little bit more like start to finish, you’re in charge of like every aspect of like the field trip with the school program and there’s a lot of emailing and things like that, but teachers are good at that too.
Daphne: Did you have any duties where you had to know about even grants or grant writing when it came to working at a nonprofit?
Heather Gavrish: I didn’t do a ton of that. Again, I was right out of college, so there were people above me in the nonprofit that did that.
That definitely is something that nonprofits always need, so if you are a teacher, especially maybe like an English or ELA teacher who has very good writing skills and editing skills, that is going to take you far because nonprofits, they always need more money, there’s always grants out there that they’re looking to get.
I helped a little bit more with like the reporting and the paperwork they needed for the grants versus actually writing to get approved for the grant, if that makes sense.
Daphne: How did you vet the nonprofit that you wanted to work for? Did you just do a Google search, “Nonprofit near me,” or were you very hyper-focused on causes that you were really passionate about?
Heather Gavrish: A little bit of both. It was actually recommended to me by my aunt who lived in the area and had volunteered with them before, I think.
Obviously, a personal recommendation is the best if you have them, making sure that it’s an actual 501(c)(3) designation, I think that’s the right designation for nonprofits is the first step to make sure they’re actually a nonprofit and not a weird for-profit group.
For me, I always liked the ocean. I have a degree in biology. When I was little, I thought I was going to be like a dolphin trainer or a Marine biologist when I was like five. It was definitely right up my alley in terms of the content as well.
I think that makes it a lot more interesting if it’s something that you want to do and I think that’s one of the great things about if you are thinking of leaving the classroom. You do have that opportunity to maybe look for causes that you’re really interested in because we know with teaching, you have to teach the standards for the most part and you might have to teach stuff you don’t care about.
The amount of times I had to teach physics and chemistry and I am terrible at both of those, but those are in the standards for sixth grade and seventh grade. I think that could be a great opportunity for teachers to stop and be like, “What was my favorite thing to teach about?” Or, “what’s a cause that I was really into when I was in college or when I was little?”
Find a nonprofit that maybe connects to that, and then that’s going to be something you’re passionate about. So even if you’re like, I have to sit in an office and do emails part of the time, well, you’re doing it to set up or to support a because that you really care about.
A Few Things to Consider When Working at a Nonprofit
Daphne: What was one of the decision making factors that ultimately led you to leaving working at that nonprofit and pursuing another career?
Heather Gavrish: The scheduling and inconsistency of the hours because a lot of their work was outdoors, literally on whale watch boats or on beaches. It was very seasonal.
In New England, nobody’s going out on a whale watch boat in December. So it was very seasonal. During the summer, it was like 40-50 hours a week. During the winter, it was like four or five hours the week.
So it was very inconsistent across the year, which you’ll find with a lot of nonprofits. They have certain busy seasons and other seasons aren’t so busy.
This was a very small nonprofit, literally probably like five or six staff when I was working there. They have to be really careful with their money. So they couldn’t pay me like 40 hours a week to sit in their office and answer like two calls a day.
That was the biggest issue for me was it was just so inconsistent that it wasn’t really going to be a way I could support myself unless I wanted to be juggling multiple part-time jobs or doing other opposite season work to balance it out.
Daphne: Was the seasonality just because your role was mostly outside and you were the facilitator of those types of events? I guess what I’m asking is, were the grant writers working more consistently year-round or some of the different duties, do you think there might be more consistency there?
Heather Gavrish: Certainly. The director and the volunteer coordinator and some of the slightly higher positions were working more hours and they would have certain things. They did a lot of research of the whales, they would literally track which whales were in which locations and track marine debris that we saw on the boat.
So then during the winter, they would be doing like data collection and writing scientific papers for publication and things like that.
But there’s just so few roles of that at a smaller nonprofit that there’s only a couple people that they can really sustain year round. Any sciencey, nonprofit, or environmental-ish, I should say, nonprofit, a lot of times is seasonal because you take advantage of the summer to do the outside stuff.
It depends where you live, too. This was in New England, so there’s only so much they could do in the winter. The other reason it was partially seasonal was they did a lot of summer camps.
They did some school programs that were like scattered across the year and there was the international beach cleanup through the ocean conservancy is in the fall, so they would be really busy during that time. They did a ton of summer camp programs where they would bring like touch tank animals, little type of animals like crabs and snails and things to summer camps.
We also had a 60-foot inflatable whale that they would bring to summer camps and the kids could go inside and learn about the anatomy of a giant fin whale, which was really cool.
So that is definitely a question to ask or to look into if you are going to look towards nonprofits. Is this a seasonal position? Is it going to be like a summer camp focused thing or is it going to be research or something that you’re doing? Or is it going to be something that you can work for the full year and that’s going to be more of a sustainable option for you?
Daphne: With working even seasonally, were they open to you having multiple jobs or having a different stream of income coming in as you were working there? Some places are more open than others.
Heather Gavrish: Yeah, they definitely were. They understood in the winter that there wasn’t a ton of work, they just asked me to pick specific days or specific hours to keep it consistent to come in so that they knew when to back to have someone in the office and vice versa so that I would have the ability to go and get other work if I wanted to.
I chose to use that time to just job search and look for a different job because I loved working there, I loved the message. It was really cool doing the school programs and doing more summer programs, but it just wasn’t going to be sustainable.
They didn’t anticipate having a position open up that would be more full-time for me and I wasn’t really happy with just a few hours a week in the winter that wasn’t really supporting me.
Working at a Museum
Daphne: So during that time, when you were job searching, is that when you found your role working at the museum?
Heather Gavrish: No, actually. I ended up working at a scientific journal in Boston where they did scientific publications. So I worked in the editorial side, so contacting researchers and scientists to ask them to publish with us and chatting with them about their work.
I also worked on the sales side. So, talking to a lot of universities and trying to convince them of why they needed our specific journal. I did that for a while. Sales was a lot, I would not necessarily recommend that. I was pretty good at it actually because of the educating part of it.
A lot of sales is actually just educating someone on the product, which I know you’ve talked about on the podcast before, too. If you don’t think of it so much as being a salesperson and more of just being an educator, showing someone why your product is important.
So I was good at some aspects of sales, I would say. It was not great long term for me, there was a little bit too much pressure to close the deal and to get certain quotas and things like that.
That’s the job that got me to Australia. So I lived in Australia for a few years. And once that job fizzled out, I temped for a while and then I saw this job opportunity come up at a science museum in Australia.
I was like, “It’s been a few years since I’ve worked at the nonprofit. I don’t really know if it’s going to be a good fit, but I’m going to try it. I hate this temping job I’m doing, I’m going to take a chance and try it.”
I had a great interview. You had to prepare a little educational program, kind of. A practice once I gave them the interview. So, I used my stuff that I had known from the nonprofit that I used to do with the school programs and changed that into a little mini-program for the interview. They loved it and they gave me a chance.
Daphne: What was your specific role at the museum?
Heather Gavrish: I worked as a presenter in the education and community programs department. It was a physics and engineering-focused museum. They did a lot of robotics workshops, they did a lot of space themes, school programs, they had a planetarium that I got to work in and actually be the one to push the buttons and be like, “If you look over here, you can see the stars on whatever.”
Then they also had a lightning room. If you’ve ever been to a science museum that have the big Tesla coils where they shoot lightning, I got to work there. So I was mostly doing the presenting. Sometimes it was to the general public that was just coming to the museum and sometimes it was for school programs that were coming as a field trip.
Daphne: What was it like working at that museum? Did you enjoy it?
Heather Gavrish: I really loved my experience there. It’s one of my favorite places I’ve worked, probably. I had a really solid team. I just felt like they were my people, they were all the right balance of nerdy and cool, if that makes sense.
Museum people, I get along really well with them. I think, especially science museum, that’s what I’m interested in. They were all just very kind and probably the best training I’ve ever had.
I don’t know if this is true to every museum, but this museum in particular, you would observe the program a few times, you’d have time to study it and research it to make sure you understood it, you’d get some practice time, you would do a dress rehearsal, kind of, to one of the supervisors.
Then the first time you actually performed it for an audience, you would have a supervisor or someone there with you in case you forgot something or in case you needed some support.
So I feel like a lot of jobs, teaching in particular, sometimes you just get chucked into things and you’re expected to just make it up as you go.
Llike I was saying with my first year as a full-time classroom teacher, it was, “Here’s the science books, here’s the Minnesota Standards website, good luck.” So it was make it up as you go, nobody was observing me, nobody was helping me. Whereas at this museum job, I felt very supported.
They’d ask if you were ready. A few times, it was like, “We have a school program and no one else is available that day, can you do that one even though you’re not quite fully trained?” But for the most part, they made sure I fully understood each program that I was meant to be teaching before I was put into it, which I really appreciated about working there.
And it was just cool. It was just cool. I got to do a liquid nitrogen show. It was a chemistry show for middle school students. So, I actually got to use liquid nitrogen to demonstrate state of matter changes. The lightning room was so cool, I got to be the one to have lightning come into inside of a building and the people would be, “Whoa.” So it was just cool also.
Daphne: It was one of the directions I started heading when I left teaching as I started applying to quite a few of the museum jobs around here in Los Angeles.
What types of roles do you feel teachers should pursue at museums?
Different Roles at a Museum
Heather Gavrish: I think it depends a little bit on what’s your strengths are as a teacher. I think if your strengths are the presenting or performance-based, then you will love being a presenter.
For me, it was a little bit too performancey or drama-y. I don’t love being the center of attention in a huge group of adults. I like teaching middle school. High schoolers are too old or too scary for me. I have enough public speaking fear that little kids don’t bother me at all. Once they get to adulthood, a huge group of adults makes me a little jittery.
So, it was sometimes a little bit too performancey for me, the role that I was in, but if you’re a teacher that loves that, then it’s going to be a great role for you. It’s so fun, you do different programs every day. You have different types of groups.
So if you’re someone who likes to mix it up, one day you might be doing a summer vacation program to this giant group of families in the auditorium, and the next day you’re doing a small chemistry show for some middle schoolers, and the next day you’re doing like a general public lightning room show.
It was a variety of people, a variety of topics, and that kept it really interesting. If you’re a teacher who really likes curriculum development, or really likes being able to come up with new programs and maybe do a little bit of the presenting, the next level up of programs coordinator or curriculum development would be great because they always need someone to be coming up with new programs.
Anytime the standards change or anything for a school, for the school-based standards, they have to redo a lot of their programs. They were always coming up with new programs for the general public and new program programs for school vacation and summer camps and things like that.
So they always, always, always need people who can have a look at the standards, have a look at the current programs, and be able to a new program that’s really going to work for families and kids of different ages.
Daphne: One thing I want to just hop in and make sure I address for people who are listening, is this is something that I always talk about in the Teacher Career Coach course.
If you hear Heather right now talking about, if you know you like presenting, if you know you like sales or you don’t like sales, or you don’t like presenting, that is going to be something you have to get your hands dirty and actually find out if you have never done it before. Because on paper, I think I know what I like and I bet, Heather, you felt the same way. But I don’t know what I like or don’t like until I get into it.
I thought I was terrified of public speaking, and now that is my role of talking in front of hundreds of people at national conferences, and I actually like it. But I had to push myself to try it before I realized whether or not I could do it.
Did you bring yourself figuring out what you liked or didn’t like in the moment?
Heather Gavrish: I did. The biggest thing for me was how much energy it took out of me. I can do the big presentations to mixed groups of people. This was also in Australia, so they freaking loved my American accent. They would call me Captain America. The kids would be like, “Are you from Hollywood?” That helped also.
I can do the big crowd things, it takes a lot out of me. It would take a lot of energy out of me. It took a lot of hyping myself up to get there to the energy level you need to entertain a big group of mixed adults and children, and it took a lot of energy out of me.
I was just noticing more that the days that it was like, “Okay, you have four lightning room shows in a row,” I would be not looking forward to that day, or afterwards, I would like need a recovery day because it just took a lot out of me.
So for me, it was a little bit less of what I didn’t like or did like, and it was more of noticing in my own body which of these things is making me feel really excited and really full.
Afterwards, I’m like, “That’s so great. I could do that all day.” And which of the things were more of me going, “I need to recover from that,” or, “Ooh, I’m not looking forward to the next time I have to do that specific presentation.”
Daphne: That’s really great insight. I feel that’s similar to my role as an educational consultant is very similar to a professional development trainer. Most of the time I do one, two trainings per day. It could be one hour to three hours, and those are okay.
But some days or some weeks, I’m flown somewhere in the United States and there’s four days of conference sessions, of maybe I do four conferences and one day every single day for that week. That’s very rare, it only happens two or three weeks out of the year max, but those are very exhausting.
Knowing that there are roles at education companies or at museums that require you to do that many trainings, it’s better to me personally than teaching because teaching is all of these different subjects where, when you’re doing these types of presentations at museums, you’re on autopilot, probably doing the same trainings over and over again, the same questions, the same 10 things, which may sound boring, but it’s a lot better than having decision fatigue of learning fifth grade history the day before it happens.
Heather Gavrish: Yes. I definitely had that. I had four grades of science that I was teaching in the classroom with pretty much no curriculum to go with them.
A lot of days would be like, “What am I teaching my fifth grade tomorrow?” Or like, “Oh yeah, I’m also supposed to be doing a book study or a religion class or a SEL social, emotional lesson tomorrow, and I don’t have it planned.”
Whereas working at a museum, it’s planned well in advance, you know which programs you’re doing which days. Someone else has usually written them for you. And like you said, it is autopilot those days that it was three or four different shows in the lightning room.
By the fourth one, I was just absolutely on autopilot, I didn’t have to worry about knowing what I was going to say or not having a lesson prepared, it’s already prepared for you.
I would say that the next level up… It was really nice that at the museum there was a clear track for upward mobility, which I think is a plus as well, compared to teaching, as most teachers probably know, it’s you’re either teacher or maybe lead teacher, or you’re an admin, there’s not a lot of room in between where you still get to use your teaching skills.
Daphne: And there’s one admin. There’s one admin amongst us.
Heather Gavrish: And they had to get their masters or something in administration, whatever their job is. So it was nice at the museum because I had friends who started off the same level that I was at and they were promoted to the next level up. I’m blanking on their actual job title name, but something about programs coordinator or programs developer.
So, they would sometimes do some of the presentations, but it was like maybe 50/50, or they would be doing some developing, they’d be doing special events. They did like a Valentine’s Day planetarium show specially wrote for that. So they would be writing a special show or a special program or adding a new workshop or a new school program.
Then sometimes they would also teach it. But it was a little bit of a better balance of doing some of that program development stuff that as teachers we’re all good at coming up with, curriculum and lessons and things. And then also still getting to do some of that student-facing or public-facing presenting as well.
Daphne: What ultimately led you to leave working at that museum?
Heather Gavrish: The scheduling was a bit tricky, again. I had basically no guaranteed hours. So when it was very busy, I would work six days in a row. When, it was not very busy, I’d work one or two days.
Again, it was a little bit up and down. It was not like a full-time salaried position. It was hourly and it was dependent on how many schools booked a field trip. It was dependent on the time of year. It was dependent on how many staff they had on vacation or not.
So, the scheduling wasn’t great for me. A lot of the other presenters there also worked one or two other jobs. For me, I struggle with anxiety, so having to juggle multiple jobs, I tried that once, it’s not good for me.
I get very stressed, I feel like I’m constantly letting down one job or the other job. I just know for me personally, once again, you don’t know until you do it, but for me, there was a point when I was trying to do two jobs and it wasn’t good for my mental health.
I know that that’s not going to work for me. So that was part of the reason, was the scheduling, it was hard for me not to have a consistent schedule every week. And I didn’t love that.
Daphne: If you continued to stay there, you did say that there was a clear career trajectory within the museum. Were some of the positions, just a few steps above you more consistent and salaried positions?
Heather Gavrish: Yes. One or two steps above me were much more consistent. One step above me was like developing some and programs and still presenting some programs.
Two steps above was more managing. So helping with program development and then also managing and training the people that were just coming in and learning how to be presenters.
They definitely had a more regular schedule and they still had to work weekends though. Museums, that’s a thing to remember about, something like a museum or a nonprofit, they’re open on weekends.
So if you’re someone who likes your weekends, just double-check about that when you’re applying to these jobs, because some of them are going to require you to work weekends, maybe require you to work nights for special programs.
I would usually get one weekend day off, not always. So that was a little struggle. My husband worked a regular nine-to-five job, so when I worked all weekend like that, there goes our days to be together. I don’t think I’d be as interested in that now that I have a kid, because it is a lot harder, there goes your family time on the weekends. That was another reason I didn’t love it.
Once again, once you get higher up, one manager had to be working on the weekend. So I think they worked like one weekend a month or something like that. So again, a lot less weekend and evening time, the further you work your way up, but definitely, entry level, you’re going to be working some weekends.
A Change in Mindset When Working on the Weekends
Daphne: That is something that everybody’s going to have to make on an individual level. One thing that I’ve heard from a lot of teachers who are struggling and they say, “I can’t find a job that has work during the weekends, or doesn’t have the summer’s off.”
It’s such a common roadblock for many people, but I always ask them to think about their overall happiness. Not COVID, let’s just say pre-COVID because everybody’s foggy and unhappy right now. Not to minimize anyone’s pain or suffering through COVID but-
Heather Gavrish: It sucks right now.
Daphne: Try to think prior to COVID if you were unhappy during your weekends, during your nights and during your summers as a teacher.
This may be actually still far better for you if you are happier throughout the year but have less time off during those weekends and summers, if you were already just mentally completely checked out from your family during those times that you were teaching.
Heather Gavrish: And let’s be real. I did work on the weekends as a teacher. Of course, I did. Every single Sunday I spent time doing lesson planning for the week. Then you’d feel guilty about not starting it sooner and then feel guilty about not hanging out with your family or saying no to plans or something.
So at least this way, it’s your scheduled for that day and you have this many hours. I never brought work home, aside from practicing in my head on the subway ride on the way there of what program I was doing that day.
I had 0% work that I had to take home, even emails and stuff most of them, unless it was about a schedule change, most of them were not urgent and I could handle them when I got back next time to the computers.
So you have to work weekends, but like you said, you have to balance that out. Are you working weekends anyway as a teacher? Probably. Are you working nights anyway, as a teacher when you are scrambling to change a lesson or all of a sudden you have standardized testing the next day or something? Probably I was.
If you’re going to work those anyway, you might as well get paid for them and work an actual shift where you know that you’re working from 10:00 to 4:00 that day and that’s it. So it’s probably equivalent in the end.
Daphne: Yeah. God, that’s such a great point is so many people say, “I can’t do this on the weekend.” Girl, you already are. You have been for years and you’ll be able to. I think the benefit of mentally checking out from work is something that if you haven’t been in a new position where you get to mentally check out, you don’t understand the benefit of that.
You think, “Okay, well, if they’re working summers in, weekends at this museum position,” that sounds awful because in your head the second you check out 6:00 PM on a Saturday, maybe you work until 10:00 PM on a Saturday, but that’s not really the case, you work from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM and then you’re are done. And Sunday you don’t think about work whatsoever unless something really huge happened.
Heather Gavrish: Yeah. Make that mental shift of, “Oh wait, I’m already working on the weekends, I might as well be getting paid and have it be an actual shift.”
The other thing that I was going to say is you can take a vacation. Teachers, we love to think, “Oh, we have a whole summer off,” but then we feel shitty about taking a vacation during the middle of the school year because well, you get the whole summer off. Why do you need to go to your friend’s wedding that’s in February?
Whereas with a year-round job, you can take vacations, you can take two weeks off to go on vacation, you can take a week off for your friend’s wedding.
It still had some of the guilt of sick days because you did have presentations and programs you were supposed to give that day. If you called out sick, they had to scramble to get someone else to teach that school program.
But in terms of taking a vacation, take that vacation, it’s a year-round job, there’s going to be no guilt about taking a week or two off to take that family vacation you wanted.
Daphne: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. That’s one of the situation that I feel teachers who are making this decision always are struggling with whether or not they’d have time to spend with their family.
When I was teaching, I didn’t go on vacations on the weekends, I didn’t do even a quick Saturday, Sunday trip because I said, “I can’t, I have school on Monday.”
Heather Gavrish: You’re so tired when you do that, it wasn’t worth it. Like I literally didn’t go to someone’s wedding because I was like, “I’m going to be too tired if I have to fly out Friday night, fly back Sunday night. What if the flight’s delayed? I don’t have my stuff prepped for Monday.” So you don’t go.
Daphne: Yep. Plenty of concerts that I bought two days’ worth of festival tickets for, but then just left early on the Sunday at 5:00 PM and didn’t get to see the very cool headliner. I think it was The Strokes.
So that ages me some of how cool that was when that came out, but so many different opportunities that I passed out just based on “not working on weekends.”
Pivoting a little bit, talking about your experience, working at a zoo because that is the last one we have not touched, what was it like for you working at a zoo? What was your position there?
Working at a Zoo
Heather Gavrish: Actually started off volunteering at the zoo. The real hard and fast reason that I left the science museum was that we actually moved back to the US. My husband had a job opportunity here, we wanted to be a little closer to family.
We moved to Minnesota and got here and I was like, “All right, I’m going to start looking for jobs. I know I like working at science museum-type places, so I’m going to start applying for jobs.” In the mean, I saw some volunteer positions available at two of the local zoos here.
I started volunteering at both zoos thinking that I could get some knowledge of the zoos and it would maybe give me a leg up if a position came up.
That is basically what happened at the smaller of the two zoos in the Twin Cities, I was doing some volunteering for school programs and then they were like, “Wait a minute, you have done this before. You’ve worked at a nonprofit, you’ve worked at a science museum, you’ve been a presenter in education departments, let’s see if there’s any roles that are coming up that might be good fit for you.”
They did have a part-time education role that came up in the first month or so of me volunteering there actually. I was working as an education support staff, had some of the same similar issues of the hours not being very consistent.
A lot at the entry-level positions at a zoo or a museum, it’s part-time. They’re not going to guarantee you 40 hours a week, you’re not going to get health insurance, you’re not going to get some of those benefits at that entry-level.
It was really cool. Working at a zoo was always a little bit of a childhood dream of mine, I think. I mentioned before that I thought I was going to be a dolphin trainer when I was like five until I learned that dolphin training is bad.
Anyways, I really liked zoos and animals and things like that when I was growing up. So I was like, “This is awesome.” I got to do some animal handling which was really cool.
Daphne: You have to name-drop some of the animals now, you can’t leave me at that.
Heather Gavrish: Snakes were the ones that I liked. I know a lot of people are really squeamy about snakes, but I really liked handling the snakes. They were really cool.
We had a lot of cool toads and poison dart frogs. We had chinchilla and tortoises. The mice were the worst, they were really bity. We had a bunny. I didn’t get to handle any of the really cool ones.
If you’re there for longer, you can do penguins, you can do the sloth, you can do some of the birds of prey. I didn’t work there long enough to do those ones, but it was really fun.
A hedgehog was another common one we got to pick up. They did not like to be picked up, but we did get to handle the hedgehogs.
Ooh, some big lizard, too. A tegu. If you don’t know what that is, it’s amazing. It’s like a four-foot long black and white giant lizard thing. And it was amazing, it loved to be scratched on its belly.
Daphne: That is so funny. I feel like that is the way that maybe a lot of zoos or animal rescues are structured. We synced a little bit prior to starting this interview and I told you that I worked very briefly one day at an animal nonprofit, but I ended up not finding that it was a good fit.
It felt very much like, is it Carole Baskin’s on Tiger King? Where I thought that I was doing something great and it seemed a little bit sketchy. So, I walked away.
It was in the same way of, if you shovel poop for one month, then you get to go be near the tiger or will allow you to be the person that like sprays peppermint on this fence, and then the bear scratches up against the peppermint and you get to have this bonding experience with a bear.
It was very much like not a pyramid scheme, but you had to level up into being able to have a close connection with the animals.
Heather Gavrish: I will say I had to do a ton of training. For each animal, I had to be trained on all of their handling information, all of their physiological information, all of the signs of if they were stressed, if they were tired, if they were not feeling it and you put them away.
That was always the policy for any animals. If you go to take an animal and that animal just is not feeling it that day, they’re giving you signs that they’re not into it, you take a different animal or you don’t take that animal.
The zoo was actually very good about that. There was a lot of handling training ahead of time. You had to get checked off on each individual type of animal before you were allowed to take them out.
There was a ton of training even of how to transport them, which container this animal use, and what do you put in the container for the animal. I was never allowed to get near the bears or the big cats. So at a real zoo, probably you not going to get close to a tiger.
Daphne: With the training, this is an interesting opportunity to ask about, who conducts the training for the animals? Do you know if they have to get a specific type of certification in order to have those types of trainings or to present those types of trainings?
Heather Gavrish: It was a little bit of both. There were some people that had wildlife certification or animal certifications, and there were other people that were just education coordinators.
Once again, a little bit higher up in the organization, that had a lot of experience working there and they would then train you. So a little bit of both, there are some certifications that you can get if you want to be more attractive candidate for some of these things.
I’d say most of the people that I knew just worked for a while and proved that they were trustworthy, and then you start with the most boring animals that are never going to have a problem and you work your way up to the parrots and the sloth and the other different animals that are just a little bit trickier to handle and probably a little bit less replaceable, too. There were lot frogs, there was only one sloth.
Daphne: Oh, no, all frogs are equal.
Heather Gavrish: The frogs were great. I love the poison dart frogs, they’re cool.
Daphne: All the frogs are very important. They’re equal to the one sloth.
Heather Gavrish: Armadillos, too. They were cool.
Different Roles at a Zoo
Daphne: What types of roles do you think teachers would be qualified for and may want to pursue inside of a zoo?
Heather Gavrish: What I was doing was mostly field trips and mostly school programs, which was, they were all standards aligned, so you’re teaching like actual standards for the different grades. So knowing the standards already or just having that teaching experience is going to automatically make you an amazing candidate for any education role.
Sometimes the role was talking to the public, but in the zoo I was working at, it was primarily literally like school field trips. And that could be all different ages. We had everything from kindergarten, all the way up to, not so many high school programs, but I’d say K-8 primarily.
Any role where you’re doing school programs is going to be a great fit for you. And depending on what level you’re at, if you go in at the entry level, kind of what I was saying at the museum, somebody else writes the program, you just have to remember it and figure out where the supplies are and where you pick up the plants and what room number you’re in.
Once you’re higher up, you would be the one developing the program itself. So it just depends on what level you enter at. So either way, once again, if you are more interested in curriculum development, there’s higher up roles that you might be a good fit for.
There were those people that were actual, I forget their name, but in the education team, the full-time education staff, they did both, they were in charge of certain programs. And the zoo was pretty great about what your specialty is, like, “Okay, you really like botany, cool. Then I’ll assign you the orchids program and you can write this new plants program we’re doing.” Or, “You really like animals, you can do the big cats program.”
You can find your niche and do that good balance of developing some programs and still getting to either go out to schools. We did some outreach programs where we would take animals and plants to different sites or the kids would come to us.
My least favorite part of working at the zoo, though, was doing birthday parties. Sometimes there are some slightly demeaning programs that you have to do if you work in the education department. As someone who has like a biology degree and a decent amount of experience, I was like, “So I’m doing how many birthday parties this weekend?”
It’s not my favorite to do, it was literally like you were hosting the party and we’re not always treated with a lot of respect. It was like, “Why is the pizza late? When’s the cake coming? Why couldn’t the kids touch the hedgehog?” So that was not my favorite part.
I know a lot of zoo’s do birthday parties and sleepovers, and some of these other program that I’m sure are really fun for the kids, but not so fun for me as an educator.
Daphne: Okay. That is something that I did not know about. I knew that they had birthday parties, but I didn’t know that you ended up being like the project manager of child’s ninth birthday party on top of handling the frogs and snakes.
Heather Gavrish: Yes. That was not my favorite, and that is something that at a zoo, they’re not necessarily going to have a full-time birthday party person. They’re going to lump that into the education staff that already know how to handle the animals, they’re already familiar with the facility, they already have the knowledge that you’re supposed to be sharing with the kids.
Sometimes there are those other things that go on with it, it’s not just all school programs all the time. So you got to be aware of that, I guess. It does depend on your role and it does depend on grant funding as well.
I know we talked a little bit about grants before, but at the zoo I was working at, they had a grant that was very specific that that person could only work on a certain type of school program.
It is possible to get a role where you have a very specific focus, but if you go in as more of a general education support staff or a general education staff, you might end up doing a zoo tour for an old lady or a kid’s birthday party or something in between that is maybe not as fun.
Daphne: Someone listening right now might be like, “That sounds great, I love it. I want to do children’s birthday parties every single day.”
Heather Gavrish: And if that’s your dream, live your dream, go for it. If you want to do all of the birthday parties and the summer camp things and you’re like, “That sounds so fun,” especially… I have one of my good friends at the school that I used to work at, is a kindergarten teacher, she probably would’ve freaking loved to do the birthday parties for the little kids.
For me, I was just like, “These little kids are cute, but they’re not listening to me talking about the snake. And the parents are just yelling at me about the cake and I’m not enjoying this.”
Daphne: I could not agree more. That’s probably where I would be starting to exit. One, you didn’t let me get near the big cats, that’s strike one. Strike two, a parent yelled at me about cake-
Heather Gavrish: I did get to feed the giraffes, which was very cool. I got to go behind the scenes.
Daphne: I took back a strike, I take back a strike, we’re back on strike one.
Heather Gavrish: I got to go behind the scenes and feed the giraffe and I actually got to bring my brother and his girlfriend one time to go and feed the giraffe as well. So there are some fun perks at these types of jobs.
You can actually bring your family to see you teach sometimes depending on what role you’re doing, or it might just come with some cool opportunities like, “Hey bro, do you want to go feed a giraffe today?” So there were some fun stuff about it too.
Daphne: I love of that. If you end up going back, you can hit me up. You have my email address, I am more than happy to come feed the giraffe.
I have a final question for you because many of the people who are listening, teaching was their “forever career.” It may have been the first career they ever tried.
So, even imagining themselves in any new position is terrifying because changing jobs, no matter who you are, is hard to do. It’s hard to wrap your brain around it, like, “I’m going to reinvent myself, I’m going to try this brand new thing.”
Heather Gavrish: And it’s hard to be the new person.
What Can You Learn About Yourself in a New Role?
Daphne: You’ve done a lot. Have you learned anything specific about yourself by trying out all of these different positions?
Heather Gavrish: I think I tend to just use the mantra like, “What am I going to regret, trying this cool new position or staying at the job that I already have?” I think, usually for me at least, I do like to try new things, I like to travel, I like to go new places.
So for me, it was always trying the new thing is going to help me grow more and help me learn more about myself. Sometimes it sucks and sometimes I learn that I’m not the best with making decisions and that my mental health sucks if I’m working a certain type of job.
And other times I learn like, “Wow, I actually really like teaching and I’m good at teaching.” Or I learn, “You know what, working at a zoo wasn’t quite all it was cracked up to be, I don’t regret trying it because it then brought me to the teaching job that I met the students that I loved, even though it was crazy.”
I always think trying something new, you’re going to learn more about yourself than staying where you’re at, especially if you’re unhappy.
Daphne: I love that.
Heather Gavrish: I also think the idea of a dream job to me is a little bit of bullshit, every job is going to be hard. Working at a zoo, if I had to pick a dream job, it probably would’ve been working at a zoo or an aquarium, and it was not my favorite place I’ve worked.
I struggled having different students every day, I really didn’t realize that at the time, but I really craved the relationship building with students that you get in a classroom, and I was feeling unfulfilled at the zoo because I didn’t get that. I had different students coming in all the time and I was trying to teach them about science and I got to touch the cool animals and bring them to the plants, and I didn’t quite feel fulfilled having different students all the time.
I felt like I was just getting to scratch the surface with each group of kids and not really getting to know who those kids are and get into the things that I wanted to share with them. So for me, a dream job is just a job, at the end of the day, it’s a job and there’s going to be things that you don’t like about it.
If we build up this idea that we have to have our dream job and everything has to be perfect about it, that’s unrealistic. There’s never going to be a perfect job, even if it’s in a field that you love, even if it’s at a place that you love, it’s still a job.
At the end of the day, there’s drama, there’s workplace politics, there’s different hours that you don’t like, there’s birthday parties to host. I don’t know, I think having clear expectations going into a job too, there’s no job that’s going to be perfect.
Daphne: Yeah. I completely agree. I talk about the educational consulting and instructional design position that I’ve had, and both of those have had their struggles and challenges. I just on a scale can tell you what my favorite jobs were and teaching, I did not feel like myself.
For the three years that I was a teacher, I just did not feel like me and the way that I do in these other careers, but I haven’t found the 100% perfect fit dream job where everything’s amazing, but I found things that have worked great for me.
Daphne: And so that’s such a great message for everybody to really understand that everyone does have these challenges and there are going to be some factors, but don’t let one or two negative factors impact your decision if there’s clearly 10 positive factors in making that change, or at least trying something that’s new if you’re in situation where you’re really unhappy.
Heather, before we wrap up, I want to talk to you a little bit about your podcast.
Heather Gavrish: Oh yeah. My husband and I have a podcast, very different from this podcast, although I do bitch about teaching sometimes on it.
It’s more of a pop culture focused podcast, but it’s called Digital Digital Get Down. We actually just recorded our 100th episode. We’ve been doing it for about four years.
If you didn’t mind the sound of my voice and want to hear me talk some more, you can head on over to SoundCloud or Apple Podcast or wherever you get your podcast and check out Digital Digital Get Down. My husband is also a very talented person and he has a website called BookDigits and it’s a book review website.
So if you’re someone who really likes to read, I know a lot of the teachers out there like me are big readers, so it’s a great way to just keep track of your to-read lists, make reviews, get book recommendations. So you can also check out bookdigits.com, or find on Instagram at @bookdigits.
Daphne: I will link all of those in this episode show notes, just to make it easier for anybody if you didn’t write it down with a piece of paper, all of that will be in the show notes for today.
Heather, thank you so much for coming on. I feel like I learned so much about three completely different jobs that I haven’t dove into as much as I really should have, especially with the pandemic shutting down some of these industries.
It hasn’t been one that I focused on, but as things- knock on wood- start to open up, COVID is over, November of 2021, I’m calling it because that’s when my wedding is, so it’s got to be gone by then.
Heather Gavrish: Oh gosh, something good for you.
Daphne: But this is something that so many teachers have asked for and I couldn’t have had a better guest on than you to talk about it and explain it because you did such a great job.
Heather Gavrish: Thank you, Daphne. This was so much fun. I know we only got to talk briefly when we met a couple weeks ago, so I’m so glad we got to dive into it a little bit more and talk a little bit more. And your podcast is great. So thank you so much, I really enjoyed it.
I want to give a huge thank you to Heather for coming in and sharing her story and advice for our community.
If you are a former teacher who’s interested in sharing your story with our audience, either as a former Teacher Spotlight or potentially on this podcast if we have an opening, shoot us a DM on our Instagram @teachercareercoach. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you on the very next episode of the Teacher Career Coach Podcast.
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