Lessons Learned About Risk-Taking in My Education Career Told in 3 Risks

Are you a teacher who loves education but feels the need to change things up in your career? For many reasons including circumstance and my itch for something new, I know the feeling and have experience acting on it. Read on for what I have learned from risk-taking in my education career.

Risk 1: Special Education to General Education

I am honored to say I was a Special Education teacher for 10 years. Burnout in Special Education is very real.  I was not burned out as much as I was ready for something new. Over the years, I attained a few subject certifications to be highly qualified. One of them was Social Studies, a subject I’ve loved since I was a middle-school student. There were two retirements in our school’s Social Studies department. I asked to be considered for one and was suddenly a secondary Social Studies teacher.

I moved 300 feet down the hall to my new classroom, but I might as well have moved to a different planet. That’s how hard the adjustment was. That first semester I was steamrolled. It was like being a first-year teacher again. I thought my Special Education background would be an asset, but it didn’t help at all. I had no clue how to manage a class of 28 students or create engaging learning experiences for large groups.

Those first few months could have killed my education career but there was a savior: block scheduling. There is merit to arguments for and against it, but block scheduling saved me. It was a chance to have the first day of school all over again. By Thanksgiving, I was able to process what was happening and plan ahead to the start of the second semester in February.

That semester was so much better. I tinkered with lessons. I developed an ability to find good Social Studies content. I managed the classroom environment. Having emerged from crisis-mode, I applied what I learned from Special Education to be inclusive and create opportunities for all learners.

Lessons Learned:

  • Take advantage of opportunities to add subject certifications.  They open doors.
  • Changing your audience changes the experience. It may not be for the better.
  • Taking a risk in an education career can pay off – but it will take time to do so.
  • On the fence about making a change? Consider block scheduling a plus in the “do it” column.

Risk 2: Pennsylvania to North Carolina

I was cooking with gas teaching secondary Social Studies. My eighth and ninth-graders received Chromebooks the same fall Google dropped Google Classroom.  But change was on the horizon. My wife and I grew tired of northeastern winters. Dangerous driving conditions, back soreness exacerbated by the cold, wintertime illnesses, and dry skin from indoor heat were among the many things weighing on us. The North Carolina Research Triangle met the conditions we were looking for: south enough to be appreciably warmer, job opportunities, and relative proximity to the northeast. We decided to move. One teacher at my school warned me ominously: “They don’t pay teachers down there.” He was right, but that weirdly worked out in my favor. Read on.

So I rolled the dice. I left a tenured job doing something I loved at a great high school in a union state to move to North Carolina where teachers are chronically underpaid.

Here’s a side-effect of underpaying teachers: it makes it easier to get a teaching job. Talk to anyone applying for a teaching job in states with strong teachers unions such as New York and Pennsylvania – it’s tough. In North Carolina, there is much more fluidity in the job market because teachers are always trying to get a little more compensation or improve their working conditions in a different district. Most teachers hired by my school district in Pennsylvania like the pay and working conditions. They have a union to collectively bargain for them so they’re staying put. I wish those things for North Carolina, but the lack of them enabled me to land a job as a Digital Learning Coach at a great middle school. That kind of job would draw hundreds of applicants in a good Pennsylvania district.

I was so excited for this next chapter of my career – edtech coaching. Then I saw the device all students and teachers used: it looked like the 1970s had a laptop. It was thick and heavy with a terrible 11-inch screen that converted any shade of gray to white. And painfully slow too! This dampened my expectations.

I am so grateful we had such terrible devices. It made my expectations more realistic. I was pleasantly surprised when I met a faculty determined to creatively use technology despite this obstacle. The next year we received brand new Chromebooks. Teachers adjusted to students completing work faster because the prior device was that slow!

Lessons Learned:

  • States with poor teacher compensation may also be the best places to attain a hard-to-get education job.
  • Realistic expectations are important. Do not put any job on a pedestal.

Risk 3: North Carolina to California

Being a connected educator, I made a connection that opened an unimaginable door: the opportunity work for the San Francisco Unified School District office. Dating back to my AP Euro teacher playing The Graduate after the AP exam, I’ve long been fascinated with the west coast in general and specifically the San Francisco Bay Area. I even proposed to my wife there when a business trip of hers took us to San Francisco.

In my excitement, I did not consider livability. The city is very expensive and has a growing inequality problem. Perhaps I should have read this, this, this, or that as I weighed taking this risk.

Having ignored the livability issue, I took the leap and was privileged to work dynamic, student-centered colleagues.

I wish that benefit made me a good fit for the city of San Francisco. In addition to affordability and inequality problems, being so far from friends, family, and my PLN on the East Coast was more difficult than I anticipated. I missed the fantastic North Carolina edcamp scene which spans from the mountains bordering Tennessee to Dawson’s Creek on the coast.

Further, in an example of biting off more change than I could chew, I worked at district office in a 12-month job. As I type this, I am enjoying the last moments of summer vacation before the school year starts. No matter what happens in my job, the schedule pushes the reset button around the summer solstice. Working during the summer, the last week in December, and spring break was a big change I was not ready for.

Having said that, I took the risk. I visited the main Google campus, watched baseball at the best stadium in the country, and enjoyed vegan soft-serve less than a five-minute walk away from my home.

Now I’m back in North Carolina with no regrets. Opportunity knocked and I answered the door. I will never wonder, “What if?” Or as Prince Ea puts it:

Lessons Learned:

  • Not all that glitters is gold. That is especially apt considering I’m talking about San Francisco.
  • Attend edcamps and value them. They’re FREE! Better yet, all participants leave their title at the door. If a risk involves a move, ask people in the potential new location about the edcamps they attend. North Carolina’s edcamp is scene is great. So is New Jersey’s. Educators in Philadelphia and New York, please take note.
  • Summer vacation is an underappreciated aspect of teacher compensation. Time is irreplaceable. The opportunity to have two months of not waking up to an alarm and being “on” is precious. If a risk involves switching to a full-year work calendar, consider the costs of losing that time.
  • Location is important. When taking a risk involves a location change, there will be unforeseen consequences both positive and negative.
  • There is value in taking the plunge and not wondering, “what if?”

I hope these lessons learned have been helpful for considering risk-taking in an education career. Converse with me about the topic by commenting below or tweeting @TomEMullaney. Thanks for reading.

Photo by Diego Jimenez on Unsplash.

Diego Jimenez



  1. Tom, I appreciate the insights in this post! I, too, get that itch and re-evaluate what I am doing. I ask myself questions like: am I still progressive? am I being effective? is this the right school/community for me? I have earned additional certifications, changed schools, and roles. I haven’t made a massive geographical change like the ones you described. I appreciate the risk-reward-lesson paradigm you used. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Tom,

    As always, I love your work not just because of your tech skills, but also because you always mention home in the suburbs of Philly.

    I loved the @PrinceEA video. That video should be shown in every classroom on the first day of school.

    It should become the #ProjectBasedLearning battlecry.

    Glad you are back home in NC. I hope you weren’t too badly affected by Hurricane Florence.



  3. Great reflection Tom. Some of your career risks mirror my own, and like you were usually the result of wanting to try something new. I’ve never regretted any of the risks I’ve taken, still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. Also, you are right the EdCamp scene in NC is awesome and I don’t think we realize how lucky we are.


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