Issue #7: District Shopping

Everything you need to know when looking for a new job

Dear Kristin,

What should an aspiring teacher look for when selecting a district for their first job? What should mid-career teachers consider when moving to a district they plan to retire from?

–For Future Teachers

Dear FFT,

In my 12 years of teaching, I worked in three different districts, in four different buildings. So, I know about district shopping. I love to district shop, apparently. 

Mindset. It’s nice to open a newsletter with some good news. This is a GREAT TIME to be looking for a teaching job. I have seen openings in areas, in districts that are not usually open. Want to be a head football coach AND teach P.E.? Those jobs are out there. Maybe not in the exact district you are gunning for, but they exist at a much higher rate than they used to.

Let’s talk about mindset first. I was in special education, so I had no problem finding openings. My mindset was always, they need me more than I need them. In this economy, you can all act like you are special education teachers, so shop around. Apply for multiple positions, in multiple districts. You are the belle of the ball, honey! Fill up your dance card! No need to settle!

For you first-time applicants, yes, people are running from the burning building. That’s why there are so many openings. Use this job market to feel like a firefighter running towards the fire, to save the day. You will be in demand, even though you do not have experience. Walk into that interview knowing that you are valuable. Districts need new teachers, they desire new teachers to train up and (hopefully) hang onto.

Non-negotiables. I surveyed my reading audience to see what they care about most when district shopping. The results were as follows (thanks to everyone who participated!):

Here are the top four items I consider most important when searching for your first teaching job and a place to retire. In order from most important to least:

1. Building climate/supportive administration. I put this one at the top because if you hate your job if you hate your bosses, it doesn’t matter how much you are getting paid. Teachers will settle for lower-paying positions because they are content in their buildings/districts. Happiness matters.

Typically, a building's climate speaks directly to the quality of your leadership team.  A bad climate can be a symptom of a dysfunctional leadership team. And once the dysfunction is there, it runs deep and you will get sucked in. It’s incredibly difficult to be effective when you have bad bosses.

In two of the buildings I have been in, the climate was so terrible, you could feel it when you entered the front door. My job satisfaction was in the toilet. Being around unhappy people who struggle to show up to work every day will bring you down, even if you feel content with your students, and content with what you are teaching. Outside of your happy place, your classroom, it will wear you down. Even you introverts who think, It’s cool, I won’t talk to my co-workers, I will focus on the kids. You still have to attend meetings, collaborate, and make small talk by the copy machine. You can’t block it all out. It will seep in, at some point.

Climate is especially crucial when looking for a place to retire. You want a place where you can stay while you wind it down, in peace, surrounded by people who enjoy coming to work. You want to be around people who are well-supported and feel empowered to overcome the many obstacles thrown at them. You do not want your last years to be in a sad place with sad people, full of strife and conflict. You don’t want to think you have landed at your final resting place only to discover it’s terrible while it destroys your mental health.

2. Pay scale/benefits package. I rate this one as the second most important aspect of a teaching job because, well, you need to pay your bills. You are more likely to be satisfied with your job if you feel you are being paid adequately. And "adequately" might be a stretch, where, in our profession, legislatures have decided that our rate of pay does not need to keep up with the rising costs of living.

So, you need to do some comparison work with salary schedules in your area. You will notice differences in starting pay, middle pay, and end-of-career pay. This will spell out in black and white how a district values its staff throughout their careers. A reader submitted this thought via the survey on district shopping:

“I’m not the move-around type. I just want to stay put in one district until I retire. The only reason I’m leaving my current district is the lack of step restoration. If I’m going to be with you for a long time, I want to see you doing things for your long-term employees. My new district has a lot of incentives to stay in their district, the higher steps have bigger jumps in salary, they have extra cash retirement benefits, etc. I’ve seen other districts in the area do similar things. Kind of creating a climate of longevity. I wish my old district had done those things. Now that I’m looking at it, it’s like they don’t want to people to stay.”

Also, research how the district rewards extra education. Moving over, not down on the pay scale is your fastest way to earning a higher salary. If you are thinking you will be a classroom teacher your entire career, how much more education do you want to take on? Does this new district offer a way for you move over on the schedule without earning more degrees? What graduate-level work is accepted?

Finally, when you have landed on a district and an offer is extended, ask to speak to HR. Ask for a breakdown of what your take-home payment would look like, if you accept the position. Another reader advises:

“As a mid-career teacher I would ask lots of questions about insurance, because you are likely to keep that insurance when you retire and there are HUGE disparities in cost and coverage. Really wish I’d known that sooner.”

I had a friend who moved districts because she was expecting a big bump in pay. Unfortunately, she assumed her insurance payment would be similar to what she was paying in her old district. Once she made the move, she did not see that increase because there was a huge discrepancy in monthly insurance premiums.

Finally, if you are closer to retirement, money might be your main focus when looking to make a move, and that's fine. You need to inflate your salary, the closer you are to retirement. Depending on where you teach, your retirement is decided by averaging the final three to five years of your career.  Hopefully, you can find a place that values older professionals and doesn't suck.

It's essential to sit down with your financial advisor and have a solid plan for your final years. You want to ride off into that sunset well-provided for, with no surprises lurking for you in the margins. 

3. Details of the position. Teaching what you want to teach will help you overcome many of the other doldrums found in education. You can gut out that pointless PD, stay after contract time to get grades in with a smile on your face (or at least a neutral expression), stomach that annoying parent interaction, outlast that incompetent administrator, go to bat for your department needs — you can accomplish all of that — if, at the end of the day, you are doing what you are passionate about.

You need to find that magic cocktail of the right position mixed with the right amount of autonomy. After all, your day, your class schedule with your students, it’s how you spend most of your time. As I have noted here and here, education career longevity is becoming a thing of the past. If you can find the elusive portal that transports you to the mythical land of able-to-make-it-to-retirement, it will be via finding your dream position.

4. Quality of department members. The people you work most closely with — the people whose dumb faces you have to see every single day — those people matter the most. You want to find a good team who is going to uplift and push to make you better. You want to find people who are open to collaborating and who are also cool enough to grab drinks with after work. You need to find your people. Look for those people you have chemistry with. Find those people who will talk you down off the ledge and keep you going (you will need this service many times in your career).

I have worked with some very solid people who I still miss, to this day. Growing to rely on a trusted teammate, who has been down in the trenches with you, these people are a gift. I have also worked with some very messy, unstable people who made me feel as though I needed to watch my back in the parking lot. These people made my day-to-day absolutely miserable, to the extent that I could not enjoy any other aspects of the job. The right people will make your job palatable. They might even make it fun. The wrong people will create a toxic, anxiety-producing nightmarish environment.

Action steps. Okay, so I have given you a lot to consider. Here’s even more. Here’s a game plan for when you are ready to make that move. You have decided which factors are most important to you. Now you are ready to vet a district to see, who is taking home this pretty pretty princess?

Before you apply. We already discussed mindset; remember, they need you more than they need them. I also suggest doing extensive research on where you are applying. Proceed like you have the Adderall-addled mind of a private investigator who won’t stop until he’s devoured every rumor, every whisper, every single crumb ever written about the building you are applying to. If you don’t know how to be an online snoop, ask someone who does. We all have that friend who loves to internet sleuth. Also, figure out who you know on the inside and ask them what the building is really like.

Before you fill out that maddeningly long application (why are they SO long?!!), you must understand what you are getting yourself into. Your background research will help you to decide if a building is going to meet your standards.

During the application/interview process. Once you have decided you want to try on a district, you will get to the interview stage. While on the inside, you need to sit up straight and observe like an eagle-eyed psycho. Take note of how people appear when you are in the building. Do you notice a bunch of sullen students and staff in the office, while waiting for the interview? Spoiler alert: If you take the position, you will join their sullen ranks. You won’t rise above it. A good rule of thumb: If the vibes are off, you must take off!

If the vibes aren’t off and you decide to stay, you must ask some questions in your interview. The answers to these questions will help to narrow things down:

  • Ask about building goals/visions. How do they align with your values?

  • Ask about issues with your position. Why is the job open?

  • Ask about building climate. What are they struggling with? How are they going to solve their issues?

  • How is the relationship between administration and the teaching staff? If there’s discord, what plans are being developed to bring everyone together?

  • Ask about evaluations. Who does them, how often, what’s the process?

  • Ask about the department. How well do they function together? How can the department improve? What times are available for collaboration?

  • Ask about the curriculum and about expectations to stay on pace with the curriculum.

  • Ask if you have a content area specialist over your position, to support you.

  • Ask about your schedule and ask about how much input you will have over what you teach, in the long term.

  • Ask about the student population and common discipline issues. How is the building supporting their population? In what areas are they lacking?

  • Ask about professional development expectations and opportunities.

  • If you have goals to get your foot into the door of the building to eventually teach other courses, or move up to administrative level, ask about if that would ever be a possibility.

  • If needed, what extra duties are available to bring in extra income?

You should be able to make a detailed pros/cons of the position, along with some anecdotal notes of your behavioral observations while peeping on the staff. You might even be able to armchair diagnose your possible new boss!

An offer is extended. Once the offer is made, if you didn’t do much detective background work up front, you can ask to speak to current employees before you accept. Ask them the same questions you asked in the interview. If there are huge discrepancies between what you were told in the interview and what the current staff member told you, that’s also a red flag. Do more digging to figure out who is actually telling you how it really is, the staff member or the person interviewing you.

You can also ask to observe classrooms. Ask for a tour of the building. Sit in on some lunch shifts, attend some athletic events at the building. Get a real feel for the place. Don’t feel like you are being a nuisance. You are being thorough. You do not want to go through this process again. You should also discuss any hesitations you have about the position and/or building. Ask your possibly-soon-to-be boss what she can do to alleviate concerns.   

If you get pushback on these requests, if the building won’t let you speak to someone and/or observe, don’t take the job. It’s a sign your requests, once hired, will continue to be blocked and/or ignored. They are also likely hiding a disgruntled staff.

If you follow these steps and the pros outweigh the cons, you have yourself a new district! No place will be perfect, but if what matters most to you is represented in the pros column, you should make the move.

Also know, if you get in and the job winds up being a turd, give yourself grace. People tend to present their best versions of themselves in the interview and vetting process. Sometimes it’s hard to break through to the inside of a building to get an accurate picture of what it’s like. It’s also easy for buildings and bad leaders to hide the football on who they truly are.

Finally, my last piece of advice -- save this article for future reference, in case you do end up in a bad building and you are job hunting again. Just make sure you follow all of my steps, next time.

Did I miss any advice? Do you disagree with anything I said? If so, go off in the comments!

—Kristin

Know someone applying for a new job? Share Ask a Teacher right here.

Would you like to be interviewed for Ask a Teacher? Or know someone else who has an interesting story to tell? Fill out this form.

Also, I would love to respond to your questions! Please send me what’s on your mind, right here. 

Join the conversation

or to participate.