What You Learn When You Teach

Interview with Lenore Hirsch, Author and 30+ Year Former Teacher and Principal

Teaching wasn't always Lenore Hirsch's dream job. But when she was tasked with creating training materials for her corporate job, she realized how much she loved seeing others absorb and learn her lessons. This unexpected discovery inspired a decades-spanning career in education. Though Hirsch is technically retired after serving 31 years as a teacher and administrator, she remains active and interested in her field– further proof that finding a career you love can have lifelong benefits and keep you engaged and inspired.  

transitioning to a teaching career by earning a masters degree in teaching

Hirsch graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a bachelor’s degree in French, then worked for AT&T until she realized that she wanted to teach children. She eventually earned her Master’s in Teaching degree from the University of Chicago, later completing advanced coursework in English and Education at California State Hayward and U.C. Berkeley. Hirsch’s teaching credentials include elementary education, secondary education, learning handicapped, resource specialist, and administrative services, and she also has a certificate in Crosscultural, Academic, and Language Development (CLAD). Her career includes experience in special education at the middle school level, after which she became a middle school assistant principal, and ultimately an elementary school principal.

Today, Hirsch has transitioned into yet another career: as an author who writes on topics ranging from teaching to her love of dogs. Her dog memoir, My Leash on Life, was published in 2013. Hirsch’s column in the Napa Valley Register is about school-related topics for parents, and she also speaks publically about education, creativity, travel, and more. 

Check out our complete interview with Lenore Hirsch to learn more about the surprising joys of teaching and what she learned after three decades on the job!

GradSchools: Tell us what you did before you became a teacher, and how that led to a teaching career.

My college major was French. I went to work for AT&T Long Lines supervising overseas telephone operators. After a few months, I was moved to a new position where I created programmed training materials for these same operators. Part of the process involved trying out my educational materials on real subjects. I discovered that I really enjoyed seeing people learn something new from me and decided to go back to school in order to become a teacher. During the year that I prepared myself financially to go back to school, I worked for Pacific Telephone in an engineering department where the work was all about statistics and many workers were less than satisfied. I became even more convinced that what I wanted was not "a job" but a career working with children.

GradSchools: What was the hardest part of transitioning to a teaching career?

It was a challenge to leave the work force and go to grad school for a year. I saved up to cover my living expenses and got a scholarship to cover tuition. I left my home in California and did my graduate work in Chicago. My coursework was interesting enough. Learning how to be in a classroom full of kids and teach a lesson was difficult. Then I had to find a job back in California, which was not easy at the time. I was hired to teach special education, for which I had no preparation. This served me well in the long run. I eventually took the coursework to get special education certification.

GradSchools: How did you decide where to earn your teaching degrees?

I knew if I stayed in California I would get certified, but would not earn a Master's degree. I looked for an institution that had the shortest masters in teaching program and was able to give me a full-tuition scholarship. That's how I chose the University of Chicago.

GradSchools: How did your non-traditional career path help you as a teacher?

My short stint in the world of business gave me insight and appreciation for the very different world of teaching. In business I had an expense account—wouldn't teachers love that? When I wanted to produce my training materials in three colors, my boss said, "No problem." Experiencing the disparities between the worlds of business and education has helped me to inform my local business community about schools' needs and has enabled me to advise young people about the advantages and realities of a career of service.

GradSchools: Was there anything that surprised you when you switched to teaching? How was the work different from what you had imagined?

I had no idea teaching would be so exhausting. First I discovered that not all students love school like I did! Being responsible for so many children with varying needs was a challenge. Being "on" all day with few breaks of any length took stamina. Spending evenings correcting papers and refining the next day's lesson plans was equally taxing. I thought teaching would be more fun. Instead the rewards come in small moments when students respond positively to what I teach or say, when I can see I’m making a difference.

GradSchools: What are some of the unexpected benefits of a career in teaching?

The greatest benefit is the knowledge that I have spent half my life helping children to learn, that I have modeled for them how to be a good, caring person. I know I have spent my time well. Although this may not be true for everyone, I developed an ease with public speaking and I am comfortable around people of different ethnicities and income levels. Teaching children from all walks of life and family situations has taught me to have empathy for all people. 

GradSchools: How has the profession changed since your early years? In your opinion, is this a good time to pursue a teaching career?

The emphasis on standards and test scores has taken some of the joy out of teaching. For example, it was fun to decide to do a unit on poetry and create the materials and exercises to go with it. Those days are gone. The challenges in the classroom are greater, at least in California, as there are so many children who are learning English as a second language or who have been diagnosed with learning problems. All those special needs are the classroom teacher's responsibility. It is always a good time to pursue a teaching career if that is what you love.

GradSchools: Do you have any advice for aspiring teachers? What would you say to the you just starting out in your career?

I advise young people considering teaching that they must love working with youngsters, they must not need a big paycheck or a Christmas bonus, and they must like working independently. There is a lot of collegiality in teaching, but every teacher goes into his classroom, closes the door, and is in charge.

I would tell myself starting out that learning to motivate students to cooperate is the most important task, not mastering the curriculum. Some people have this ability naturally. I did not. If classroom control is a challenge, get a mentor, take a class on it, read books to help you do better. It takes confidence, a positive outlook, and knowledge about techniques for getting kids to "buy in" to the program. 

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