Megan Hall never thought she’d become a teacher — for a while, she was pretty against the idea.
Hall, 38, studied biology and graduated with a bachelor’s of science in 2009. After college, she was unsure of her career path and entered a three-year apprenticeship to become an electrician. But the job proved too physically demanding, so she quit and spent the bulk of her 20s and 30s working odd jobs in health care, car sales, banking, and, most recently, as a department supervisor at Home Depot.
The pandemic-era surge of home repairs burned her out, and she thought yet again about a career change.
That’s when her partner, Ashley Hickerson, suggested she look into teaching.
“I was like, OK, I guess I can give it a try,” Hall tells CNBC Make It. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Hall’s decision bucks a recent trend of teachers leaving the profession due to burnout. At least 300,000 public school teachers and staff left the field between February 2020 and May 2022, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Little did Hall know her pivot into education would afford her a new level of financial security and a sense of purpose she never expected.
‘Teaching has opened my eyes.’
Hall recalls being extremely hesitant about teaching because she worried about being in a classroom full of teens. She thought she’d have to work with challenging personalities or have ”a child basically pick on you, know what I mean?”
She put some of those fears aside and learned about an online certification program with iTeach. In November 2021, she signed up with the program, provided school transcripts and Praxis scores (a series of tests required for future teachers), reviewed the first four chapters of teaching materials, and matched with a school to go into field study.
She took a high school science position with Arlington Preparatory Academy, a public school in Baton Rouge, La., and had her first day in January 2022.
Hall was surprised by how comfortable she felt leading the class and even learned about herself. “Teaching has opened my own eyes about who I am because I used to consider myself such a serious person,” Hall says.
In the classroom, she found she “got to be more playful and more open. It was like I was able to show who I was without the fear of rejection,” she says.
She credits the curiosity of her students, who range from 14 to 19 years old, for reigniting her own passion for science: “It was honestly like magic.”
By the end of her first year in the classroom, Hall won the District Teacher of the Year award. She received her teaching certification in March 2023 and continues to teach with Arlington Prep.
She didn’t expect to find her calling at this stage in life. She says many of her millennial peers can relate to graduating from college into a poor job market and not being able to use their degrees.
“This is the first time that I’m really applying my degree,” she continues. “I didn’t even know I had so much passion for science. I knew I enjoyed it, but actually sharing it with people who have no idea and then watching them figure out the connections is amazing.”
Teacher shortages remain a widespread problem.
Hall is among a small group of people pivoting to a teaching career. Many teachers quit due to challenging working conditions and burnout, leading to a teacher shortage that only got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the years since shortages have shown small signs of improvement, but understaffing challenges remain, according to research from the Economic Policy Institute.
In Louisiana, where Hall works, the share of teachers who quit increased 14% during the 2021-22 school year, according to a report from the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
In response, alternative certification programs have sprung up in an effort to encourage more people to enter the field. Hall went through the program iTeach, a for-profit online teacher credentialing company that works with 11 states to help bachelor’s degree holders become certified to teach in a year to 18 months.
Critics say iTeach and similar programs are not subject to the same requirements and depth of instruction as teachers who go through a traditional four-year college curriculum.
Even so, roughly a dozen states have relaxed credentialing standards for teachers or are considering doing so, Education Week reported in 2022.
Hall says she doesn’t know many people changing careers into teaching but understands why many educators leave the field due to stressful work conditions and lack of resources.
Then there’s the issue of teacher pay. In 2022, the average public school teacher earned a wage of $1,329 per week. Teachers earned 26.4% less than other similarly educated professionals, the lowest level since 1960, according to the EPI.
Though Hall recognizes low teacher pay is an issue for many in the profession, moving to education actually meant a pay bump in her case. She says she previously earned roughly $30,000 at Home Depot. In her first year of teaching, her starting pay was $49,000.
The financial boost provided more security for herself and Hickerson, who works as a retail fulfillment specialist, as a family. They bought their first house together in February 2023.
The best lesson her students have taught her
Hall is among many teachers who say she learns as much from her students as they learn from her.
“The best lesson that my students have taught me is just one of perseverance,” she says. She refers to two students who have traumatic brain injuries who “are capable of learning and doing, but some days are harder than others,” she says. “And I watch these kids come every day and give it what they have that day.”
“When I look at those students, and I look at them, and they’re smiling through everything, and they’re being playful and having fun, you just keep going,” she adds.
She also recognizes the powerful role she can play in mentoring students as a queer nonbinary person in a Southern state.
“These kids want someone to connect with, someone who sees them, someone who understands them,” she says. “My students often look around and see few places where they ‘belong,’ but I hope to show them that standing out and being different can be their special something — their superpower. In their own differences, they can find theirs.”
Hall is early in her teaching career and hopes to continue until retirement. “I love teaching,” she says. “I mean, that’s the thing: I swore I wouldn’t do it, and I have never experienced anything as rewarding.”