This week Ali and JoDee chat with Marissa Conway, former teacher turned Operations Research Analyst at NASA. Together, they’ll discuss the very relatable reasons that caused Marissa to leave teaching (hint: not burnout!), how she landed her current position, and perks of working for the government.
Sites mentioned in this episode:
Connect with Marissa:
Connect with Ali and JoDee:
Teacher Shift LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/teacher-shift
Ali’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alisimon/
JoDee’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jodeescissors/
All teachers are natural innovators, entertainers and problem solvers. They dream of growing old into the profession, teaching their kids kids. But sometimes career goals shift or change, and that makes opportunities outside of the classroom seem intangible. Questioning who am I, if I'm not a teacher? I'm your host, Alexandra Simon.
And I'm your co-host, JoDee Scissors.
This is The Great Teacher Resignation.
Today, our guest is Marissa Conway. She is a former teacher turned Operations Research Analyst at NASA. She has six years of government employment experience, five of which have been at NASA. In addition to working full time, she is also a mom of four. Welcome today, Marissa.
Hi, Ali. Hi, JoDee. I'm glad to be here with you guys today.
Thanks so much for taking the time out of your day. We're really looking forward to hearing from you and sharing this episode with our listeners. And just to give you a little bit of background, I met Marissa during her first formal year teaching high school math. Although she had been a teaching assistant in graduate school before that, for two years. After the birth of her first two children, twins, Marissa decided not to return to the classroom and became a full time mom. A few years later, she started her career as a government employee. And that's what we're going to talk about today. Marissa, I think you have a really unique story where you had teaching experience, you started teaching high school, obviously had your girls. But how did you know so early on that teaching wasn't the right path for you, teaching high school specifically?
So I would say the driving factor for me personally, was that it coincided with having kids at a young age. So as you mentioned, I had twins in my first year as a full time high school teacher. And it became quickly apparent after their birth, that our budget would not be supported by a teaching income and also paying full time daycare for two infants. So that drove my initial decision to leave and withdrawal from teaching at that immediate time. Looking long term, I can say with a lot of certainty that I kind of knew I wouldn't go back. And that was because it was always a goal of mine to have a larger family. So as you mentioned, we have four girls, and knowing that was the case, and knowing our childcare costs would, you know, basically be through the roof for a pretty good duration of time. I just knew that if I were going to be in the workforce, it would have to be worth my time. And so that kind of took teaching off the table as an option for me. And I'd say that's honestly the biggest driving factor. You know, experience wise, I feel overall my experience teaching was positive. I definitely felt more comfortable teaching at the college level than I did in high school. But that may have been lack of exposure, because I did have more time at the college level. But yeah, overall, I definitely think for me it was, you know, family planning and personal preference.
Many of the people that reach out to us are leaving to make family decisions, whether it's being able to afford the right childcare, or it's just the inflexibility of it. And so we're seeing a lot of those trends in the people that reach out to us.
Yes, exactly. And I can't speak to the salary of a new hire teacher, you know, in this day and age, because we're talking almost a decade ago, at this point. But for me, I had a master's degre. I had some teaching experience, and even still, what I was provided in my level of salary could nowhere near cover the cost of childcare. And so you know, that's, that's huge for you know, all those who want to be career teachers. I mean, especially if having a family is on your agenda and in your plans. I feel like something has to give.
Well we know that the majority of teachers are women, and women tend to be the primary childcare provider. And they help their families a lot in that role. But it's difficult to make that decision between whether you're going to work and pay for really expensive childcare, which the cost of childcare has also gone up a lot I'm sure since we had our infants. And so it's that really that juggle between career, family, and wanting to have that whole entire balance. I know that's a huge concern for parents, but especially for teachers because the majority of us are women. And we have to really think about that. And I'm glad that you shared your experience today because people don't leave teaching always because they just don't like it or because they're dissatisfied. It's these other factors that are really important and that I think we need to pay more attention to.
And many of these teachers are leaving but they have these higher ed degrees. I know that the district that I worked in for the last six years, they paid for my master's degree or 80% of it. And so I can't speak for all school districts, but to move along that pay scale, you obtaining certifications and higher degrees is how you kind of mobilize yourself more quickly. And then it just kind of taps out a little bit. And then the climb gets a little bit lower, but like a lot of teachers are leaving, and they have these advanced degrees that could land them into a position and utilize those skills in another role.
And that's the other thing we've talked about before is that the teacher salary scale, it's fixed, it's not really moving, right. And so you saw an opportunity later on that was not in teaching. And while actually your salary scale may be fixed in some way. You have some negotiation when you're going into government work, or when you're going into the private sector or the nonprofit world. You can negotiate. And with teaching, from my experience, there's no negotiation. You are on a scale. If you have X years of experience, you're going to get paid this amount.
Whether you're a good teacher, or a not so effective teacher.
That's true, too.
I can say I have definitely witnessed that on both sides. But yeah, you're right, my salary is fixed. I'm on the general schedule right now as a civil servant at NASA. But you know, that scale, I feel like it's on the higher end, you know, what I mean, versus where the teachers feel maybe which like I said, this is a decade ago for me. So I don't know exactly where that lies now. But regardless, I can tell you that the general schedule spans a higher range than teaching might, you know what I mean? And so yes, it's fixed. Yes, you can negotiate a little bit. But you know, having the ability to be on a higher salary is a primary benefit, the flexibility you guys mentioned, I kind of want to touch back on that. But that's another thing that I didn't realize that would be an issue because I didn't really get that far into having kids. I stopped teaching as soon as I had my twins. But I feel like right now, you know, I work remotely four days a week. Even if I'm not, I can adjust my schedule if my kids are home sick. If they need picked up from an activity or school, for some reason, I have maximum flexibility to be able to do that without like impacting anyone else, or impacting my job. I mean, it's just I'm given my workload, it's 40 hours worth of work a week. And I get that done within a certain window of time during the day. And that's that. And so the flexibility is something that I've come to value now. But had I continued on in teaching while I was raising my children, I can say with almost complete certainty, it would have not been the case. So it's definitely something else to factor into that decision on whether or not teaching is a career for you or not.
Yes, I completely agree with what you said, I think to when you're in it, when you're in teaching, you have a large sense of community with your fellow educators. And so what you said is that your job, if you have to change your schedule, or if you have to go pick up your children, you're not really impacting anybody else. Maybe you have a deadline, but you'll make sure that you'll meet it. But in teaching, if I have to leave in the middle of the day, and there's no extra subs, I'm directly impacting a fellow teacher who might have been on their planning period. There are emotions associated with that. There's guilt. For me, in particular, I really, I really struggled with that, like, Oh, I know someone's gonna have to fill in for me if I leave early or, or if I'm not able to get a sub, which right now we have a sub shortage. We don't even have enough subs for teachers who have planned absences, let alone unplanned absences where someone is sick, or there's an emergency. I feel the same thing with my job. I work as a management consultant on a government contract. I work with people like you in my job. And yes, if something comes up, I have a little bit more wiggle room, and I'm not putting my colleagues out necessarily. And that helps me a lot to be able to make those tough decisions if I have to handle an emergency situation.
Right. And for me, personally, I mean, my family always comes first in my life. That's my priority. I only get one chance to parent my kids, and when they're grown, they're grown. And so that's always going to be my number one. And because of that I couldn't put a job before my family. And emergency or non emergency, just the ability to be there when you need to or even want to... I don't know, I think it's really something worth a lot of value. You couldn't even place like a financial value to it, you know?
Yes and then that coupled with the financial difference, definitely, it makes it invaluable. Well, one of the things we wanted to ask you about was, how did you end up in this government role?
My husband was in the Navy, back when Ali and I initially met. That's what brought us to the same geographical area at the time. And with his Navy career, we traveled around and because of location, there were just more federal opportunities and had we been, you know, located where we're from, which is Ohio. When we were stationed in Spain, my only opportunity was a government opportunity. So it was either apply for government opportunity, or be a stay at home mom. Which was great for me, I definitely enjoyed the time that I did that. But I also knew that I wanted a career. And so it was really out of necessity. Like, you know, my only option was just government at the time. So I was able to get my foot in the door with the Air Force. And I had a great experience, though it was only a year and a half long. It kind of gave me a taste of okay, here's an alternative option to what I've experienced so far, which is teaching. And so we left Spain, I had my third daughter two months after that. And so I kind of stayed home with her for about six months. And then I kind of started looking around again for, you know, some kind of career move. And because I had enjoyed my experience with the Air Force, I started with looking at government contractors, and also civil service positions with multiple agencies. NASA was one of those. But NASA specifically, was an opportunity that I looked for, because well, we have multiple centers across the nation. The center that I work for is located in Cleveland, which is where we are from. And so at the time, our goal was for my husband to transition out of the Navy, and to be near family again. And so I was looking more locally to the Cleveland area. So I stuck with government, because I liked the experience I had initially at the Air Force. And the rest is kind of been history to be completely honest. I mean, I've had multiple roles within NASA. My most recent one as an operations research analyst has been for a little over a year now. And I was more in finance prior to that. But yeah, I mean, like I searched out of experience and comfort and knowing that it could be a good fit for me. But I would say I've stayed because it's provided all the things that we've already talked about.
I'm wondering what exactly your job is, like, what are your day to day roles? And how did you bring your background in mathematics in teaching into your new role? Or is it totally separate? Are they intertwined in any way?
So my background being in applied math is what basically landed me my current role. The requirement was to have an analytical degree like in statistics or math, operations research, that kind of thing. And what I do with that is I'm specifically in a group of people who are cost estimators. And we also do scheduling. A lot of like project planning and control type stuff. But we basically are there to support all of NASA's projects from that project planning and control perspective. So if project is developing, for example, you know, like, a current one that we're working on, the Mars subtug. And so, you know, these engineering teams kind of create projects, and we're there to support them and say, Okay, well, this is what you want to create. Here's what it'll cost you. Here's how long it'll take you to do it. And then like, basically, here's all the support and resources that you'll need. And so it's definitely numbers heavy. But I would say as far as the teaching goes, while I'm not in a direct, like teaching role anymore, that goes both ways. I've both trained in multiple roles and have trained others in multiple roles. And knowing how to teach is definitely a beneficial skill to have in those roles. You know, I mean, being able to help someone learn at their own pace, or if they need a different style of teaching to learn what you're teaching them. Those are great things that you can carry with you in any job. And so I think that, yeah, government's not like, you know, teaching there aren't really as many teaching opportunities unless you're going to a DOD school. But that doesn't mean that those skills can't carry into a plethora of jobs.
Our episode 5 podcast, Leaving the Salary and Benefits, is one of our most popular recordings. Do you find any similarities in the benefits going from public education to government? I know we've already touched on a salary scale. But something else you could add to that?
I guess I can't really speak to that too knowledgeably, just because like I said, I was so young and so early in my career. I didn't have a major focus on that while I was teaching. But I will say, with federal benefits, I mean, the retirement is great. I mean, it rivals that you would get not completely, but it's comparable to like a similar style that you would get if you were like in the military. You know, I mean, you get a higher three. So they take like a calculation of your highest three salaried years, which tends to be the last three years you worked. But that could, you know, vary. And you have a retirement account that's matched. It might be agency dependent, but for us, it's up to 5%. Health benefits compared to what I have seen in the civilian world with some friends of mine, I think it's good. I mean, it's a great opportunity. It's not something that I have taken advantage of because of my husband's current job, and they're offering right now. But that being said, I don't think that you can get a whole lot better than what we have with government benefits.
I know that's just something that our listeners are always concerned about when they're leaving something really stable, something that they're comfortable with. They know that they're going to get this pension if they stay in for 20 something, 30 years. And so it's nice to know that there are other career options that could offer you something that stable to that sound like they also have a salary scale. You'll know what you'll be making. But it's seems like it's higher. It's based more on the market and where people are, like in a more competitive manner. Where education, the salaries have not kept up with inflation. They've not kept up with the market. I mean, we know right now that it's so hard for people to find teachers yet, there's not a large call to change the pay for teachers. Just giving us an extra 1000 or $2,000 a year is not enough.
Doesn't touch it. Yeah. It doesn't touch it. No. But on top of the inflation raise, you have a step increase every... it's not every year. It kind of depends on where you are in your career, but there's that ladder. But then there's also promotions into higher grade levels on top of those steps. And those can be time dependent. They can be job dependent. They can be achievement dependent. There's just so many avenues and opportunities that you can really make it what you want. And there's not a whole lot limiting your growth, if you seek to accomplish it.
Really well said, I was thinking about that, because I have friends who also work in the government. And you can be working for one government agency and then see a job posting another government agency. And as long as you've met your time commitment, you can apply to those jobs, where I feel like in teaching, sometimes, it's really difficult to leave a district or to leave a school to go into a district level role, perhaps because your school doesn't want to lose you. I don't really feel like there's that same negativity associated with moving around, with getting jobs that are higher level like promotions, or next steps in the government side, from what I've seen in from what you just shared with us. So that's another benefit, too.
When it comes to an organization like NASA, I'm wondering, can you see in other positions other than your own, how a teacher might integrate their professionalism, their skills into various roles throughout an organization like that, other than just like the education side? Because sometimes people just want to get away from education. They want to be in something totally different. So like, what advice would you give for someone who is applying to an organization that's not a school districtt, basically?
Yeah, that's a great question. Like I mentioned, there are multiple NASA centers, right? And so the center, I work at Glenn Research Center. We are specifically a research center. So that being said, we have specific roles. We have, I think, just over somewhere between two and 3000 employees. But each of the centers kind of has its own core competencies and specialties. And so because of that there may be different roles, like can't speak for like NASA as a whole. But from my personal exposure at our center, yes education opportunities are there. But those are not the only ones. Like I said before, I have been in operations research, I was in finance. And I actually started out as a contractor, like Ali. I was working on a contract supporting NASA. And the contractors make up about half of the workforce under the CFO. And the background from the analysts and the accountants supporting the CFO, yes, you have your accountants that have actual accountant or financial degrees. But you also have people with a vast variety of degrees from all other kinds of areas. I mean, my one good friend has a criminology background. And she worked for our local courthouse, as a probation officer for I think, almost 10 years before coming to NASA in finance. So it was like a total career change. But I think as a whole, they're really open to you know, not just what your past is, but what are your goals? Like where are you now and what are your goals for the future? And I think as long as you can kind of justify those, I think they're really open to any background in teaching and education would not be any different for that. So within the CFO for my exposure, specifically, you could have a supporting financial analyst role, a resource analyst role supporting projects, helping them monitor and track their finances and their resources and planning. So there are lots of project and planning opportunities within NASA. Obviously, there are a lot of science and engineering specific jobs. And the nature of those are such that you do have to have background in those a lot of the time. But as far as the support roles go, scheduling, technology transfer. I mean, like those kinds of our anything goes. If you can justify your willingness to learn and your careers goals for yourself, I think that NASA in general has a really open mind. And that being said, for federal jobs, I'm not sure if you guys have mentioned this, but you apply on the USA Jobs website. So that's one specific website just in response to you saying, you know, how do you... how do I apply if I'm not applying to a school districts. But as Ali can probably attest to also, if you're looking for contractor opportunities, I mean, there's a plethora of those as well. And those you won't find on that website. So if you live in a specific geographical area, you want to stay in that area, look at what federal agencies and opportunities there are around you. But then you can go to those agencies websites. For me like you could go to Glenn Research Center's website and you can actually look up a list of contractors that we hold current contracts with and kind of what their contract covers. And just look on their websites. I mean, it's basically like an endless list of opportunity, if you want to look for it.
I wanted to say thanks for shining a light on mathematics. Many of the people we've interviewed had this like creative background. They're artists in some way. And so I had someone reached out to me a few weeks ago, that was a math teacher, that has a master's in math and was like, What do I do? What do I do with this? Because their educational path was focused on being a math teacher. And so you really shined a light on what what can you do with that background and how can you apply it. And how can you still practice something you still love? Like, if you love teaching math, you probably love numbers in some way and get some sort of liveliness out of utilizing that in your professionalism. So thank you.
Thank you so much, Marissa, for your time today for coming on the show, for all the insights that you gave our listeners about your experience in government work, and also for sharing the resources on where they can look for federal jobs or contractor jobs. If you're interested in connecting with Marissa, you can find her on LinkedIn as Marissa Conway or on Instagram at Marissa Conway. Thanks again.
Thanks, JoDee and Ali. Nice talking with you guys.
If you liked The Great Teacher Resignation. Give us a five star rating and follow us on Instagram, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, and Audible. This episode was written and recorded by me, Alexandra Simon, and my co-host JoDee Scissors. Produced by JoDee Scissors. Original Music: Emoji by Tubebackr. Special thanks to our sponsor, Paper Planes Ed.