This week, Ali and JoDee are talking with Stephanie Dethlefs, a former teacher turned writer and book coach. Together, they will discuss how Stephanie was able to transition into and out of the classroom multiple times, reflecting on the parts of teaching that brought her joy and what she loves about her new career.
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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, we're joined by Stephanie Dethlef. She's a former teacher turned writer. Stephanie now helps people write the novel they've always wanted to write through coaching. She's the author of published essays, articles, and a middle grade novel, "Unspoken." She also hosts the Let's Write Your Novel podcast. Welcome to the show today, Stephanie.
Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here.
Stephanie, what did you teach when you're a teacher?
I taught Elementary. I started as a reading specialist for two years, and then I moved into the classroom and I taught fifth, fourth and second grade.
Wow, that's great. Such a variety of grades. And being a reading specialist is really awesome. So you used to be a teacher. And like me, after I read your story, I know that you left the classroom, and then you re entered the classroom. And that also happened to me. When you tell us about your story and how you kind of reached your final breaking point. I'm wondering if you could tell us what happened before that, and how, how you went in and out?
Yes, definitely. I've thought about this a lot. It's been five and a half years since I left the classroom. And so I've had plenty of time to kind of reflect on the whole thing and process it. So to sort of fully explain it, I have to start where I was 19, and I had this sort of like, I don't know, the clouds parted and the sun shone down on me, it was like you're going to be a teacher. So in that time, I became really idealistic about how wonderful the job was going to be and how I was going to change the world. I was going to affect the lives. You know, I was going to impact and it was going to be so a chance to be creative and make a difference. And when I got to the classroom, as we all do, I realized that there is much more to the job than what you see from the outside. And you know, for the first five years that I was teaching, I kind of held on to that. I was working 12 hour days and on the weekends and was just all in. It was my top priority to do the best I could for my students. And then my husband and I decided to try to start a family. And we went through a year of challenges trying to get there. And I was in my sixth year of teaching, we had a pretty significant loss. At that point, I started to realize that my priorities were shifting, and that was in the middle of also grieving, which is tricky to then also be giving 110% to your classroom. And so I came to a point there where something just had to give. And so I left my position, and then promptly ended up getting pregnant with my first child. So we had her and then I went back to the classroom halftime. So that first leaving wasn't really an intentional, I'm going to leave the classroom. But it was the beginning of understanding that it was hard to do more than, than just be a teacher full time. It was hard to also have a family. So I went back half time. And then my second child was born. And because I had now two babies, I didn't want to go back full time. And I was very privileged to be in a position where I didn't have to because I have a partner who had an income that could support us. I know not everybody's in that position. So then I left again, because halftime teaching does not pay for two children in daycare, two babies. So we were actually going to lose money on the deal. So I decided to stay home. And at that time, I really wasn't invested anymore in the classroom at the way I had been before. And I felt a lot of guilt and shame about that. Because I've heard you talk on episodes before about how teaching is an identity. And it really was for me. I did not know who I was if I wasn't a teacher and I spent so many years by that point almost a decade, over a decade by that point idealizing teaching and dreaming about what it could be and seeing all the possibilities. But also seeing all of the needs of each individual student, along with all of the other administrative things, and dealing with families, and all of the pieces that come to you. And I am someone who's just not satisfied, if I don't feel like I'm giving my best in a situation. And for me, being a teacher, and being a parent, those two things just didn't work for me, because I have other creative interests too. I'm a writer, I've always been a writer. And I just lost, I lost track of why I was doing it. And so I took a little, like a six year hiatus there with young children at home. All along. I was like, I don't know who I am if I'm not a teacher. And so I just kind of had to figure out my priorities. But at the same time, I couldn't quite come to terms with who I was. And so I ended up going back to the classroom a third time, because we needed the income, and my kids were heading into elementary school. And so I went back, and I had a horrible first year. It was horrible. It was one of those years where I cried every day after school. The second year was better. And the third year was great. It was great. I had a great year. And that was my breaking point, because I had a fantastic intern so I had help in my classroom. It was one of those classes that really they came together, you know, they worked well together. I had supportive families, I felt really confident in the teaching I was doing and I was still miserable. And that was where I had to step back and look at my priorities. And that was when I made the final decision to leave.
I want to say, you did make an impact when you were in there. So you did complete your mission of wanting to influence and make a difference in education, you returned time after time, and you did make an impact. And kids will remember you and they will remember the way that you taught them what you taught them. Perhaps there'll be a writer one today. So you did achieve that.
Yeah, thank you for saying that. I know I have students that still reach out to me, some of them have graduated now. And it's beautiful and wonderful. And I love them.
Yeah, and I think your story just resonates with me a lot, because I've had a lot of transitions where I've gone in and out of the classroom for various reasons like you did. And these are realities like childcare costs are challenging for educators. It's hard to find part time roles. I'm actually impressed that you were even able to find a part time teaching role, because that's something that I looked for for a long time and was not able to find in the high school level. And just hearing about your breaking point wasn't what I expected. I thought it was going to be like this big catastrophe or something. But to realize that you put a lot of time, a lot of love, a lot of dedication into a profession that you really It sounded like you start at 19 was going to be your whole life. And that's kind of how we're, we're taught to think. Like you are a teacher. This is going to be your whole career. And so it must have been really hard when you decided to exit for that third time or to you know, to leave. Because you were really leaving because you realized it wasn't maybe what you wanted anymore. That's what I'm really interested in hearing about. How did you figure out what to do next in that moment?
Oh, that's a really good question. It definitely wasn't an instantaneous decision. It actually probably was three or four months worth of talking with my partner and thinking through it and talking with a couple of trusted friends that I knew wouldn't tell anyone in the, in the business but who understood. And for me, there were some other factors that kind of, that kind of contributed to the decision. My oldest was getting ready to move into middle school. And for her we weren't really sure how that was going to go. And so to think about also, having someone a little more available to her was a priority. But this is what I was saying before is just, it took a lot of time for me to admit that I had priorities that were above teaching. And one of those priorities for me was my own creative work, which really had been stifled in some way. I mean, teaching is a very creative profession, especially at the elementary level. I mean, we're singing and dancing and writing and doing all of the things. But it took a long time for me to admit to myself that maybe I wasn't as passionate about teaching as I had always thought I was. That maybe there were other options for me. And so I kind of left without a real plan other than to write my book, which I had been trying to write for three years. And was still on the first draft of. That was my primary goal. But I also knew that there were threads of things in the teaching profession that I could pick up on and transfer into other roles in the community or in a job. Because I think that's something that we get stuck on a lot is, what am I going to do, if I'm not a teacher? I don't know how to do anything else. And I had to kind of dig into what it was about teaching that brought me the most joy. And for me personally, it was helping kids, but really helping people in general to find their own voices and to feel seen, and to be able to communicate effectively. That was really my, my top thing. To see the kids create or write something and feel seen and heard.
So how did you get to the point to get into that thinking though? Because a lot of people don't know how to reflect on their practice, to say, Well, what do I like? What am I good at? How did you get to the point where you were reflecting on yourself and your body of work?
To be honest with you, I think, in fairness, some of that reflection came after I left. Because in the trenches, it's hard to see the forest through the trees. You're so busy, and often overwhelmed by how much you have to do. So I just want to be honest about that. But I am also a writer, so I spend a lot of time journaling about it. And that was intentional. I asked myself, What is it that I do that I love? What is it that I don't love? Like even just trying to figure out if leaving was the right thing to do. Kind of making pros and cons lists or, you know, this is what I love and this is what I don't. What outweighs what?
I totally did like a pros and cons list are the things that I liked. And I really think you touched on something earlier, before we we got into, you know what you were going to do next. It was embedded in that. And I think a lot of times we skipped over it. But it's that there's this misconception that teaching is a great job for a mom and that you can do all of the things. You can be there for your kids, and you can pick them up and they can go to your school if you work at whatever level they're in. But really the day to day task of being an educator today, you have no energy, speaking from my own experience by the time you leave your school. So you're giving your kids whatever's leftover. And I heard it in your voice, like you wanted to make sure that your daughter's transition to middle school went as smooth as possible. So that you could be there if it didn't go smoothly. And it's really hard to do that. And I think just people who aren't teachers don't get that. They just think, oh, yeah, they're just, they're doing it because it's easy. Well, goodness, this is not an easy profession.
When I was teaching, I was not taking my daughter to her appointments or watching her performances in pre K, it was my husband. Because it was too hard to either do lesson plans, get a sub coverage, whatever it is. And there's always a sub shortage. Always like every year, there is a shortage. So that was never resolved at all. And so I realized over time, that these appointments that I wanted to see her milestones. I wasn't a part of because I couldn't get those things. And even if I did, sometimes there were children in my class that could not function without me there. Their day, their social and emotional well being, and presence at school heavily relied on me as their constant. And so it was really hard to leave and do those things. But kudos to you for making that decision for your daughter because it is a sensitive age range. And to be there, be proactive about that. Awesome.
Well it is. I mean, you're so right. Like I have the ideal situation. And when I say that that last year was good. It was good in a lot of ways. My two kids were both at the elementary school at which I was teaching. But I would have days where one of them would show up at my door in tears because something had happened at recess and they knew mom was there, but I had a meltdown happening in my classroom. And I had to choose, do I help this student or do I help my own child? And that happened more than once. And that was really an eye opening situation. And the truth is I told my child to sit down and wait. And I emailed their teacher really quick and said, he or she is here. And then I dealt with what was happening in my classroom. And that feels terrible as a parent. Feels great as a teacher, terrible as a parent. So that's the thing is, where do you draw the line? Where are the priorities?
You can't do both, like it's not even achievable. So drawing the line means sometimes walking away, unfortunately.
Yeah. And like I said, still, five and a half years later, I have some guilt and shame that I'm still pops up every now and then. Like, for the most part, I feel comfortable with my decision. And I know it was the right thing to do. But I have a lot of friends that are still in the profession. And when we talk, there's still part of me that feels like I could still be helping, you know?
I feel that too. I think a lot of us probably deal with that. Like we are qualified. We have our certification, or we did until a certain point. And like, you know, I hear about a t shirt shortage. Or like you want you kind of feel it's like call to help. And that's why we became teachers in the first place, right? Because we wanted to make a difference, because we wanted to impact young people. And so I think that it does get better with time, but it's still there for me even now.
I get that sense of urgency a lot when I go to meetings at my daughter's school, or I'm at conferences. I think the biggest impact in education is the teacher. Like you give yourself good administrators, a good superintendent, a good curriculum director, fine. But a teacher that loves children and is willing to dedicate time to helping all of them grow, there is nothing that can replace that. And so when I hear about the issues, I want to just jump in full throttle, and just pop right back into the classroom. I don't want to be the person that's talking and discussing about all these things with all the parents, or the principals. I'm like, I just want to plop in there. And then I have to step back and say, Is this the right choice for me to go back and do that? Where was I when I was in that position? And so I just find ways to plant my little seeds of impact, the best that I can while sustaining a healthy lifestyle, and being there for my daughter, being there for my family.
And so, everything you just said, I resonated with. It is, so it's like a primal urge to want to jump in and help. It's just it's still feels like part of me, like I could walk into a classroom tomorrow. And I think that part of that still is that idealized, as soon as you leave, you start to idealize something a little bit again, you know? And then that's why I went back three times.
Teaching is a primal urge, like that is a really good way to describe the teacher brain that Ali and I talk about. It can't be turned off. It is so implicit and automatic, and it's just who you are. And you can't help it, because that's how you were built.
Yeah. And so I think the key is, if someone is thinking about leaving, or feeling like a change needs to happen, but they're just not sure what. I think that's the place where you have to kind of flip it and say, Okay, this is who I am, and I don't have to turn my back on who I am. I can use those same urges, you know, to teach, and to be a part of that community just in a different way.
I love that. I completely agree that when you leave the classroom to go do whatever is next, whether it is becoming a writer, whether it's helping writers, whether it's project management, or whether it's arts education. You're still bringing that power, that desire to other people, to young people. Maybe it's to adults. And I think that that's something that we should all be proud of. We're fortunate that we have this background, and we can share it with the world. And I love hearing about how you were able to take the thing that you love the most about teaching, and to really turn it into what you're doing now, which is writing and working with aspiring writers. So just to round us out for today, because this has been such an amazing discussion. Would you just answer one last question about what's your favorite part about what you do now? What do you love about your job now?
You know what, it's so funny because it's the same thing as I loved in the classroom. So I work with writers while they're writing their book. So we're working together in the idea generation. We're working together to kind of put the first draft on the page. And my absolute favorite part is when a light bulb goes off with them. Snd I see on Zoom their face light up the way my students' faces used to light up. When they had a moment where they understood, or they realize something new. Where they had this idea that just energize them, and they were so excited to go do it, you know. And so it's really it's just, it's the same thing. It's just that I'm doing it with adults, but it's beautiful. And I love it so much.
Stephanie, it's been such a pleasure having you on the show today. And I want to share with our listeners how they can connect with you if they're interested. So if you want to connect with Stephanie, you can find her at Hello writers.net backslash great teacher resignation. Thank you again for being on the show today.
Thank you so much. This is great.
If you liked The Great Teacher Resignation, give us a five star rating and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music and Audible. Today's episode was written and recorded by me Alexandra Simon, and my co host JoDee Scissors. Executive produced by Teacher Brain. Produced and edited by Emily Porter. Original Music: Emoji by Tubebackr. Special thanks to our sponsor, Paper Planes Ed.