My Road to School Psychology

I am told that being a school psychologist with a teaching background is an unusual thing.  It’s true, I don’t know many other school psychs who were previously teachers, but I don’t know how common or uncommon that is.

For a recent graduate school assignment, we had to write a reflection piece about an important professional decision we had to make.  I chose to write about my journey from teaching to school psychology.  Here it is, only slightly edited:

***

Perhaps one of the most important professional decisions I have faced was in 2008, when I decided to leave my position as a classroom teacher.  While people leave the teaching profession every day, and at an alarming rate overall, my decision was slightly more nuanced than that.  I was not chucking it all in and leaving education behind forever in order to start my own business or enter the world of private industry.  Rather, I was looking to make what amounted to a lateral move professionally and financially, but one I felt would lead to quality of life improvements for me personally, as well as for my family.

From 2000 until 2008, I taught English at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, NJ.  It is a large suburban high school (3,200 students in grades 9-12) with a fairly progressive approach to both academics and technology.  I was one of about 30 teachers in the English department, and despite some typical cliquishness that one finds in any work situation, we were all a pretty collegial bunch.  As a new teacher, I found that my English department colleagues were all only too happy to share materials, lesson plan ideas, constructive criticism, and the occasional shoulder to cry on.  After a rocky first year of teaching, I began to establish myself as what most folks considered to be a good teacher – my performance reviews were good, most students and parents seemed to like me, and of course I loved working with my students. In 2002, I began a Master’s program in English literature at my undergraduate alma mater, but dropped out of the program after the first two classes (not courses; class sessions, which is very unlike me).  After my class spent six hours torturously explicating the first four lines of an Emily Dickinson poem, I decided that my academic interests lay elsewhere.

A week or so later, I came across an advertisement for coursework at Rider University that would lead to a teaching certification in special education.  At that point I had no career aspirations to be a special education teacher, but as I reflected on my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, I realized that working with kids with special needs was probably the part of my job about which I knew the least.  Nothing in my undergraduate teacher training program covered special education, so what little (very little) I knew, I learned on the job co-teaching inclusion English classes with a special education teacher.  It seemed to me that undertaking this course of study would be most beneficial not only for me as a professional, but also for the students I taught, so that fall I enrolled in my first of six courses in the certification cycle, “Psychology of Exceptionality”.

This course was taught by an adjunct instructor from Rider, a school psychologist named Tom Barnes.  Tom had a very easygoing demeanor and a dry sense of humor that matched my own, so I felt very comfortable in his class learning about all manner of physical and cognitive disabilities to which I was previously oblivious.  In addition to teaching us the factual basis of the course material, he also often editorialized from his professional perspective as a school psychologist, which I found interesting.  By the time I finished the course I had exhausted my employer’s tuition reimbursement for that academic year, so I had to wait until summer to take the next two courses in the sequence, “Psychology of Learning Disabilities” and “Positive Behavior Support”.

These two courses were also taught by school psychologists who were also the co-chairs of Rider’s graduate program in school psychology at the time, Stefan Dombrowski and Kathy McQuillan.  I found myself becoming very interested in the subject matter, especially the coursework that revolved around behavior analysis and behavior support later in the summer.  While I was taking these courses with the ostensible goal of earning a special education teacher certification, I learned at some point over the summer that they were also courses in the Ed.S. in School Psychology program, which was significantly longer (60 credits in coursework and practica, plus a 1,200-hour, 6 credit internship), but led to an Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) degree as well as K-12 certification as a school psychologist.  At that time, I was drawn to the degree program primarily due to the intellectual stimulation it provided, but also with the idea that I could have another option if I decided at some point in the future I no longer wanted to teach English.  I spoke several times with Dr. McQuillan, completed some paperwork and an interview, and that following fall, I matriculated into the Ed.S. program in school psychology on a part-time basis.

Over the next five years, I took all my courses at what felt to be a very slow rate – one in the fall, one in the spring, and two in the summer.  Full-time students could expect to complete the program, including internship, in three years.  From the time I enrolled in my first course, it took me twice that time to complete my degree, during which I got engaged, got married, bought a house, sold it, and bought another one, and had two kids.  I did this all while teaching high school English full time, which also carries with it a substantial amount of time spent outside of school planning, grading, and the most time-consuming part, reading and commenting on student writing.  As one might expect, graduate school became a major time commitment for me when my time was sorely needed elsewhere, most significantly with helping with our firstborn when he was an infant.  There were several times, especially between 2005 and 2007, when I had to ask myself if continuing the degree program was worth the monumental amount of time it was taking, in terms of both the extended length of the program as well as time away from my wife and child.  When I was home, I was either doing coursework for grad school or doing prep work or grading for my day job.  At that point, however, I decided that I was more than halfway through the program, and quitting at that point would probably make any tensions at home even worse, since all the time previously spent would have been for nothing.

My daughter was born in early 2008, by which time I had started my last class and was three months away from graduation.  At that point we had been through the “new baby” routine once already, and were better prepared for the time budgeting demands that baby, work, and grad school would put on the family.  I had also evolved in terms of my professional life.  I was in my eighth year of teaching, was one of the more senior members of my department, and was respected at my school as a good teacher and an innovator in the curricular integration of technology.  After I graduated with my degree and certification in May 2008, I had to face the big decision: do I stay in teaching, or do I leave to become a school psychologist full time?

Lots of factors came into play in this decision. I had to compare what I would be giving up to what I would gain.  Leaving to take a new position would entail losing tenure, seniority, and the social capital gained by my established reputation.  I stood to make significantly more money, but because of the way our contractual pay scale was structured, I would get that anyway simply by virtue of the fact that I had attained a degree plus X amount of credits.  I did not have to leave teaching in order to get that financial reward, since school psychologists and teachers are paid on the same pay scale in most NJ districts.  Finally, I would lose the daily interactions and relationships I had with students.  Beside the professional aspects, there was also the personal: my wife and I met working at Hunterdon Central together, and we had both worked there for the entirety of our relationship, from colleagues to boyfriend/girlfriend to married couple.  How would things change if I left?

Of course, I did finally decide to seek employment as a school psychologist for the following school year, but it was not without a lot of soul-searching and hand-wringing.  I think the deciding factor came down to the out-of-school commitment teachers make.  It is no secret that teachers spend hours upon hours after school and on weekends grading and preparing lesson plans, and I was no different.  Moving to school psychology would remove that component, allowing me to spend more quality time after school and on weekends with my family.  No more rushing home to fret about ungraded work or foregoing the occasional evening event because I needed to tweak tomorrow’s lesson plans.  While my new career path is not without its own stressors, it is also not without its own special brand of rewards.  After eight years of sacrificing a lot of personal, “off the clock” time to my job, I feel that the professional decision I made four years ago was the right one, not only for me, but for my family as well.

Throughout my previous graduate school experience, there were so many factors that played into the decisions I made.  As I described, my gut reaction to the traditional English M.A. program, my intellectual interest in the field of school psychology, the genesis and growth of my own family, and the professional hurdles I faced all played into my decision making process at one point or another.  In reflection, I often wonder if I could or should have done things differently.  I do not regret leaving teaching to become a school psychologist.  Yes, there are days when I miss the regular teacher-student interaction and the relationships I formed with many young adults over the years, but I’ve since found new ways to make a difference in young people’s lives.  Perhaps the only thing I wish I had done differently was to tone down the intensity of the coursework during some of those summers, especially after the birth of our first child.  I think that my singular focus on getting the degree done was probably to the detriment of my wife, if not my son, and I probably unfairly burdened her (also a full-time teacher) with the brunt of the childcare responsibilities for a period of time.  Although I was glad to finish the degree when I did, I perhaps could have stretched it out another year and made my wife’s life a bit easier, as well as spent more time with my infant son.  I hope, however, that I am making up for that lost time, both now as well as in the future.

37 Comments

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  • […]  Aside from professional development workshops, this was the first teaching I’d done since leaving my high school English position to become a school psychologist.  I had a fantastic time guiding future teachers as they learned about developmental disabilities […]

  • Hello Damian this was a good informational post. I am currently going in to my sophomore year of college. I am a psychology major. I want to eventually be an educational/school psychologist. I also want to pursue an elementary education degree as well. Lately I have been thinking about changing my major to elementary education and then pursue a masters in Education psychology. I realize that I can work as a teacher while I pursue a masters. If I major in psychology now and than do a masters in elementary education I wouldn’t have many job options to work my way through grad school. Do you have any advice on which route I should take?

    • Hi Brittany,

      Thanks for commenting! Broadly speaking, I would imagine that your job prospects are probably better with an undergrad degree in education than in psychology (you may even be able to work at a school that will reimburse your tuition for graduate school). I would strongly urge you, however, to consider your reasons for going into teaching. It’s a difficult but rewarding career, and I believe one’s heart really needs to be in it in order to do the job well. I never could have started graduate school in my first year of teaching; teaching was my entire life during that first year, and only slightly less so the following year.

      I think if you’re going into teaching because you want to make a difference and help children, and you want to expand your skill set down the line by pursuing a grad degree in ed/school psychology, then it could be a good choice. If teaching is simply a “day job” to make a little money until you get through graduate school to do what you really want to do, I would not recommend that, as that wouldn’t be fair to you or to your students.

      Remember – while it was helpful for me, it’s not necessary to have a teaching background in order to be a good school psychologist. Very few of the great school psychologists with whom I have worked have had teaching experience, at least at the K-12 level.

      What you might do is see if you can find afternoon or evening work or volunteer opportunities working with children this coming school year, maybe in an after-school care program near your university. That might help you get a sense of what working with children would be like as a teacher and guide your decision.

      Best of luck to you!

  • Hello,

    I am in the process of researching a possible career change to be a school psychologist but I am in desperate need of advice because I want to have as much information as possible to make sure this is the right career move for me. I am wondering what the career outlook is now, I see this post was originally written a few years ago so I’m just worried that the job market for school psychologists is really over-saturated now or something. I am scared that I would go through 3 or so years of school and get out to have a really hard time finding a good job. I know it probably depends on the area I would want to live in (possibly in Tennessee but I’m not sure) but do you have any advice on career outlook for someone just going into the field? Any advice would be greatly appreciated as I’m feeling a lot of anxiety about all of this.

  • Hi Rebecca,

    I think you’re right in that the specifics of the job market will vary by locale. I really don’t know what the overall outlook is like for the profession, so I had a look at the National Association of School Psychologists website and found this information:

    “The job outlook is very promising for school psychology nationwide. It is believed that a significant proportion of current practitioners will be reaching retirement age within the next ten years, hence opening the door for a new generation of school psychologists. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of psychologists is projected to grow 12% from 2012 to 2022, and one of the groups with the best job prospects will be those with a specialist or doctoral degree in school psychology.

    Many school districts have school psychologists on the same salary schedule as teachers while others have a separate salary schedule. The average annual salary for full-time school-based practitioners with 180-day contracts was $64,168 in the 2009-10 school year. For practitioners with 200-day contracts, the average was $71,320. For university faculty, it was $77,801. It is likely that there is significant variability in salaries by region, state, and school district.” (source: http://www.nasponline.org/about_sp/careerfaq.aspx#market)

    I also had a look at the TN Association of School Psychologists site (http://www.tasponline.com) and found 4 positions being advertised just on the front page alone. I highly recommend you reach out to someone in the TASP, as they would be better able to guide you on what the job market & outlook is in Tennessee.

    Best of luck with everything!

  • Also, I don’t know where you live and what your situation is, but I would recommend looking into NASP-approved school psychology programs, as completing one will also qualify you for your National Certification in School Psychology (NCSP), which could be a selling point when you interview for your first position.

    According to NASP, there are currently four NASP-approved school psychologist programs in Tennessee: Middle Tennessee State, U of Memphis, UT-Chattanooga, and UT-Knoxville.

    Hope this helps!

  • This is great, thank you so much for your help!!

  • I’m so glad to have read this! I made the decision to leave teaching three years ago, after the birth of my third child. I knew that I could no longer commit to the “out-of- school” work required of teachers that you mentioned. I stumbled upon an ABA therapy job, and began to pursue a master’s in ABA. I’m finished now, and am debating whether to become a BCBA or school psychologist. For some reason, I feel a sense of guilt (?) for leaving the classroom, but it’s the best thing for my family (and my sanity!) right now. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Thank you, Hasna; glad you connected with my story.

  • I am beginning a school psyc program in just a few weeks my background is in substitute teaching. I considered teaching but was more drawn to development and psychology. I was wondering though have you ever ran across or considered teaching classes that deal with personal development for youth at the high school level while also maintaining your position as school psychologist ? I am aware that some positions are not full-time and thought about the possibility of doing something like this in the future. Have you?

  • Hi Ty – Since every state is different, it’s hard to say for sure, but I imagine what you propose would not fly at the HS level due to the differing certification requirements for psychs and teachers. It would be a cool position, but I imagine you would need both full teacher certification and psych certification for a district to even consider such a combination, at least in the public school system. I’ve never worked in a school where that was a possibility; the responsibilities of either position were considered full-time in and of themselves.

    That said, your responsibilities as a HS school psych could include some teaching opportunities in the form of social skills or other similar small group skill instruction. If such opportunities don’t exist, you could speak to your supervisor about creating them to fill a need. Also, after a few years’ experience in the field, you might be able to teach courses on human development, psychology, or special ed at the college level as an adjunct – I did that for a few summers and really enjoyed it.

    Congratulations on starting your program, and best of luck to you!

  • Hello, my name is Brigotte and I am a qualified early childhood teacher. I am really looking to study further and do my psychology degree as I the teaching degree I did 6 modules of basic psych.

    Is there anything you could recommend I do to move forward persueing this goal.

    I am from Australia

    Kind regards
    Brigitte

    • Hi Brigitte – If you do apply to a psychology program, you should ask the university to do a transcript review from your teaching degree to see if any courses you took for that could also count towards the psychology degree. There might be some overlap in the two programs (e.g., courses on human growth & development or learning disabilities/exceptionality) that would allow you to skip some courses in the psych program and save you a little money and time on the new course. Best of luck with your new career path!

  • Hi,

    My entire life I’ve wanted to be an elementary school teacher. I have talked the talk about how great of a teacher I am going to be, but I feel like eventually I will want to be more. I want to eventually become a school psychologist, but I want to try out teaching. What do you think my best method should be? Major in elementary ed, minor in psych… then try for a masters program? I am just trying to get an idea before I go back to school and talk to my counselor.

    Thanks

    Shelby

    • Hi Shelby – to get a taste of the classroom before you actually become a teacher, your best bet is to actually get into a classroom. Apply for your substitute teacher certificate as soon as you can and spend time over your breaks substituting. Requirements vary from state to state so check your state’s Dept of Ed website for details; in NJ where I grew up, it was 60 college credits, so I could sub after my sophomore year.

      You could also get a job working in an after-school care program in the afternoons, or, if you don’t get a teaching job right after you graduate, get a job as a paraprofessional (classroom assistant) first. Any of these options will give you classroom experience and also help you decide early on if the classroom is right for you. Of course, you should also have ample opportunity to observe in classrooms through your elementary ed major program.

      A psychology minor can certainly be helpful and educational in its own right, but it’s by no means a pre-requisite for a grad program in school psychology. If you want to do it, then go for it, but if you are having difficulty fitting it into your schedule, it’s really not necessary. In fact, I’d suggest that spending time in an actual classroom might be more valuable, if you can swing it. Good luck!

  • Hello Damian,
    I cannot tell you how invaluable reading this post has been. I live in CA and have a BA in Psychology. For a few years, I’ve worked at my local district as a paraeducator (namely special ed/autism). I took the CBEST late last year and was then offered the opportunity to teach a HS 9-12 Mild/Moderate ASD class through an emergency credential. While I enjoyed teaching–interacting with students, seeing their growth and excitement, and preparing materials–and was often commended by other teachers and administrators for my “natural” teaching skills, I struggled with the additional demands that come with being a special ed teacher (case managing). I also maintained a second job while doing this, so that my workdays were long and days off scarce.
    So, after 6 months of teaching experience, I decided I would pursue School Psychology, as it was still in the vein of education, especially special ed, but with fewer extracurricular demands. But as I’m looking at NASP-approved programs in CA, I’m questioning whether I’m making the correct choice and for the correct reasons. I know there is a greater need for teachers, especially spec. ed., nation-wide; there are great internship opportunities that would allow me to work while I complete my credential; I could teach a younger spec. ed. population, or in a gen ed setting (as a paraeducator, I saw a huge deficit in training and general understanding of how to approach and integrate students with disabilities who pushed into gen ed classes); and could eventually pursue my EdS and expand into School Psych, much like you did.
    At this point, all I’m certain of is that I want to be in the field of education, but am unsure if I should pursue teaching or School Psych. I know you must be very occupied, but I would appreciate any additional advice or insight you could provide me.

    Thank you tremendously!
    Cristina

    • Hi Cristina – so sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I’m glad this post resonated with you.

      I’m not sure I can advise you as to whether you should go into teaching or school psychology; that’s a highly personal decision that only you can make. If it helps at all, I can tell you that you can make a significant impact in either role. I don’t think one job is more or less noble or necessary than the other, and you should definitely take your job prospects into consideration – will it more likely be easier for you to get a teaching job or a school psych job in your area? Pragmatically speaking, going back to grad school for the Ed.S. degree can be costly, and perhaps not worthwhile if you won’t be able to get a job in the field to pay back the student loans.

      I know the demands placed on teachers – especially novice teachers – are often herculean, and if the demands of the job (along with your second job and whatever other personal obligations you have) will be more likely to burn you out than build you up, then that’s another consideration, too.

      You mention being concerned about making the right choice for the right reasons, but I think that you know yourself best and how you can best impact children’s lives. I think the students in your life would benefit more from you being a school psychologist with a balanced life than being a teacher who constantly feels burnt out and overwhelmed, as you describe in your post. Please don’t feel that you have to do or be a thing because the world needs more of this job or that job. What the world needs is caring, compassionate people to inspire, educate, and advocate for our children, which you can do in either role. Which career path will best allow you to do that? Only you can answer that.

      I wish you the best of luck. Sorry for the long reply but your post really got me thinking, and I really appreciate that.

      • Hi Damian,

        Thank goodness I’ve come across your post. I don’t know anyone else who has been a teacher for over a decade and have made the switch to school psychology. Although I’ve learned so much about myself and the many students I’ve had the privilege of teaching, I still find myself struggling with all the things you’ve mentioned. I have no time for my daughter and I’m a single mom. Because of what we’re going through, it’s so important for me to make that time with her. On top of all teaching responsibilities, I advise various clubs after school. And the essay correcting – good God, it’s the time spent that is excruciating to one’s life. I cannot make my career my life, my child is my utmost priority.

        So here comes the problem – I have 2 options to do my master’s in – English or School Psychology. I believe that I am a good teacher but one thing I despise the most is dealing with student behavior problems, fighting the battle of homework, and the time outside of school planning and correcting. If I do English, then most likely I will teach at the college level. If I do school psychologyear, I don’t know what challenges I may be facing. I’ve had many students tell me that they are comfortable talking to me and I find that I am most effective as a human being when I talk to a kid and let them know there’s an adult that cares about what they’re going through. I absolutely enjoy helping kids in that capacity, but it doesn’t mean I would be a good school psychologist because I’ve never been there. What do you like or don’t like about being a school psychologist compared to being a teacher? Even down to the nitty gritty – I hope you would be willing to share that too :).

        • I’m written the above with the limited scope of my phone, so please excuse the minor typos and grammatical errors.

        • Hi Loreanne – Thanks for stopping by and commenting, and I apologize for my delayed response – things have been crazy at work lately and I was out all day yesterday.

          Check some of my earlier comments in this thread for my thoughts on the teacher vs. psychologist dynamic, but I’ll chime in quickly here to affirm your decision to make career decisions that are sustainable for your life/family situation.

          I don’t know if the out-of-work workload would be that much different teaching at the college level. As far as what I liked about being a psychologist (I haven’t been one in about 3 years now), I feel like I had a broader impact than I did in the classroom, both in terms of reaching more kids and in terms of being part of the larger discussions about special ed service delivery and logistics in my schools. I also really enjoyed writing psychological reports and interpreting testing results in ways that would be specifically actionable and helpful to kids. Problem-solving with my teacher and admin colleagues was also challenging in a good way – coming up with solutions to help students and teachers succeed, and then seeing the results of our collaboration.

          It definitely had its challenges too – workloads, adhering to federal/state timelines in the face of mounting paperwork, and potential for legal action tied closely to your job responsibilities. Honestly, dealing with crisis situations is also a big part of the job if you are a building-based psychologist, so assessing kids for suicidal ideation, directly intervening in self-injurious behaviors (including physical restraint, if that’s what is called for), or dealing with social service authorities are, quite frankly, scary and stressful. While I did not take much paperwork home (not nearly as much as I did as a teacher), I think I took more of it home emotionally, if that makes sense.

          I’ll suggest to you what I’ve suggested to others – talk to school psychologists in your building/district about their jobs and what their pros/cons are. I’m not sure what state you’re in (I worked in New Jersey, where case management is a significant portion of the job responsibilities; this is not the case in, say, Pennsylvania, where special ed teachers are case managers and psychs are primarily responsible for testing and maybe counseling), but the job differs greatly from state to state, so my experiences may not match up exactly to what yours would be. Reach out to your school psych colleagues but also to representatives from the university programs you’re considering attending for information that is more specific to your area.

          Best of luck with your decision, and please let me know if you have any further questions!

  • Hi Damian –

    I just found this post of yours in my own search for advice about moving from teaching to school psychology. Perhaps you could help or steer me in another direction for help.

    Although I’ve been teaching for about 20 years, only the last four have been in secondary education. I’m an English teacher, like you were. Due to very dumb luck, I haven’t put in more than one year at any school, so I don’t have longevity with which to approach my administrators to ask if they would allow me the hours to devote to following the school psychologist around.

    You don’t write about how you managed the internships/practicums. Were you allowed to complete them at your school while you taught? This is where I’m stuck. I can’t afford to quit my teaching job for the internship, nor do I think my current school admin would be happy even knowing about my intentions.

    • Hi Marni – I was quite fortunate in that I was able to complete my 1200 internship hours in the building in which I taught. It took me much longer than a traditional full-time student because I was pulling them in an hour or so at a time, whenever my schedule would allow. I was also allowed to come in during the summer of 2007 to work and rack up hours that way, which helped immensely – I went from pulling in 3-5 hours per week to much closer to 40. I didn’t get paid, but I didn’t get paid in the summer anyway, and as I recall I was doing odd jobs during off hours to help keep us afloat that summer.

      As for the three practica, those hours were done both in my school setting as well as outside, with projects I had to do for my classes (e.g., finding a child to administer a WISC to and writing up the report) – that stuff was mostly done on nights and weekends. The internship was the hardest to do, and it took a long time (about a year and a half, if I recall correctly, as opposed to the 9-10 months a FT student would take). I could not afford to quit my ‘day job’ either; believe me, it would have been much easier if I could have.

      I’m sorry that you have administrators who can’t see the benefit of having a general ed teacher who would also have a strong background in special education. Without knowing the individual personalities involved, my best suggestion is that if you do feel you can put this request to them without it impacting your employment status, try to help them see how this would be beneficial to the students and school, not just to your career goals.

      Best of luck to you!

  • Hi Damien,

    Thank you for writing about your experience as both a teacher and psychologist. I know my inquiry is rather late given when you orignally posted, but still.

    I just recently left my position as a teacher in NYC after 3 years, having opted to pursue a specialist degree in school psychology out west. Prior to beginning my studies this August, I have a masters in special education, which I earned while teaching full time. My role in the classroom was that of a general special-ed in ICT settings, while of course writing IEPs. I worked closely with the school psychologist and became more interested in her field, while feeling less interested in teaching, as it became less about the students success and more about adhering to the egos of the adults in my school. Further, I saw and still do see furthering my own education by earning a specialist degree as a way to better myself as well as others.

    Despite all that, I don’t know why, but I’m worried that my exerpience and drive isn’t enough to see me through the program as it’s all very new to me. I’ve been reading the various required textbooks and while some of the material makes sense, there’s a good deal that simply goes over my head. I’m sure once I begin my studies, and my professors show me the ropes, things will click, but I can’t help but be anxious and feel unprepared. I’m not expecting the work to be easy, but any advice about what to expect would be greatly appreciated.

    • Hi James – thanks for sharing your story. I remain surprised at how frequently I get folks popping in on this post, even several years after I originally published it.

      For what it’s worth, my best advice to you is to not sweat the ‘newness’ of it all too much. A little constructive tension is not a bad thing, as it pulls you out of your comfort zone and keeps you on your toes as you begin your program, but don’t psych yourself out. I went through a period at the start of my doctoral program during which I experienced severe self-doubt, impostor syndrome, whatever you want to call it, and seriously considered dropping out after only a few weeks. In retrospect, I think it was just the uncomfortableness of being new at something, after not being new at something for a pretty long time. As you suggest, things started to click after a while, and I went on to enjoy my program.

      Your new university should have a course list or suggested sequence for your degree program posted on their website; if you haven’t already, give it a look to see what kind of classes you’ll be taking. In my program, there was a nice balance between theory and practice, and because it was aligned to NASP standards, we got a little bit of everything: counseling, psychopathology, assessment, consultation skills, etc. If you have the opportunity to take electives in your program, that’s a great time to do some reflection on your own areas of strength and weakness and try to fill some gaps in your knowledge base.

      I found – and I hope you will too – that my experience as a teacher helped me immensely, especially compared to some of my classmates who were fresh out of undergrad with little or no practical experience in a school or classroom setting. While much of the content may be new to you, I suspect your previous professional experience will give you a strong context or framework for understanding it. I wouldn’t judge the difficulty of the material by what you’ve read in textbooks prior to classes starting and totally out of context – that’s what your professors and classmates are there for: to help you make sense of it.

      I wish you the best of luck on your new career path!

  • Thank you for writing this. I realize it’s been 6 years since this post went up, but like you mentioned there are not a lot of teachers turned psychologists. I am in the midst of a Master of Psychology (full-time) and am teaching Kindergarten full-time as well. There are times when I wonder if the grass is really greener on the other side. I know that this is the first time I’m really enjoying school and my passion for psych has been solidified now. All the things you said about extra work being a teacher is so true and I feel burnt out at times (I’m 5 years in as a teacher). Sometimes I feel bad about leaving teaching in the future, which was my dream career. But I think if I keep telling myself that teaching will give me a leg up and has put me into this specific niche with school psych, that it will help me in the end. Do you think being a teacher has helped you in your role in school psych now? Thanks again 🙂

    • Hi Karen – thanks for dropping by. I definitely believe that my teaching background was helpful in my role as a school psychologist, both in terms of marketability (it looks good to interviewers) and applicability (my classroom experience definitely informed how I went about my job as a psych). While I do not believe that one has to have a teaching background in order to be an excellent psychologist, in my experience, I found that the teachers I worked with appreciated that I had that classroom perspective to inform my suggestions and my interventions – I had a practical lens that some of my colleagues did not have. Again, that’s not to say they were/are not good at their jobs, but as you said, it’s a bit of a leg up. I was able to draw on a different set of experiences to inform my practice, as will you. One of my favorite profs from my school psych program was a former kindergarten teacher turned psychologist.

      I don’t think you have to feel bad about leaving teaching. I wanted to be a high school English teacher from the time I was probably 15 years old. Had you told me then I’d teach for 8 years and then become a psychologist, I wouldn’t have believed it, but people, interests, and circumstances all change over time. You’ll still be working in education, with kids, ostensibly helping them, just in a different role. Don’t get it twisted – the grass isn’t necessarily greener, it’s just different grass. School psychology has its own set of challenges and rewards, just like teaching, just like being a principal, and just like any other job. Best of luck to you as you complete your grad program!

  • Hi there, I am so glad to have found this thread! I am in the middle of a doctoral program for school psychology, and I too made the switch from special education teacher to future school psychologist. I taught special ed for 7 years and chose to resign from teaching and pursue this avenue. I have always loved both working with children and psychology, and this path allows me to combine both of those. I love the fact that I still get to work with kids, families, and teachers in the school environment, and from a slightly different perspective. My teaching background gives me a huge advantage as you mentioned, since many folks that come straight from undergrad do not have the real-world, practical experience or firsthand knowledge of being part of a school system. My supervisor at my practicum tells me often how I will be fine when I start working full time as a school psychologist, as my time as a teacher combined with the knowledge, expertise, and credentials I am earning will leave me well-prepared. It is definitely a highly personal decision to make the switch from teaching to becoming a psychologist. It can be a lonely road on the way to a doctorate, especially when you feel like the only one in the world who has this story. Thank you for sharing your story, I wish you all the best!

    • Hi EB – thanks for stopping by and sharing your journey; you’re definitely not alone! Best of luck to you in the doc program!

  • Hi Damian, thanks for keeping up with the responses to this thread after all these years. I noticed you mentioned no longer working as a SP. If it’s not too personal, would you mind explaining why you left? I’m considering entering the field but have read stories of those in the profession being overworked and stressed to the point of disliking their jobs. Was this your experience? Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Cody – I’m happy to share my story. Thinking I would one day like to move into administration, I started a doctoral program in educational leadership about 3 years into my school psych career. The coursework qualified me for certification as both a principal and supervisor (both administrative certs in NJ) in the lead-up to actually finishing the doctorate. At the end of my third year in the program (and my 6th as a school psychologist), a supervisor position opened up in my district that really appealed to me. I applied for it with the mindset that if I didn’t get it, at least I still had a job that I liked and would just continue to do. I was fortunate enough to have been offered the supervisor job, which I took, and I’m now in my fifth year in that same position.

      The job of a school psychologist is stressful, there’s no two ways about it. But so are a lot of other jobs. Sure, I had my bad days like anyone else, but overall, I was lucky in that I was in a position in which I felt supported by admin, I liked my colleagues, and I enjoyed working with the kids. For me it was not about leaving because I was exceptionally stressed out, but rather I was ready for a new professional challenge, and honestly after dropping that kind of money on a doctoral program, I felt like it would be a waste if I didn’t get to put it to use somehow (the move to administration also came with a decent pay raise, so I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a factor as well).

      I too have read all the horror stories, and I know that they are very real (I once interviewed for a school psych job in which I learned the caseload was about 100 students – I have no idea how that’s even possible). I am beyond lucky that that was not the case with me when I left, and I really do feel I left the profession on good terms with it.

      Happy to answer any other questions you may have!

      • Thanks Damian! It’s really amazing of you to keep answering all of the questions aspiring school psychs have. Best of luck in your most recent position!

  • Hi Damian, thanks for your post!
    I’ve been a teacher for the past 15 years, and currently about a third of the way through a school psych program. What I’m really wondering is – will I enjoy being a psych? The day to day? Do you miss teaching?

  • Hi Damian, thanks for your post!
    I’ve been a teacher for the past 15 years, and currently about a third of the way through a school psych program. What I’m really wondering is – will I enjoy being a psych? The day to day? Do you miss teaching?

    • Hi Evan – it’s hard for me to say whether or not YOU’LL enjoy being a psych, but I can tell you that I did. Like any other job, it has its challenges and its rewards (I’m sure I’ve addressed this in detail in a comment further upthread; scroll back and see what I’ve said about it in the past) but at the end of the day, more often than not, I felt like I was making a positive difference in kids’ lives. You get a little more of a global perspective in this role than you do as a classroom teacher. The trade-off, as it were, is that you don’t typically have the same degree of student contact you do as a teacher (that was my experience, anyway; your mileage may vary). The kids you do get close to, however, you get to know in a different way, and across contexts, not just as students in your class. I have certainly missed some things about teaching high school since I left in 2008, but I have been fortunate in that I’ve been able to pick up a summer class or a night class here and there as an adjunct, teaching undergrad and graduate classes at my local university. If, after 2-3 years as a psych, you find you are missing teaching and if you are able to make it work for your life situation, that would certainly be one way to sort of have your cake and eat it, too.

      I wish you the best of luck as you continue your grad studies!

  • […] of posts but the most visited post of 2019 (and overall) is this one from 2012 in which I describe my transition from high school English teacher to school psychologist. The really cool part is that people still leave comments asking me for advice as they face similar […]

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