8 Questions with a Curriculum Director

8 QUESTIONS is a series of interviews with teachers who have effectively transitioned their classroom skills into new and exciting careers in the field of education. We at Teach.com believe that teaching is a rigorous and diverse classroom in and of itself; the skills learned “in the trenches” can translate into an exciting portfolio of professional options. From education tech to consulting, the only “X factor” is where you want to go — our interviews hope to shine a light on the steps it takes to get there.

1. What’s your name, location and current profession?

My name is Jason Neiffer, and I am the Assistant Director/Curriculum Director at Montana Digital Academy, the state virtual public school program in Montana. The Montana Digital Academy's offices are in the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences at the University.

2. Where did you earn your teaching certification and where did you go to school?

I have a BA in Political Science and Secondary Education from Carroll College in Helena, MT. I also have an MS in Education Technology from Walden University in Minneapolis, MN.

I am currently a doctoral candidate in Teaching and Learning with a focus on educational technology and online learning at the University of Montana. I am currently conducting research and writing my dissertation and hope to finish that degree in the next year!

3. How long were you a teacher for?

I spent thirteen years in the classroom before being recruited for my current position. I am in year six of my work at the Montana Digital Academy.

4. What was the most rewarding part of being a classroom teacher? What about classroom teaching did you find most challenging?

Working with students was extremely rewarding. My in-classroom work spanned different students across grade levels and class formats, from Advanced Placement to credit recovery to electives. I was always in awe of the fact that the more effort and energy I put into the classroom, the more I received back from students. Now that I am working in a more administrative role, I do enjoy watching my former students do great things in the world: they are engineers, researchers, doctors, attorneys, community organizers, teachers, city planners, artists, graphic designers, and scholars. Their work and impact give me extraordinary pride.

Teaching was physically exhausting for me, but, honestly, rarely do anything that I can't go all in on, so, most of my work could be characterized as exhausting. I was sometimes frustrated with the bureaucratic nature of working in schools but, often found ways to get what my students needed to be successful despite those barriers. I also am frustrated with the toxic culture around public school teaching. Public schools are amazing institutions worthy of praise and support. The political climate around schools can weigh on teachers, particularly those new to the profession.

5. Why did you decide to transition from classroom teaching to your current profession?

I was recruited to take this position in 2010. I was unsure if I was ready to leave the classroom, and miss teaching every single day, but I love working with Montana Digital Academy and working with both students and teachers in this new context.

6. What is the best part of your job?

Personally, I love building things, and there has been plenty of opportunities to do so at Montana Digital Academy. I was the first program employee hired after the Executive Director, and so I had an amazing opportunity to provide leadership in designing and implementing the program. There was a lot of opportunities for me to learn personally and then see the fruits of our labors working right away with students.

Professionally, it is satisfying to work with such a broad range of students from across the state of Montana, many in circumstances where our program provides a needed alternative to their face-to-face environment. We have heard a lot of amazing success stories of students that used our program in concert with their local public school to achieve their goals.

7. What skills did you gain from classroom teaching that have allowed you to excel in your current profession?

Working with a diversity of students in my face-to-face classroom career was critical to helping me to assist our teachers in planning and delivering their online courses. Montana Digital Academy now offers over one hundred courses in three different formats and my work in the classroom has helped me better work with other teachers. Of course, it is a two-way street: my teachers teach me something and challenge my perspective every day!

The classroom also provided a challenging opportunity to work with evolving and changing conditions. "Classroom management" often poorly describes the real interaction in actual classrooms. Working with 30 14-year-old students of varying abilities, dispositions and levels of engagement to push through challenging topics is extraordinarily difficult. That has served me well in other professional contexts.

8. What advice would you offer a current teacher who is looking to make a career change to outside of the classroom?

Overall, don't underestimate the skills and experience that you picked up as a classroom teacher. The classroom is often quite different than other professions, but, don't let that deter you. The challenge of classroom teaching has prepared you well.

If you are looking for a change because you are burning out of teaching, look for opportunities in and around schools to utilize your skills and knowledge in a new context. I know some great classroom teachers that transitioned out of the classroom to educationally-related jobs, including curriculum specialists, professional development providers, educational writers and researchers, and even policymakers. You, too, can make that transition. 

Jason Neiffer is the first Assistant Director/Curriculum Director of theMontana Digital Academy, Montana’s public state virtual school, a doctoral candidate in educational technology at the University of Montana and aTech-Savvy Teacher-in-Residence for the Northwest Council for Computer Education.


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