5 Critical Questions for a Powerful, Meaningful Career in Education

Note: This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

For the past seven years, I’ve had the privilege of supporting hundreds of Education Pioneers leaders to find powerful, meaningful careers across the education sector in school districts, charter school organizations, nonprofits, education venture capital organizations, and more.

As I’ve counseled people, some have had a clear sense of where they wanted to work. Others simply knew they wanted to make a difference in the lives of students but weren’t sure where or how best to do that.

Regardless of where you are in your career, the industry you work in, or the clarity you have about where you want to go, take the time to ask yourself the following five questions. I’ve found that they’re crucial to guide you to find your ideal work, purpose, and impact.

1. What do you enjoy doing?

Sounds simple enough, right? Truth is, there’s a lot of “stuff” that comes with our jobs, so thinking about what energizes and what drains you is valuable.

Reflect on the work that you look forward to tackling and what you dread. Home in on specific tasks, then broaden your perspective to projects and outcomes. As you think about the work you’ve done, whether a one-time contribution or ongoing responsibilities, be candid with yourself about where liked spending your time (and where you didn’t).

When you begin a job search, prioritize the roles that offer you the opportunity to do more of the things that you like and less of the things you don’t.

2. What areas of the education sector most appeal to you?

There are an incredible number of ways to work in education. (In fact, on The Exchange Job Board right now, there are more than 500 opportunities with over 150 organizations.)

At EP, we partner with over 200 organizations that serve students directly and indirectly, including major public school districts, charter school management organizations, education nonprofits, and state and federal departments of education. Each of these organizations – and many more – offer opportunities to carve out unique and high-impact roles that play to your strengths and interests.

What kind of work do you want to do? Do you want to work directly with students, or support or train teachers and principals? Does work beyond the school building call to you? Which critical functional area – like human capital, finance, operations, program development, data analysis, or marketing – aligns with your skills and passion? Have you thought about education policy?

To find your best fit, think about the best organization and type of education work that is likely to encompass what you really want to do.

3. What are your professional values?

Think about what you value in a role, an organization, and in colleagues. Assessing what the best cultural fit is for you will help you find your way to a kindred organization.

What organizational cultures have you thrived in, and what environments stifled you? What values must you and your colleagues demonstrate for you to be happiest at work? Think, too, about if you prefer a small or large organization, local or national. Understand if an all-hands-on-deck mindset and fluidity among roles and responsibilities suits you, or if you need more stability, focus, or structure.

How do you prefer to work? Do you prefer to sit at a desk or work out in the field? Do you like to have your coworkers in one place? Or does a virtual environment, or some combination of in-person and virtual, suit you?

Once you have a clear sense of your professional values and the right organizational culture for you, create a scorecard to consider and prioritize opportunities. That scorecard can be as simple as writing down different categories (like focus of work, values, culture, organizational structure, etc.) and assigning point values to the least desirable and most desirable outcomes. To help you objectively assess each professional opportunity you’re considering, total up the points for “desirability.” Remember that “desirable” looks different for everyone.

4. What are your skills?

Your skills are a toolkit. What’s in your kit currently, and what do you need to master to land your dream job? Knowing your strengths and areas of growth and learning is an asset itself; plus it can also help you map out the steps you need to take to get to your ideal role.

Once you’re clear on where you’re headed, seek out options to gain the experiences you need to get there, including pro bono or volunteer work.

As professionals, we’re both contributors and learners throughout our careers. As we progress professionally, the balance between the two can shift. Think about what balance suits you best for where you are right now. Do “stretch” roles that push you to learn constantly appeal to you, or roles where you learn or stretch at a slower pace to maximize your existing skills as a contributor? It also makes a difference if your function or role is highly represented at the organization, or not. If it’s the former, chances are that you’ll have a team of peers to work with and learn from; if it’s the latter, you’ll likely be called upon to direct or help to drive the work and will need to be proactive about developing an external network of peers.

If you’re ready to make a big change and switch industries, sectors, or functions, focus first on your transferable skills. Knowing what you bring to the table, and what you need to learn, will help set you up for success in a new environment.

 5. What is your story?

Know and be able to succinctly share your story. Write down your path, interests, and skills and how you got to where you are today. Not only can putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) help you get your story ready for that next elevator pitch, networking event, or chance meeting, it can also help you know yourself even better.

Whatever the situation, you’ll be prepared to communicate your vision about your strengths, abilities, and where you want to go, making it more likely that you can enlist the person you’re talking to as an ally. Knowing yourself positions you to become a valuable, sought-after candidate.

Taking the time to thoughtfully answer these five questions will help you find the best place and fit for you. When you do, not only will you find a job that you love, but you’ll also be best positioned to make an impact on students and the future of our country.

Ready to get started on your education job search? Check out The Exchange Job Board for current career opportunities across the education sector.

Julayne Austin Virgil Julayne Austin Virgil is the Vice President of Leadership Development for Education Pioneers, where she oversees efforts to develop and deploy leadership and management talent to drive transformative change in education, and foster the sector-wide sharing of effective practices. Having grown up with many children who did not have educational opportunities that would prepare them to achieve success, and having escaped that fate herself, Julayne believes it is critical that we ensure our education system supports and inspires children to realize their full potential.