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Her Career Was at a Crossroads — Now What?

"So now that you know more about what the process requires of you, do you want to do the work together?”

Presenting Problem: Rikki doesn’t know what her next steps should be professionally.

Tools Used: Career counseling strategies and motivational interviewing

It was a humid summer morning when I first met Rikki. Her cheeks were flushed and her sheitel somewhat sticky.

“Hi! Water?” I offered as an opener, handing her a chilled water bottle.

“Yes! Thanks. It’s brutal out there. Thank G-d for a/c.” Rikki made a brachah and took a long sip. “Phew. Okay. Now I can focus. Hi!” she said with a smile that reached her dancing eyes.

“Great to meet you, Rikki. Why don’t you tell me why you’re here?”

“Well, basically, I have no clue what I want to do with my life,” Rikki said with a laugh. “I did the typical: seminary, clepped a BA, and then went into teaching. Got married, had five kids in eight years.” She paused. “I’m so blessed. Everything went smoothly, baruch Hashem. My husband is still learning, and my kids are great.

“The fact is that my husband is still in kollel and while he tutors to make some extra income, I need to work. However, I can’t see myself teaching anymore. It takes up tons of energy. I teach fifth grade, there’s lots of prep and marking, and I don’t have to tell you that the salary isn’t exactly plum. I’m bored, and my students sense it. I’m dreading the start of the school year, but I don’t know what else to do.”

“That’s a difficult place to be in.”

“Yeah. Any idea what I should do?”

“Rikki, I’ve known you for approximately three minutes!” I said with a smile. “Also, this process isn’t about me dictating to you what I think you should do. I can definitely help you and give suggestions, but this is about you discovering more about yourself, what you excel at, and what works for your family. Through different questionnaires and also a technique called motivational interviewing (MI) I’ll hopefully help you get some clarity.”

“Shucks. I thought this could be like a one-time ‘Hi, tell me what to do, okay, bye’ session.”

“I’m not sure there are any good or ethical therapy sessions that look like that. So now that you know more about what the process requires of you, do you want to do the work together?”

“Yes. I was kinda joking. Kinda. What’s that motivational interviewing thing you mentioned?”

“Okay, so motivational interviewing is a way of working together that’s goal-oriented and focused on your strengths and interests.”

“But I don’t know what those are.”

“Correct. That’s one of the reasons you’re here. Although I’m certain you can name some strengths right now.”

“Well, I know that I’m a good, solid wife and mother. But I can’t exactly get paid for that. Although if I could, then it would be the best gig ever.” Rikki giggled. “Imagine — I wonder if I’d get paid a salary or per laundry load?”

“Yes, that would be awesome, Rikki. However, as of today, no one is paying you for the countless hours of hard physical labor and emotional energy expended for your family,” I said with a smile. “It’s excellent that you can so easily identify your strengths! There are so many individual skills and abilities wrapped up in the roles of wife and mother. It’s a great place to start.”

“Okay. I have to tell you, though, I have a lot of fear of leaving teaching. Like, I’ve been at the same school, teaching the same grade for nine years. My girls go to that school, too, so that’s nice. But I don’t know what to doooooooo!” Rikki’s tone sounded like a petulant teenager. I could see her emotional regression.

“That does sound confusing, Rikki. This is a difficult crossroads to be at.”

“I know. I mean, maybe I shouldn’t change anything. I know good teaching jobs are hard to come by. And we do need the income. I’ve done it for this long….” Rikki started fidgeting with her wedding band and was biting her cheek.

“Well, yes that’s certainly a possibility. How would that make you feel?”

“What? To keep going in that same classroom year after year? Totally suffocated.” Rikki sounded miserable now.

“It seems like it would be really difficult for you to continue without another plan of action for your life,” I reflected back to Rikki.

“Yes, I think it would be easier if I knew it was my last year, and I was working toward change in a real way.”

“Is it the lack of professional options that’s stressing you out? Or is it the actual job?”

Rikki was thoughtful. “I’m not sure. I know I’m not passionate about teaching. Is it terrible? No. It’s a pretty good work environment. But the prospect of leaving my kids, and necessary housework every day for a job that I don’t love and that doesn’t pay well is almost torturous. Obviously, the possibility that this may be for the rest of my life, with no way out, exacerbates it.”

One of the central ways of helping the client reach her own realizations and goals is to continually ask open-ended questions, so I asked, “Why do you think there’s ‘no way out’?”

“I’m 29 years old. How am I supposed to go back to school with five little kids and a husband in learning? Also, I don’t even know what I’d apply for. That’s why I’m here.” The smile was back.

“Correct! Okay. Are you up for some homework?” Rikki nodded. “For next session, please compile a list of your strengths. Don’t limit yourself to things that are actually applicable for a specific job, just record things you’re great at. And if you have the patience and interest, write another list of weaknesses. Do you think you can do that for next week?”

“Yes, no problem. So… by next time can we settle on what I’m going to do with my life?” Rikki looked serious. I opened my mouth to speak, but she started laughing. “Don’t worry! I get it! I’ll have to come back three times.” She winked, and I laughed as I wished her goodbye.

While I didn’t have all the answers Rikki wanted, I reflected that hopefully she’d be drawn to something that put her exuberant, fun-loving personality to use.


Finding Options

The next time I saw Rikki, her ambivalence toward change was even more apparent. She seemed to be waging an internal battle; it was evident she was no longer happy teaching, yet the steps required to change her career path seemed too daunting for her to undertake.

“Here’s the list of my strengths. I don’t know. Maybe all my strengths are well-suited to teaching. Which makes me even more depressed, because if Hashem gave me all these qualities to be a good teacher, and I hate teaching, then what am I supposed to do?” Rikki was back to chewing the inside of her cheek.

“Well, Rikki, is it possible that the strengths that you listed may be great for teaching, but are also transferable to other professions?”

“It’s possible. But I don’t know… I’m just really scared.”

In considering Rikki with an MI lens, I was careful not to push her to change too fast. I could sense her overwhelm, and felt strongly that because there would be some risk to her — emotionally or financially — the decision had to come entirely from her. Still, it was challenging for me to give space to her indecision.

“Should we explore those fears a little bit more, Rikki?” I gently inquired.

“I guess I’m fearful that I’ll feel this way with something else too. Maybe I won’t like anything. Maybe I will like something, but it won’t work out.”

“What do you mean, ‘won’t work out’?”

“What if I fail?” Rikki asked meekly.

“I get why you’d be concerned about that. However, let me ask you: how many things have you truly failed at in life that you had the capacity and ability to do?”

“Well, none that I had the ability to do.”

“Exactly! Do you think it’s reasonable to say that in our work together, we’d only explore options that you had some natural capacity and inclination for?”

“Yes. I mean, I’m not going to become a mechanical engineer tomorrow. Wait… maybe I would…What do they do?”

I laughed. “I actually have no clue. Let’s look at that list of strengths and then get more specific. Why don’t you read it out to me?”

“That’s awkward.”

“Why? Being aware and proud of your strengths is the least awkward thing. It’s empowering. And I promise I won’t like you any less because of your strengths.”

Rikki smiled and began to read: “I like people, I’m easygoing, but I like some structure, I’m creative, I’m a good cook, I’m good at art and making Purim costumes, I have a lot of empathy for others. I’m a quick learner. I’m smart, and I’m pretty good on computers. I fold laundry well. I do a lot of laundry. Did I mention that?”

“Yes, I think you did. Keep going. This is great.”

“I’m done. I ended with laundry. All good things in life end with laundry. Hey! There’s another one. I’m good at coming up with useless yet poignant phrases. I could be a Hallmark writer!”

“Do you want to be a Hallmark writer?”

“No. Oh! I’m trustworthy and a hard worker.”

“Wow. That’s a fantastic list. Many wonderful and important strengths. It sounds to me like you’re really creative, enjoy working with people, that you’re honest and hardworking and like some structure, but also enjoy flexibility.”

“Yes, I think so. Wanna hear my weaknesses? I had some time to write that list.”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

“I can be impulsive, sometimes I say too much, like I’m not always discreet, and I don’t have amazing patience.”

“Okay. That’s good self-awareness. Your weaknesses sound pretty in line with your strengths, by the way. It makes sense that an exuberant go-getter may not have amazing patience.”

“I hear. What’s next?” Rikki giggled. “Oops! There’s that patience thing again. But seriously. Now what?”

“Do you have any more clarity about wanting to leave teaching?” Again, I wanted to be very mindful of Rikki’s own necessary process.

“I understand what you’re saying, that my strengths aren’t limited to just teaching. I could see how they could be more…um, universal? But I still have a lot of fear.”

“Some fear is totally normal. Remember, fear is the body’s way of indicating ‘proceed with caution.’ It’s actually healthy. Transitions are tough for most people. Is there anything else that’s adding to your fear, beyond the norm of being uncomfortable with change?”

“Like what?”

“Like, how does your family feel about it?”

“Oh, the famous therapy question. Actually, I happen to come from a line of teachers. My mom, most of my aunts, and three of my sisters teach. And they’re good at it too. But my mom never put pressure on us to teach. I guess there is a subconscious… expectation? or desire? for us to all teach, but my parents would be the first ones to tell me to do something that makes me truly happy.”

“That’s beautiful that you feel such unconditional support.” I smiled encouragingly. “How does your husband feel about it?”

“He can’t stand seeing me so miserable. He feels so badly. At the same time, he’s not ready to leave learning, so I think he’s a little nervous for any change and what it’s going to mean for him.”

“Are you happy that he’s still learning?”

“Yes, I am. We talked about him learning at least a decade. It’s coming up on that time frame soon, but I’m really happy for him to continue, as long as I can figure out my life so that I’m not so stressed professionally, as I can see my stress is starting to affect the kids.”

“Alright, I’m going to give you some open-ended questions for you to think about, and we can process the answers together if you want.” I handed Rikki a questionnaire.

She started reading it. “How important is independence to me? Not at all, not very, somewhat, important, very important… hmmm. I think important. I hated when my principal was micromanaging. I like to feel in charge of my own decisions and schedule, to a degree. But no parameters would be stressful too.”

I nodded as Rikki continued to read. “‘How does paying attention to detail and being careful and thorough match my personality style?’ I like these questions! I’m a very detailed-oriented person. Okay, so I should complete this at home? There are like, a gazillion questions here. Time to do some soul searching!” Rikki got up to leave, and I hoped the next week would bring more clarity for her.


Drilling Down

Rikki came in the next week looking somewhat uptight. “Okay. So here’s the questionnaire. Basically, I like working with people, but don’t like too much authority, I’m creative and flexible, but need some guidelines for success, I’m really not a science-y/math-y type, and I like feeling accomplished and getting feedback. According to this, I would do well in… education! Go figure!”

“Oh, come on!” I laughed. “It doesn’t only say that.”

Rikki handed me the paper smugly. Sure enough, education was listed as her number one fit. I scanned the rest of the list. “It also says human resources, art or fashion design, and copy writing and marketing. And an auditor. Hmmm. Do any of those fields sound interesting to you?”

“I’m not really sure what each one entails.” Rikki looked pensive.

“Well, human resources would be working for a company likely, and you’d be the go-to person for the employees and employers. Definitely good for someone who likes people. Copy writing and marketing would be awesome if you like words and understand why and how people buy things.”

“I like buying things. I wouldn’t say I’m amazing with words, though. And I think it would be stressful that a company or person would be relying on me to make their service or product look better. That’s too much pressure for me.”

“Art or fashion design?” I asked.

“I thought of maybe doing interior design. But I’m not sure if I’m trendy enough.”

“Is that a prerequisite?”

“Well, I’m always a few seasons behind trends, and I’m fine with that. I like the idea of coming up with new ideas, but not the whole design aspect. It would stress me out. So… education it is! Thanks for your time, Abby.” Rikki got up to leave.

“Uh, Rikki, where are you going?”

“I’m leaving. I came, we spoke, and this thing told me I shouldn’t change jobs. Maybe I’ll come back to you in a few years for treatment for a nervous breakdown due to utter lack of job satisfaction.”

“Okay, just because this questionnaire said education was a good fit for you, and some other suggestions don’t appeal to you, doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road. Care to sit at least for the duration of the session?”

Rikki sat back down. “I just feel so hopeless now.”

“May I offer some suggestions?” Part of the MI principles is always asking for permission before dispensing any sort of advice.

“Yes, please.”

“Sometimes it’s not about abandoning a path completely. Maybe the path just needs a different direction. Tell me, what do you like about teaching? We talked about the things you didn’t like, but are there any redeeming parts of your job?”

“I like the kids. Ten is a cute age. I like the projects and coming up with creative ideas. I actually like prep, except for the fact that it’s after school. I like working as a part of a larger team or goal. I’m always the first to come up with a new theme or way to teach something. I like the structure of the school year, although I hate being governed by bells.”

“May I make a career suggestion, Rikki?”

“Yes, please! That’s why I came!”

“Sounds like you’d be great in administration. More specifically, curriculum development.”

“Whaaaatt? No way. What am I going to do? Announce myself as the new principal of a school?”

“No. But you’d be surprised at how many schools would be open to have a part-time position filled by a capable, successful, and experienced teacher who’s willing to do curriculum planning and work with teachers and kids. Because it’s a specialty position, you could charge more than your teaching rate, thereby working less hours and earning the same. Or working the same hours but earning more.”

“But I don’t know enough! I’m just a fifth-grade teacher.”

“I’m not trying to talk you into anything. Let me ask you. Are most of your lessons successful? Do you feel like you get what the kids need and want to learn? And do you cover what is expected of you as per your principal?”

“Yes, yes, and yes.”

“Then you are a very special teacher and have gifts in this area. Take away the marking, prep, classroom management, and rigid school timing of classes and voila! Curriculum development.”

“It does sound amazing. I actually love preparing for my classes so much that I help my colleagues in grades four and six, because it’s so clear to me what comes before and after the grade I teach.”

“That sounds like a perfect answer on your next job interview.”

Rikki laughed. “I’m actually getting so excited about this idea. It would definitely make more than teaching, right? I could show them my binders of prep and how I can conceptualize other grades.”

“Sounds fantastic, Rikki. So, what are your next steps?”

“Well, it’s already July. What are the chances that I could find something for this year?”

“Not sure. But you can start making inquiries this year, putting together your materials, and clarifying what the next steps would be. How about you look more into this type of job and see if it actually appeals to you, and then we can brainstorm ways to market yourself and position yourself well at least for the next school year.”

“That sounds like a plan. I’ll do some research. Should we meet in two weeks from now?”

“Sure, we can do that.” I pulled out my phone to schedule the next appointment.

“Oh, and Abby? It did take only three sessions.” We both laughed as Rikki waved goodbye.


Working it Out

Our next appointment was cancelled due to one of Rikki’s kids getting sick, so when I saw her three weeks later, I was eager to hear how things had developed.

Rikki came in a ball of energy. “You won’t believe what happened!”

“Hi, Rikki! What happened?”

“I went to my principal two weeks ago to just get information about curriculum development — how it works, what the expectations are, you know, to do my homework. She asked me why I was asking, and I said that while I’m super excited about the upcoming year — I figured I could finesse on that one — I’m ‘looking at my strengths and passions and think that something like curriculum development may be more for me.’ ”

“That was brave to be so upfront like that!”

“Yeah, well she’s a very nice lady. So then she started asking me all these questions, and I could see she was thinking about something. She ended the conversation kind of abruptly, which made me nervous. Then, two days later, she called me in for a meeting. I was shvitzing. I thought I was being fired for lack of commitment. But she told me she was thinking about what I said, and there may be a position for me in my school this year!”

“No! I can’t believe it!”

“Yes! She said they were looking to implement a new program this year, but didn’t have anyone to spearhead it. She said it’s not a lot of hours, but it’ll be a good trial because if this goes well, she’ll have other things for me in the future. She offered me five hours a week —— and get this — took off five hours a week from my teaching load! And I’m making $15 more an hour than my current teaching rate!”

“Rikki! This is incredible! How do you feel?”

“I can’t even describe it. I’m excited and nervous. I weirdly also have more energy for my upcoming classes. I only have 12 hours to teach instead of 17, which makes a huge difference. I’m not a hundred percent sure if I’ll be well suited for all this, so it’s good to have a trial, and it sounds like there are good opportunities for the future. I really am so grateful!”

“What do you think made this process so successful?”

“Hashem. And then my hishtadlus of actually knowing what I’m good at, how to leverage my experience, and learning what could excite me.”

“Rikki, this is just great. I’m so happy for you. Let me know how it pans out, and if I can help you in any other way.”

“Thanks so much, Abby. We’ll be in touch.” We bid each other goodbye and Rikki left, enveloped by sunshine as she walked away. As I watched her retreat, I was thinking about how the well-worn paths we forge sometimes need just a little tweaking and redirection, and how different the landscape looks from a new perspective.

In getting to know herself better, Rikki came to accept herself, and was able to pave a new path toward personal accomplishment and satisfaction.


Spotlight on Motivational Interviewing (MI)

While used for a number of different circumstances, including addiction, MI acknowledges that people often have very mixed feelings about the need to change, as well as their ability to enact change.

Dr. William Miller, the creator of the technique, sought to strengthen the client’s motivation toward healthy behavioral change through a collaborative, person-centered, and goal-oriented approach. At the heart of MI is empathy, which is manifested in the therapist-client relationship in four ways:

1) Partnership: the therapist joins with the client to work collaboratively on the client’s goals for change.

2) Acceptance: the therapist accepts the client as he or she is, affirms the client’s autonomy and need to make his or her own decisions.

3) Compassion: the therapist holds nothing higher than the client’s well-being, working to understand what that means from the client’s perspective.

4) Evocation: rather than seeing the client as in need of instruction and direction, the therapist evokes from the client what the client’s goals are and how he or she wants to be helped.


Before a Switch

The following questions may be helpful for narrowing your focus when considering a career change:

  • What do I enjoy doing?
  • What kinds of activities are fun and fulfilling for me?
  • What am I good at?
  • What is my skill set?
  • What qualifications do I have, such as a degrees or experiences?
  • How much money do I need to make to feel satisfied?
  • What jobs are available in the place(s) I’d like to live?
  • Do I want to travel?
  • What are my values?
  • Is it important to me to be of service to others?
  • Am I looking for intensely challenging work or something relatively easy?
  • Am I willing to do what others tell me without question or would I rather make most decisions on my own?
  • To what degree do I need stability and security?

Abby Delouya maintains a private therapy practice in Montreal, Canada.  


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 669)

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