Stay Focused and Push Forward
An educator, researcher, and Navy wife, Michelle Van Lare began her professional journey as a high school English teacher and basketball coach. Her love of community and passion for teaching took her across the country and eventually landed her in Singapore, where she met her now-husband. Initially, she thought the life of a Navy spouse would be full of adventure and traveling. She did not anticipate the toll it would take on her professional goals or even the toll it would take on simply finding a job.
But Michelle persevered through move after move and pushed herself to keep working, even if it took a little creativity to find positions that fit with her overall career goals.
Teaching Is Not Always the Easy Job to Find
Educators on the whole are in demand, so it can look deceivingly easy for military spouses to have a consistent resume in the education field. But Michelle points out that a new teaching job in a new town is not always a simple transition.
“I’m often frustrated by the attitude of ‘you can teach anything,’ because it overlooks a lot of the issues we face as military spouses,” Michelle explains.
The first year teaching at a new school not only brings new curriculum to learn, but teachers also spend countless hours investing in relationships with students, parents, and community leaders. That extra work can seem even more exhausting when the next move is around the corner and spouses know they will soon have to say goodbye to every relationship they’ve built. Michelle often felt hopeless as she knew she would just get settled in a new district and be forced to turn around and focus on the next job search.
“By the time you finally feel connected, you’re job searching for your next move. It disrupts you from being a key member of the community,” Michelle reflects. While there are usually some positions at a new duty station, the teaching job may not be on the same subject or grade level. With those disruptions, it can be hard to maintain a steady and fulfilling career over time. But Michelle highlights the resilience of military spouses. Not only do they find and adapt to new positions, but they often positively impact their classrooms, schools and communities.
To ease the complications of balancing a career with military life, Michelle advocates for less frequent moves for military families, and encourages spouses to consider geo-baching if they want to stay plugged in to schools for longer periods of time.
Investing in Further Education
After years in the classroom, Michelle looked at a move to Washington state as an opportunity to invest in further education.
“One of my big questions was, I’m working really hard making a lot of decisions on intuition. And it feels like there’s got to be a better way to figure out if whether what you’re doing has any impact,” Michelle says. “And the best way I knew to figure that out was to understand research.”
She turned her professional focus to earning her PhD in Education Policy and Leadership from the University of Washington. Michelle describes her experience as incredibly enriching, and she came out the other side more confident in the professional goals she set for herself. For her, she also made the right decision to go brick and mortar instead of earning a degree online. Although military spouses gravitate to online degrees for the simplicity and flexibility, Michelle felt truly connected to her program, her professors and her classmates.
“I found going back to school a major change in my life in terms that it was a steep learning curve and it fundamentally changed some of the ways I look at the world,” Michelle explains. “And a lot of those reasons is because of the people that I met there and the relationships that I forged there. And the conversations that I had that were informal because I was there.”
Michelle was lucky to have a professional support system during her thesis process, and even skyped with her advisor through two moves in order to get it finished. Reflecting today on her graduate experience, Michelle is grateful for that support and wishes she had taken better advantage of advocating for her goals. As a military spouse constantly forced to look ahead to the next duty station, it’s easy to remain a jack of all trades instead of specializing. But finding what you’re passionate about and pursuing that full force can allow advisors or employers to help tailor opportunities for you in the long run.
“We want to be open to anything to make sure that we get any opportunity that we can, to make sure that we fit into any opportunity that comes along. The downside is that you miss the opportunity to say exactly what you want and to articulate exactly what you want and if you’re able to do that, people are able to help you so much more.”
Finding Titles And Pushing Forward
Michelle’s doctorate degree opened up potential for new teaching positions in higher education, leaving less gaps in her resume and helping her make more connections in the education world. Throughout her career, she has taught at George Mason University, University of California San Diego, University of Washington, and Stanford University. Sometimes positions were natural and easy to come by, but other opportunities had to be cobbled together. When Michelle’s husband received orders to the San Diego area, Michelle contacted the the University of California San Diego and they eventually created a visiting scholar position specifically for her. While it wasn’t a traditional teaching opportunity, it allowed Michelle to stay current in her field and filled her resume with something substantial for that duty station.
As military spouses try to maintain careers while moving around, Michelle advises finding titles and being creative with job searches. Titles mean something to future employers and they offer legitimacy to resumes. Looking back on her career, Michelle remembers the short stints at duty stations and debating whether or not to go through the headache and heartache of a job search. But she pushed forward and found positions wherever she went and tells other military spouses to do the same.
“Just don’t stop,” she encourages. “Pull together a vision and it helps you narrow down what your next steps will be. All experiences count and they add up.”
If you need help through that narrowing down process, Michelle had success utilizing the Military Spouse Corporate Career Network. During one of her job searches, she not only had logistical help of contacting potential leads, but was generally supported with conversations about the goals for that specific job search.
“It’s consistent and organized and it helps push you forward to the next step,” Michelle said.
Today, Michelle continues to research and teach at the higher education level. After years of juggling the demands of moving with finding work, she tells other spouses to persevere and focus on what truly interests them. Having specific goals for each job or each new degree allows spouses to become experts in a field and that expertise may lead them to more fulfilling careers in the long run.