Quickly into my first conversation with Jessica Altounian I knew we had a lot in common.
Both former teachers.
Both casualties of a broken education system.
Both unwavering in our commitment to young people.
Both using our classroom teacher skill sets in our current careers.
While our post-classroom teaching lives look different, they share a strong commonality. We both remain committed to supporting the social and emotional growth of young people. Jessica does this through her work at Move This World and I do this through running WIT.
I have a feeling you’ll be inspired by Jessica’s commitment and current career path. And if you’re a teacher who feels burned out, I hope you find inspiration in learning how Jessica took her teaching skills and applied them to a new career. A career that allows her to shine her bright light and empower others!
Ok Jessica - before we jump into the work you are doing with Move This World, can you share with us what you loved about being a classroom teacher?
The students, hands down. Being a teacher is an incredibly special role to play in someone’s life. I loved not only watching my students learn and grow, but being their support and guide along the way - through the productive struggles, the challenges, the ah-ha moments (those are the best!), the curiosity, their moments of pride. I always told my students that my job was to hold a mirror up so they can see themselves, know who they are and know that they have the ability to be and become anything they want to be.
Tell us a little bit about why you left the classroom.
Burn out. Plain and simple. I entered the classroom with a non-traditional teaching background as a NYC Teaching Fellow. I became the head of the special education department in my school my second year of teaching. I love a challenge so I very much embraced this, but I was certainly in over my head and operating at full capacity, so when there were some traumatic events - one involving students and one involving a colleague - I had nothing in me to cope with these things. I noticed myself getting angry at everything, spending my commute in tears, waking up dreading another day in a job that I knew that I loved, but that I couldn’t understand how to do anymore. Patience is critical as a teacher, and as I noticed myself having less and less of it I felt like I wasn’t doing a good job anymore. I also felt like I didn’t have it in me to simply switch schools and change my environment. I knew I needed to step away, go to therapy, change my lifestyle, and use my skills differently. Maybe, hopefully, it will lead me back to the classroom one day.
Given the work we do at WIT, I have a good understanding of what SEL is, but can you break it down for our reader?
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a phrase that continues to take on new meaning as its popularity grows, but really it’s about explicitly practicing skills that support our social and emotional wellbeing. People may be familiar with the five pillars that have been defined to help educators clarify and break down specific social emotional competencies - self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision making, and relationship building skills. One of the best ways I like to explain this is to narrow in on relationship building skills - we know that a positive student-teacher relationship improves learning outcomes for students. But many times when I ask teachers “Do you have a good relationship with your students?” their measurement of “good relationship” relates to classroom management - my students behave, they come to class on time, they do what I ask, etc. Okay, but do your students trust you? Do they feel like they know you? Do they respect you? Relationships don’t just blossom because we spend all year in the same classroom together - they take time and work and effort.
SEL provides a framework and structure to explicitly practice and develop these critical skills, and when done well gives students the tools to continue developing and evolving socially and emotionally throughout their lives. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from our Move This World Founder & CEO Sara LaHayne is that we never “arrive” in this work, there’s never a point where we can say “I’ve done it! I’m emotionally and socially developed!” Life changes. We go through hard experiences, or moments of growth, or we find ourselves in a new environment, and we rely on our social and emotional skills to get us through.
When you left classroom teaching, you could have gone in a lot of different directions with your career, what made you want to stay connected to supporting young people?
Supporting young people is what it’s all about for me. I have always been driven by a curiosity about how people come to understand the world, their place in it, and people in the world who are different from them. I entered education because I wanted to learn more about how young people build their understanding of self, knowing that their educational experiences can influence a lot of this understanding for them. I left the classroom because I was running on empty, but I never left my mission to empower young people. My mission has slightly shifted after experiencing burnout, and improving teacher mental health and wellness is now also core to my goals. But even this stems from the focus on supporting young people, because they rely on those teachers.
There are a lot of teachers leaving education right now, I think it would be reassuring to them to hear how the skills you used and developed in the classroom have helped you in your current position.
My standard ethical caveat here is to remind teachers that there is no better way or place to support young people than in the classroom. But as a burnt out teacher who left, I get it. One of the clearest skills you leave with is an actual understanding of the classroom. There are so many people, companies, agencies, and stakeholders outside of schools who are trying to improve education but do not know what it feels like to be in the classroom. Please do not underestimate how valuable this experience is, and get comfortable explaining this value to others. I used to tell the same stories in product design meetings watching colleagues debate icon placement or functionality, and I’d be the voice asking “What is this supposed to do? What problem are we trying to solve?” Or even something as simple as “How feasible is this with 34 students in a room if you only have 12 laptops?” Even things like running focus groups or conducting research is easier because teachers talk to teachers differently than we talk to people with no classroom experience. I get the honest truth, I know what to listen for and I know what to ask. My classroom experience - even all of the years later - is still something I pull from daily to do my job better.
You know I love the work you are doing at Move This World, can you share with us why you love the mission so much?
I love this mission so much because it’s where I landed through crisis. Restorative practices, empathy, community building - these were central to my experience as a teacher and transformative for my school, and we landed on them because we had to, we had no other choice. We were on every failing list, with low graduation rates, test scores, attendance rates, you name it. We had to do things differently or else our school would close. Thank goodness we did, because we had practices in place to support our students through some of those traumas I mentioned. We could gather in a healing circle to grieve and process anger. I saw this kind of social emotional development and the integration of creativity and art transform students and our school community, and when I left the classroom I gave myself the time and space to let them transform me, too. I made creativity and art central to my life. I started intensive therapy. I focused on my relationships. I moved my body more. And through the social and emotional strength I developed, I transitioned to a new career field and am building a life that makes me happier every day. That’s what I hope for each of my students, and for all of us. I am so deeply grateful that Move This World exists and for the genius and leadership of our fearless leader and Founder. She lives this mission and as a company we do, too.
To learn more about the work of Move This World visit - https://www.movethisworld.com