Annie Talley Ochoa has long known that she was meant to teach. But as years and then decades passed, her plans to enter the classroom were repeatedly sidetracked and eventually stalled.
At age 44, that’s about to change. Talley Ochoa is on track to earn her teaching credential next August, when she finishes her master’s degree in education. Already, though, her first year as a teacher is underway.
Talley Ochoa is enrolled in TeachStart, a teacher preparation program that allows aspiring educators to work full-time and earn a full salary — first as substitute teachers and eventually as lead teachers — while earning their credential. Last year, Talley Ochoa taught as a long-term sub in a public school in San Jose, California. This year, she’s teaching U.S. history at a high school in East Palo Alto while she wraps up her coursework.
For Talley Ochoa, becoming a teacher represents a dream fulfilled and a call to service answered. And it was a long time coming.
She enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school, and later, went to work for a large clothing retailer. But even during those experiences, Talley Ochoa held onto the idea that she belonged in the classroom. In fact, she says that her service in the military and her time working in corporate America only reinforced that idea for her. But it wasn’t until she found a program that allowed her maximum flexibility and paid on-the-job learning that she was able to pursue this path once and for all.
In our Future Teacher series, we feature students in teacher prep programs on the cusp of having their own classrooms to find out why they want to enter an embattled profession that many are leaving. In this installment, we are focusing on Annie Talley Ochoa.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
EdSurge: When did you realize that you wanted to become a teacher? Was there a specific moment?
I knew in high school I wanted to be a teacher. But I grew up in very challenging circumstances, and I had no idea how I was going to get the education to become a teacher.
I was like, ‘Someday, I am going to be a teacher.’ That was always in the back of my mind, but I had to get the education first. I decided to join the military — I heard that they will pay for your college, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is great. I can do this, then I’ll … get my degree and then someday become a teacher.’
Is that what happened?
So right out of college, I joined the Marine Corps. It was an amazing experience but very tough. This was the late 1990s, so there were still a lot of challenges for me — sexual harassment, that kinda stuff. But I did really well. I served for four years of active service, and I actually finished my service the week of September 11, 2001. Then I was on call for four years while I worked toward my bachelor’s degree. I eventually finished my degree, and the military GI Bill helped me obtain that goal.
As a child and growing up, I had like zero discipline at all. I was a very free-range child. I had very little supervision. Being in the Marine Corps really helped me with discipline.
In the U.S. Marines, it doesn’t matter what your rank is, you’re considered a leader, and as a leader, you also need to coach and teach. By the end of my career in the military, I was in charge of probably about 20 Marines, and I’d have to train, teach, coach and lead them. So that was another experience that kind of built on the idea of me becoming a teacher.
So you finish your service and get your bachelor’s degree. Then what?
I graduated from the University of San Diego, and at the time, there really weren’t many jobs in the area. And to tell you the truth, my university was so expensive that I just couldn’t afford, at the time, to pay for teacher credentialing in California. So I had to figure something out. I started working part-time for J. Crew, a retail company.
When J. Crew asked if I was interested in becoming a manager, I said, ‘Why not?’ I moved to Los Angeles, and within a couple of years, they had me leading training. I became a brand trainer, and in addition to working at my own J. Crew store in Malibu, the company had me traveling around the country doing corporate brand training for them.
And again, I’m like, ‘Oh, this is my thing: teaching. I have a talent for breaking things down that can be kind of difficult.’ And yeah, I just loved it.
So the brand training experience was another reinforcement that you should be teaching?
Yes, and I enjoyed it. It was with young adults, mostly, but I still really wanted to be in the classroom with high school kids.
Then I had a baby. At J. Crew, I was commuting for like two to three hours every day. I wouldn’t be able to see my daughter wake up or go to sleep. My husband and I decided to leave LA and move to Austin, Texas. I left my full-time job at J. Crew to stay at home with my daughter for a few years. During that time, I did part-time substitute teaching so I could stay connected to education. That’s when it really solidified that I wanted to teach high school kids.
Then we actually moved to Spain for a few more years. And then just recently, this last year, we came back to California and I’m like, ‘It’s time. I am going to become a teacher.’
So then when I came back here to California and I connected with TeachStart, I was able to sub again, and I had the same experience with the kids — a great experience.
Did you ever reconsider a career in teaching? Has it always been your North Star?
I think if anything has made me reconsider, it’s the over-professionalization that’s going on with education. It creates so many barriers. In California, there are a lot of steps that you have to take in order to even become a teacher, and it can be overwhelming. That’s one of the things I’ve liked about TeachStart. They were able to break that all down and make it a little more digestible, helping from step one all the way until you get your certification.
Why do you think you feel that way?
I think maybe it’s because I’m an older student. Going through college, working in corporate America for so long, and going through so many corporate trainings — and then still having so much to do for teacher credentialing? I just want to be in the classroom. I feel like I’ve had so much life experience and everything, but then I still have to go through the motions with the credentialing program, when I feel like what I could use is a little more hands-on learning.
During the day, in this program, we are substitute teachers, but then at night, we’re doing online learning. So it can be a little overwhelming. Sometimes I wish that some of the content that we learn for the program helped a little more with what we’re doing inside the classroom. I mean, it’s good to go over teaching philosophies and models, but I wish it was a little more hands on.
Sometimes I wonder, ‘Is it worth it?’ But every time I think like that, I just think about the kids and I’m like, ‘Yes, yes, it’s worth it.’ This is something I would do even if I wasn’t paid. I believe in it, and that is what keeps me going.
Why do you want to become a teacher?
I feel like it’s a call to service, to tell you the truth. I’ve always had a heart of service. When I was a kid, I was a Girl Scout. Later, I joined the Marine Corps. I like volunteering at food banks. So for me, seeing what was going on with the culture wars and seeing all these teachers leaving after the pandemic, I felt like if any time is the right time to do this, it’s now. I’m surprised that there’s not more — I don’t wanna say marketing, but marketing — out there to try to recruit teachers. We’re in an emergency right now. We need teachers.
I’m preparing to teach social studies, which can be a very inflammatory subject to teach. But I want to present the facts and then let the kids create their own views. I don’t want to use my position as political indoctrination. I think it’s really important to give space to students to be able to decide how they feel about things and support them that way. And I want to show the kids that there’s someone in the classroom that cares about their future.
Was your own experience in school largely positive or largely negative, and how does that inform your decision to want to teach?
That is such a good question. Because of my parents’ challenges in life, we moved a lot. I went to a different school, like, every single year. Later, I found out I actually had dyslexia. I was always a good kid, quiet, but you know, no one ever really noticed there was an issue because I was in and out of schools. No one noticed that I had a learning disability. Because of my experience of having to work so hard just to get through school, graduate and go to college, I have better awareness and definitely sympathy and empathy for the challenges that students have.
What gives you hope about your future career?
It all comes back to the kids. I’m excited about the future now that the kids are out of the pandemic. The kids that graduated from my class this year were the COVID cohort. COVID started when they were freshmen, and it ended at the end of their senior year. I’m literally at their graduation crying because I was so proud that they made it through. I can be there as a caring teacher, and I feel like I can definitely make a difference. And then maybe some of these kids who I make a difference with will want to be teachers someday.
What gives you pause or maybe worries you about becoming a teacher?
I guess it would be the responsibilities — the professional development responsibilities that sometimes can take away from your time in the classroom with the students. That’s what gives me pause. How am I gonna balance professional development with spending the time in class with my students?
Why does the field need you right now?
I think the field needs me because I have a very strong sense of leadership and I don’t have a problem doing what’s right, even if it’s unpopular. I will always advocate for my students and coworkers. And I think just my dedication; I love what I teach. And I think that’s what we really need in the classrooms right now is teachers being excited about content and also forming really good connections with their students.