Sarah Romero, Investment Banker turned Elementary School Teacher

{editor's note}

If you haven't noticed by now, I'm obsessed with stories about women making a dramatic career change.  I think it's important to tell their stories, to not only expose their 'lessons learned', but also remind women that this CAN be done and SHOULD be done.  Sarah's story is hands-down one of my favorites.  Her switch, from working in various high-profile finance roles to going back to school to become an elementary school teacher, is an admirable one on so many levels.  Her desire to pursue a career motivated by 'keeping her soul happy' and not by money makes me want to shout random exclamations from the rooftops.  My hope...Sarah's hope...DRIVEN's hope is that if you're considering a career-change, Sarah's story...and her 'real-life' advice at the end...will give you the push you need to pursue what makes YOUR soul fulfilled both inside and outside the workplace.

Sarah in her classroom at mckinley elementary school / photo courtesy sarah romero

Sarah in her classroom at mckinley elementary school / photo courtesy sarah romero

{why you'd love her}

If you met Sarah Romero, you’d guess instantly that she’s an elementary school teacher.

Sarah embodies all of the qualities of your favorite school-teachers from years past; she’s bubbly, engaging, warm and loving in a Mary Poppins kind of way. 

You’d probably guess this is her life’s calling…and it is…something that she’s been planning for since playing “make believe” as a child.…and it probably was.

But Sarah’s path to get to this point was far from easy.  In fact, for a profession that comes so naturally to her and seems like such the obvious fit, Sarah’s complete career overhaul is completely nontraditional.

Sarah working on calendar math with her students. / Photo Courtesy Sarah Romero

Sarah working on calendar math with her students. / Photo Courtesy Sarah Romero

{ivy league or bust}

Sarah has always been a smart cookie, and when she was accepted into Brown University for undergrad, it was clear that the world was her oyster.

“I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to major in when I started college, but Brown is great for that because they don’t require a core curriculum.  I thought I would try pre-med and with that came the requirement to take some math classes.  I realized that I was pretty good at economics and it was something that came easily to me.”

Economics was an appealing major, mainly because there were so many career opportunities presented on a silver platter to the Brown students who were beginning their job hunt.  Investment banks from New York City would visit the campus to do their recruiting, making the path into finance enticing and a tad bit easier.

Sarah on her annual trip back to brown. / photo courtesy sarah romero

Sarah on her annual trip back to brown. / photo courtesy sarah romero

{more than just a pretty face}

To the big banks visiting, Sarah had a very competitive resume.  Not only was she a dedicated and serious student, she was also involved in many other admirable organizations which in hindsight seemed like a very fitting connection to her future career in teaching.

“I was connected to the Latino community at Brown and was a mentor for other students coming into the school who wanted to feel more connected to the Latino community.  I was also part of an organization called ‘Sponsors for Educational Opportunity’ which helps guide minority students who are interested in careers in some of the harder positions to get; like investment banking, corporate law and sales and trading.”

The summer before her senior year, Sarah landed an investment banking internship on Wall Street at Citigroup. Upon graduation, she was hired full-time in the investment bank.

“I had never been to New York and it was truly like being plopped into a whole other world.  They would treat us to all these networking events and take us to Broadway shows…you just felt really fancy doing all of it.”

sarah dressed at cleopatra for her class's ancient egyptian day at the museum / pHOTO cOURTESY sARAH rOMERO

sarah dressed at cleopatra for her class's ancient egyptian day at the museum / pHOTO cOURTESY sARAH rOMERO

{the proverbial hamster wheel}

Over the next five years, Sarah tried out a few roles within various divisions of Citigroup’s investment bank.

“I started to feel like I had been there so long and was basically doing the same thing over and over again, so I put my feelers out.  I was feeling a little burnt out living in New York City, so when an investor relations position became available at American Capital Strategies in Bethesda, Maryland, I knew I had to jump on it.”

This new role allowed her to live in a new city (Washington D.C.), travel, and expand her skill-set in the finance world. She was excelling in this new role, receiving these amazing opportunities that would make any other employee feel like they were on the top of the world.  But when it came down to it, Sarah was feeling the same lack of passion for her career that she had left behind in New York.

“I was waking up just completely unmotivated for the day ahead.  I started tutoring these kids from inner-city D.C. after work and it wasn’t long before I realized I was just working to get to the evening when I could go and spend time working with the kids.”

sarah in front of her math bulletin board. / photo courtesy sarah romero

sarah in front of her math bulletin board. / photo courtesy sarah romero

{do or die time}

There was a defining moment, Sarah says, where the realization that she would likely never be happy on this path felt more acute than ever before.

“I was at this lavish dinner in Chicago, sitting with the CFO of our company celebrating a milestone that I should have been so excited about.  I remember I went to the bathroom and called one of my good friends and said that if this type of achievement wasn’t making me happy, I’m not sure I’d ever be happy in this role.”

Sarah’s entire resume, from beginning to end, was filled with finance experience highlighted with a major in business economics.  Having to start from square-one, she says, was completely intimidating and scary.

“I realized I was going to be like someone starting directly out of college, and I had to ask myself whether I was ready for that at 28 years-old.”

sarah enjoying crazy hat day at school with another teacher. / photo courtesy sarah romero

sarah enjoying crazy hat day at school with another teacher. / photo courtesy sarah romero

{work it girl}

She recognized immediately that the after-work tutoring was the part of her day that she most looked forward to, and decided she’d try to find a way to make teaching her full-time career.

“I had to figure out the quickest way for me to get into a classroom, and with a business economics degree that was hard to do.”

There was a local year-long master’s program at Marymount University filled with like-minded students, many of whom were career-switchers like Sarah, and all eager to start teaching as quickly as possible.

“I had to pool my resources and really look at my finances because going back to school…and to teaching…was going to be a big switch.  I was making good money in finance and I would be giving that up.”

In addition to the significant salary change, Sarah also had to acquire additional student loans to help finance her education.

“I had to really think about this decision, but I knew that it was my ultimate happiness we were talking about and the financial strain I was going to experience would pass.”

sarah teaching the water cycle to students in porbandar, india, where she taught science and math as part of her master's program at marymount university. / photo courtesy sarah romero

sarah teaching the water cycle to students in porbandar, india, where she taught science and math as part of her master's program at marymount university. / photo courtesy sarah romero

{why she's a boss}

After a year of strenuous, intensive studying, Sarah graduated with her master’s in education.  Alongside her fellow classmates, she set out to apply for a teaching position at one of the most coveted school districts in the state of Virginia.

“Our advisor told us to not get our hopes up because it was so competitive to receive an offer for this school district, but I actually got the first offer out of my classmates and everyone was genuinely so excited for me.  We were basically competing for the same positions but we were all so supportive of each other and cared for each other so much, it was just a completely different world.”

Sarah started teaching a second-grade class, calling the first year the hardest she had worked in her entire life. 

“Even though I was working such long hours, it just felt completely different.  I knew that the more time I spent doing this, the more excited my students would be the next day, and I’d see the impact on my students immediately.”

sarah visiting the taj mahal with other teachers in her education program. / photo courtesy sarah romero

sarah visiting the taj mahal with other teachers in her education program. / photo courtesy sarah romero

{#1 teacher}

Sarah is now five years into teaching, and has moved from teaching the second grade to third.  She says that every day, she reads to her students, doing ridiculously silly voices that only her children would fully appreciate.

“They always clap for me when I’m done,” she says “and there’s just no better feeling than that in the world.  There just isn’t.”

sarah enjoying her daily read aloud to her students. / photo courtesy sarah romero

sarah enjoying her daily read aloud to her students. / photo courtesy sarah romero

{DRIVEN q&a}

What were the biggest obstacles you faced making the leap from finance to teaching?

“One major obstacle was my ego. It took awhile for me to build up enough courage to reset my career at square one and put myself on the same playing field as recent college grads. I had to keep telling myself ‘who cares what anyone else thinks, it’s your life and your happiness.’ Another obstacle was time and money to go back to school. I had to dip into my savings, take out loans, remember how to write papers, and spend my days and nights in classes either being taught or teaching. Not to mention, I had to take a substantial cut in pay.”

Unfortunately, there's a big difference in a finance salary and a teaching salary.  Was this a hard adjustment to get used to?  Any tricks or tips you’d like to share?

“It was a difficult adjustment. The scope of it all sent me running to Excel to figure out ways to cut back without giving up the things I enjoyed the most. I compared my finance income with my teaching income and mapped out the changes I would have to make to my lifestyle.

One big thing that helps me save money is not owning a car. I take public transportation everywhere. It’s liberating not to have to worry about car payments, insurance, parking, gas, and incidentals. Another great trick is to plan monthly ‘house’ dinners with small groups of friends. We take turns cooking the main course and everyone else brings the sides/desserts/drinks. It allows us to enjoy delicious food and drinks without spending tons of money at restaurants.”

For the parents out there-- what are the most important things you think a parent should look for in a school and more specifically, a teacher?

“School: meets your family’s needs (before/after care, meals, buses), low student-teacher ratio, behavior problems are handled in a way that aligns with your family’s values, resources to support diverse learners (math/reading/ESL/special education/gifted specialists), sets high expectations for all students (look at state test scores and ask questions), has at least one specialty (e.g. the arts, technology, science, language immersion)

Teacher: sets high expectations for all students, uses a mix of whole group and small group instruction, gives students frequent opportunities to discuss ideas with one another, has weekly meetings with other teachers to collaborate, attends professional development sessions, adapts easily to new technologies, communicates effectively with parents, provides volunteer opportunities.”

What words of wisdom would you give a woman who is considering switching careers?

“Where there is a will there is a way. If you are passionate about doing something else, then start mapping out a plan to make it happen. Don’t let your ego get in the way.”

What's the best advice you've ever received?

“What immediately comes to mind is the quote on a bookmark one of my favorite teachers once gave me. It’s traveled with me to every job I’ve ever had. The quote, from a Zen Buddhist text, reads: “The Master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.” I read it many times when I was contemplating my career change. The words empowered me.”

 

Next week, meet Courtney.  She’s CNBC's retail correspondent, but that's not all...Her story of relentless dedication to her incredible career is up next, on DRIVEN for Women.  

 

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