Former Teacher Pursues an Alternative Career in Education


Sara Nilles loved her experience as both a student and teacher, but wanted to pursue an alternative career within the education space. After studying math education at Montana State, Nilles became a middle school math, technology and leadership teacher. Impressively, Nilles became the nation’s youngest Executive Director of a State Student Council in Oregon. This position led to her appointment as the Coordinator of Awards and Scholarships for the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators.

Find Your Grind spoke to Sara about the importance of mentors, making personal connections, and why it’s beneficial for everyone to channel their inner chameleon.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What was your path to a career in education?

I studied math education at Montana State University (Go Bobcats!) and earned my masters in Curriculum & Instruction and ESL/ELL from Portland State University. I did a one year teaching job in Japan after college and would love to one day continue working international. I am now in my seventh year as the Executive Director for the Oregon Association of Student Councils. I enjoyed my time as a middle school math, technology, yearbook and leadership teacher for ten years before my role with OASC.

What are the most important requirements of your position?

My job is a mix of both education and business. It is important to be skilled in organization, writing and budgeting. Communication is a necessary skill because you have to get along with many different personality types and styles. You have to be a chameleon to communicate well with everyone! It helps to also have a background in education and curriculum development.  I’m lucky to have grown up in a family business and many of the skills I learned from my parents regarding inventory, budget, HR, and management have come in very handy as well.

What advice would you give your teenage self?

Make stronger connections and relationships!  I planned a lot of events being in leadership and was a “doer,” but didn’t really take the time to get to know the people I was “doing” for.  I was all about checking something off a list, adding it to my resume, always thinking towards the future of college and beyond (which is great) but I missed out on the present.  Live more in the moment, listen more, and talk less.

What is the biggest obstacle you had to overcome as Executive Director?

Age. When I started, I was the youngest in the nation to be an Executive Director of a State Student Council. Since then, other young leaders have stepped up- which is awesome! I wanted our program to feel different than just sustaining programs and maintaining status quo for the way things had been done for over 50 years. I wanted to inspire and teach more than just goal setting, meeting skills and team-building. The second greatest obstacle is leading others in change; that it’s ok to change and evolve, and not do it “the way it’s always been done.”

What advice would you give someone trying to get into this education field?

Participate in all the parts of the organization you are trying to be a part of. Volunteer and learn everything you can. Help at their events, get to know board members, participants . . ask a lot of questions!

How important is mentoring in the education space?

Having a mentor is the only reason I was able to accomplish what I did at such a young age. The Executive Director before me saw more in me than I did in myself.  She encouraged me to be on camp staff, take on leadership roles, join the board, and learn everything I could alongside her.  She went with me to my first national conference.  When people said to me “You have big shoes to fill” she responded, “well, Sara has big feet – she’ll do great”. It was incredibly motivating and helpful to know she has my back and believed in me.

Who did you look up to most growing up?

I always looked up to my teachers. I can remember as early as the 2nd grade staying after school to help them. My middle school PE teacher, Kathy Brown, left the biggest impression on my heart and soul.  She taught me about servent leadership, helping others and giving back to my community.  She was kind to everyone and was always smiling and caring – a favorite of many students!

What does it mean to you to Find Your Grind?

To “Find Your Grind” is to figure out what inspires, motivates and pushes you to be and do your best.  For me, that’s making an impact and providing opportunities for our youth.  Helping them to think bigger than their communities and schools, in addition to leaving the campsite better than I found it.

Are you an educator or a teacher?

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