Quarter-Life Crisis

Education in America as a subject has interested me for a long time. There’s a personal side to it, and an intellectual side as well. All four of my grandparents were educators back in Sri Lanka, before my parents immgrated to Washington state in the late 70’s. I grew up outside of Boise, ID, attending public school. I remember the good and the bad.  My middle school was surrounded by farmland at the time and basically falling apart physically, for example. Oh yeah, and I’m pretty sure I was the only non-white and non-Christian student at my elementary school… interesting social dynamic. But I also remember the fantastic teachers here and there who really and truely cared. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them, for sure.

Intellectually (and more abstractly), I do firmly believe that “education should be the great equalizer”, that education appears to be the only factor (besides, obviously, money) in our society that can allow one to transcend social class, that we are not a true meritocracy until such things as access to education are made as independent of demographic as possible. I’ve been reading up a lot on these.  More darkly, I am afraid that my contributions to research now will mean little in the alarmingly near future if our nation continues its death spiral into complete scientific illiteracy.

Today I am a propulsion systems research and development engineer at one of NASA’s research installations. I enjoy my career here. I have a comfortable salary, a secure job, challenging work, and very dedicated, passionate colleagues. I have no logical reason to leave. But lately I feel something missing… maybe its my grandparents’ blood rising, or maybe just my increased attention on education and education reform lately. Or maybe it’s my increasing immersion in Buddhism and the realization that my measures of “success” haven’t been exactly in line with what I purport to value most.

Whatever it is, for some reason a few months ago, after I mentioned in conversation for the umpteenth time “we should get more STEM professionals to share their knowledge in the classroom”, I caught myself and thought, well, maybe is it time to put up or shut up?

I think that I know a decent amount of math and science, considering my present job and all… I’m also a huge history, literature, and theatre nerd… and I understand how well-rounded individuals who can tie the “fuzzier” subjects into their technical fields make for some of the most creative and innovative leaders in R&D. And I genuinely, wholeheartedly think science is fun. I love it. I think, I hope, that I could teach that. I’m still not sure I want to make that career change yet, but it’s something I’m thinking about.

The appeal of a program like Teach for America to me is that, while I fully recognize that the task (teaching in high-need schools) may be harder than a “normal” pathway into teaching in a more “normal” community, the logistics seem much easier. TFA appears to be already in arrangements with schools and credentialing programs, and appears to be truly committed to improving the plight of underachieving schools in high-poverty communities, etc.  I also do like the two-year commitment. While I agree with the multitude of criticism out there that TFA seems to encourage a revolving door of law and business school applicants who want the check box on their resume, I have no such deferred plans. I am honestly interested in teaching as a career, but am unsure as to whether I fully realize what that means and if I really do want to devote the rest of my life to it. I think that a two-year commitment gives me both a chance to get thrown into the mud to see if I can actually wrestle with the elephants, but also an out if I decide that I really hate it and its not for me.

Thanks to great counter-perspective blogs from TFA’ers like Gary Rubinstein, I’m definitely now thinking twice about TFA, but the problem is I wouldn’t know what to do otherwise. I didn’t realize the degree to which different states’ educational systems vary. Most of the official websites for credentialing and entering teaching as a normal hire into the school system are, at best, tangled messes of regulations, links to obscure documents, and what seem like mutually contradictory statements.

So, I suppose my specific question would be then, what else? What other pathway would work should I decide to leave NASA and go teach in a public school? Should I have to go back to school for an education degree to apply my skills to the classroom? In an environment in which traditional teachers appear to be getting laid off by the thousands, should I wait for the odd chance that there is a traditional posting available and that they are also willing to accept me on a conditional credential waiver? Does the purported need for STEM teachers make the layoff situation irrelevent? Or should I use TFA as a convenient trial period and entry point into the profession?

Actually, let’s get even more basic than that:

Is leaving a GS-12 research position with federal benefits at a high-level government research installation where I work with wonderful, passionate colleagues for a career in public education a really really stupid idea? Or one of the best things I could do for myself and the nation?

Stay tuned as I explore these questions and more. I may not end up changing careers afterall – in fact, this is what I consider to be the most probable outcome at this point. But I would at least like some documentation of the journey. So here goes.

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