The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Pathway to Teaching

Feeling Teachery

I have survived.

September and October were pretty grim months. After a honeymoon period that lasted a little less than a week, I began a steady slide into some of the hardest weeks of my life. As my freshmen felt their high school jitters wear off and my juniors had finished scoping out my weaknesses, the real battle for sanity began.

It wasn’t until the last couple of weeks before the winter recess that I truly felt like things were approaching a modicum of stability. I’m still tired, but I think that’s normal. I have no idea how the rest of the year is going to go, but I can at least reflect on the last four months.

Looking back on it, I think I can reconstruct a few lessons learned for any future new teachers.

1. Nothing else matters if you cannot control your classroom.

I know, you’re a stubborn idealist and waiting to get started reforming education for a future enlightened democracy. But take the high-minded ideals about liberating education and democratic classrooms, the bold plans for discussion-based inquiry, and your folder brimming with ideas for weekly project-based learning, and set it aside. At least for the first few months of teaching full time.

Instead, attend to the basics and make sure you have them down pat: Clear rules and expectations, with ready short responses for the inevitable “why?”. A posted chain of consequences that you will stick to with no exceptions. A plan for how you will hit your educator evaluation targets. The first two weeks of lessons planned (not just bulleted, PLANNED TO THE DETAIL) in advance.

And, critically, an airtight system for organizing paperwork by graded/not-graded, which block, handout-and-keep, handout-and-return, late work (and associated penalties), late work due to excused absence, makeup work, makeup exams, answer keys, advisory, notices to students from administration, extra credit, extracurriculars, and every other type of document you can think of… because the paperwork will come in a flood and it will never let up. Ever.

Once you have a consistently safe environment for learning that doesn’t make you feel like you are drowning, then you can move on to bigger and better things like those inquiry-based project discussions.

My residency year was spent at a great school with great students that taught me a lot about many things except what I now believe is the single most important skill: solo classroom management under constantly adversarial circumstances, all day every day week after week.

If you are unsure how to get started, I recommend Rick Smith’s Conscious Classroom Management as a reference that helped me out immensely.

I’ll say again: NOTHING ELSE WILL WORK if you cannot control your classroom. It has only been quite recently that I’ve felt confident enough to move much beyond making sure that basic goal is met.

2. Steal everything.

I still haven’t quite internalized that I really do not need to homeroll every little part of my curriculum and logistics. Stop reinventing the wheel, use what’s already out there, and ramp up your own style slowly over time. I’ve got years and years to hone my own style and invent my own methods. I don’t need to do that in the hardest phase of my teaching career.

As a first year teacher, it will not be resources you need. There are hundreds, if not thousands of great resources on teaching, education, science, inquiry, labs, etc. People still keep trying to give me workbooks, websites, curricula, and lab equipment that I will put in my back closet and not look at again until next summer. What you will really need is time, which is the one thing no one can give you more of. You need to make more of it yourself (where possible) by choosing how you will approach your work.

3. Families are your best allies.

Even my most difficult alpha-males, the ones who seemed to be hell-bent on locking horns day after day, were just looking for evidence that I will provide a safe and secure environment. Getting families on board with that plan is a good way to convince those students that a) you care, and b) you will not be letting them off the hook. Further, calling home with compliments gives them positive incentive to perform well. Deep down, all kids want to succeed and be seen as successful, even if they do not want to admit it.

4. Make time for your support network.

They say the first year of teaching is the hardest year, and the first quarter of any teaching year is the hardest quarter. It stands to reason then, that the first quarter of the first year of teaching is a double dose of difficult. There is absolutely no reason to go it alone.

I went through Boston Teacher Residency. Its cohort model of training meant that I went into teaching with a strong corps of friends and colleagues that I could call on for support and collaboration, which is one of the great benefits of the residency model. Even if you didn’t go through such a program and feel like you don’t have allies, find them. In your school, in other schools, or on the web.

5. A supportive administration and staff change everything. My colleagues at my school have been amazing — offering ideas, support, solid backup on discipline, and even offering to help grade. Compared to the horror stories I have heard from some other schools, I count myself very lucky in this regard. Teachers don’t often have much of a choice in the character of their colleagues and supervisors, but if it is at all possible, trade whatever you can for good people on your side.

That’s the top five reflections so far. I definitely don’t have it all figured out yet — in fact, one thing I enjoy about this profession is that the opportunities to improve seem endless. But it’s getting better. Especially now that I’ve had a few days to rest, I am looking forward to seeing how the rest of the year plays out.

I’ve Got Friends in This Game (BTR Blog)

Though I’m now all gradumacated, I will be continuing to blog for BTR as an alumnus. My latest post is about the excitement and anxiety that comes with seeing the first days of school approach.  Eeep!

I’ve got units and community building to plan, department and grade-level teams with whom to coordinate, disciplinary procedures to figure out, lab equipment to move in and test, and a classroom to arrange and accouter from scratch. Do I want a lecture hall focused on individual work? Table groups for collaborative learning? Or a roundtable setup for greater ease of whole-class discussion? What is my plan for universal access to content, especially for my students with learning disabilities or those who are still learning English? How much time do I want to spend building up our classroom identity as collaborative investigators? What do I do if my students resist my efforts at establishing community? Am I going to make an ass of myself on the first day? What the hell does the copier error PC LOAD LETTER mean anyway?

In other words, my brain is well along on an anxiety-soaked quest to discover every permutation of OH MY GOD WHAT IF I SUCK AT THIS.

You can read the whole post on BTR’s site.

My Classroom!

IMG_20130722_134947The up side of freedom is that I can do whatever I want! The downside of freedom is that now I need to decide what it is that I want. Damn.

I got access to my classroom a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been nerding out on how to set it up. It’s a squarish room with pair tables for 22 students, fixed lab counters and sinks around the outside perimeter and a pair of fixed demo tables at the front. I’ve got old school vertical sliding whiteboards and a small SMART Board off to the side.

I have no idea what to do with the roughly 2 million little drawers and cubbies of the built-in cabinetry in the back room.

Right now, I’ve got it set up in three groups of 6 and one group of 4. I toyed with other arrangements as well. Lecture-style rows had the advantage of order and sight-lines to the board, but I thought it would make things more difficult for group work, collaboration, and discussion. I also tried a round-robin circle of tables to emphasize the importance of discussion in the science class, but I thought that it might be too good for this purpose — meaning that students would be tempted to distract each other across the room. Plus, group work remains hard in that arrangement anyway.

IIMG_20130722_145545 plan to use the vertical sliding whiteboard for objectives and essential questions for the unit / lesson / day, and have it in the “up” position. The board underneath will be for classwork and examples we do in the lesson. The side board near the door will have the agenda for the week and all due items.

Corkboard… I’m thinking exemplary student work, class rules/expectations, and some of the many NASA posters I just got loaded up on thanks to former colleague Kevin back at Dryden.  In the back there is a small table that I will probably use for a little career station, with info on science and engineering as careers, current events in science, and profiles of diverse scientists who are doing awesome work.

As for posters,  in addition to the aforementioned NASA swag, I ordered four more: a “No Whining” sign, “Believe in Yourself: You’re More Capable Than You Think”, “Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone”, and “Think: It’s Not Illegal Yet”. I plan on making a few more for classroom procedures and expectations, as well as (if I have time) a few of my favorite quotes with pictures of the person who said each.

“You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing and dance, and write poems and suffer and understand, for all that is life.”  – Jiddu Krishnamurti (philosopher)

“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more about the world than I knew yesterday — and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” — Niel deGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist)

“Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations…If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won’t exist because you’ll have already shut it out … You can hear other people’s wisdom, but you’ve got to re-evaluate the world for yourself.” — Mae Jemison (astronaut)

That’s all for now… I’m sure once I start getting down to the actual setup process much of this will change!

BTR Cohort X: The Musical

My roommate, Juliet, led several other intrepid members of BTR’s 10th Cohort in producing this cheesy tribute musical to our residency experience. If you’re savvy with some teaching terms, you’ll probably find it funny — though fair warning, it mostly consists of a non-stop stream of inside jokes.

And it probably goes without saying, but this is for fun, not representative of any entity we work for, and definitely very satirical.

And for those of you who can’t get the songs out of your heads (ahem), here is the soundtrack and all the lyrics so that you can sing along!


We’ll Make Teachers Outta You (parody of “Let’s Get Down to Business” from Mulan)

Let’s get down to business
To defeat the odds
Urban schools are awesome
When you got BTR

You’re the brightest bunch we’ve ever seen
But we’ve got some work to do
Somehow we’ll make teachers outta you

Thirteen months before us
You’ve got grades to keep
CTs give their orders
Don’t forget to sleep

You’re the fly-est, most connected lot
Cohort X, it’s up to you
Somehow we’ll make teachers outta you

I’m never gonna catch my breath
Say goodbye to those who knew me
Boy I’m really glad I’m not doing TFA
This rubric’s got us scared to death
Hope that they don’t see right through me
Now I really wish that I knew how to maintain high cognitive demand!

We must be quick as we make decisions
We must force it like a great typhoon
Making content accessible
With backwards planning you know
You’ll get there soon

Time is racing towards us
till the MCAS arrives
Use your data wisely
And you might survive
You’re unsuited for boring test prep
But assessment is near at hand!
Somehow you’ll find a way
To maintain high cognitive demand!



LPD SONG (parody of “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore)

White, white, white, white… (black) white, white, (latina), white white white white

I’m gonna go unpack
we’ve all got privilege from our station
I, I, I’m huntin’ looking for oppression
It’s social location

RESIDENTS (various):
Nah, walk up to the class like, “What up? I got a big diagram!”
I’m so pumped about the Cycle of Liberation, man!
Racism, ableism, it’s so damn costly
And now people always like, “Damn! That’s a sexist comment.”
Rollin’ in, hella deep, teachin’ for democracy
Dressin’ down, ‘cause we’re sweatin’ bullets up in here
Got my ‘Readings for Diversity and Social Justice’ with me
I don’t get what mattress of oppression means,
But shit, she said it ninety nine times! (Map it)

I see that racist code
You can’t target me no more
I feel contextual
Rich white men are in control
I see that racist code
You can’t target me no more
I feel contextual

[Repeat chorus]


BLMB (parody of “P.I.M.P.” by 50-Cent)

I don’t know what you heard about me
But ya can’t get a holla past me
When my students think I can’t see
I got the motha f***in BLMB

Don’t care what you think about me
But I got some tricks up my sleeve
For behavior managing
I got the motha f***in BLMB

Sup? It’s oozing down to the kids’ level
If you gotta call ‘em out, but don’t ever


 TEACHER’S DREAM (parody of “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry)

You think I’m aggie when I try to ask you “why”
You think I’m forcing whenever I make it hard
I know you want to, so I let it all roll off, roll off

Before I met you, teachers weren’t listening
I could BS them, but you think I’m sense-making
Wish you’d tell me when I’m right or wrong
Just right, right or wrong!

STU: Cognitive demand is high.
JULIE: Yeah it’s hard, but it’s love.
STU: When I’m wrong, you still ask why
JULIE: Cuz I know you as a learner!

You make me feel like I’m living a teacher’s dream
The way you turn and talk
I listen in, so I can warm call all your
Thoughts and reasoning your thoughts and reasoning
My heart stops, when you raise your hand
Wait time lifts the cognitive demand
Stop and jot, you guys are learning
Don’t ever look back, don’t ever look back

I’mma get you sense-making with my talk moves on
You’re my teacher’s dream today

Go ahead and turn and talk with your shoulder partner
You’re a teacher’s dream today…

Chorus (fades)


GATEWAY (parody of “Glamorous” by Fergie)

G-A-T-E-W-A-Y it’s the gateway x2

From our first class, back in July
When Jesse said he was white
He said get ready for all your at bats
And the gateway…
The gateway gateway

The gateway…

Goals and Principles I mean
Other things don’t mean a thing
CTEs and planning
Shopping for some grading pens
Get your rubric memorized
Got your at bat on rewind
Get your feedback in your mind
Hope that Marcie don’t come by

I still gotta do mine
At bats all right
Cognitive demand is high
I’ll be stayin’ up tonight
Drama with my CT
Conference with my CTE
All I wanna do is sleep
S’up with this intensity?

G-A-T-E-W-A-Y it’s the gateway x2


Why Teach? – BTR Promo Videos

My teaching residency program, Boston Teacher Residency, has released a series of video interviews about the program and about urban teaching. Including my colleagues Randyl and Malcolm, as well as yours truly! Check them out below:

Randyl Wilkerson giving an introduction to BTR:

Malcolm Jamal King on being a male teacher of color and why he chose to teach:

And here’s me talking about why I chose to change careers from engineering to teaching:

Saddle Up

Today was our last Science Content Methods course, which was a little sad. Not too much though, since I know I will be continuing to work with my classmates as colleagues and friends for quite awhile yet. One thing that was really nice was the opening of our “time capsule” of sorts. Last summer, in the third week of the program (seems like a decade ago), we wrote ourselves letters to be opened at the end of the year.  Here’s mine:



Wherever you find yourself, there you are.

(Live truthfully in your given circumstances.)

Saddle up.


It’s Getting Better

My latest blog post for BTR has just posted. Excerpt:

The last three months have been a slow climb out of the depths of January. I’ve seen my own teaching and confidence improve, and I’ve taken heart at the day to day achievements of my fellow residents as well. Looking back, March was definitely much busier than October, which was in turn an order of magnitude crazier than the summer. Looking ahead, I can tell I am going to be even busier yet with my own classroom next year; each new level of immersion in the profession, art, and craft of teaching is going to bring new and greater challenge.

But here is the difference: I feel so much more prepared for it now.

BTR: Lasting the Winter

My latest blog for BTR, Lasting the Winter, posted a couple of days ago. Here’s the takeaway:

The Dalai Lama reminds us that “it is under the greatest adversity that there exists the greatest potential for doing good, both for oneself and others.” So despite this dark, cold time in the residency, I have to believe that it will make us stronger—that it has made our love stronger. Though I’m sure most of us would be friends anyway under different circumstances, the very fact that we surely must pull together for each other, or all be that much more miserable, certainly should add both urgency and potency to the acts of kindness we reserve for our fellow residents. For, by extension, we cannot help but serve our common purpose thereby as well.

You can read the full post on the BTR program blog.

Looking Forward to Spring

So, long time no freaking update. November and December were absolutely crazy, and it’s been wonderful to be back home in California for the holidays to rest up and recharge before the plunge back into the spring. Looking back on the fall months, I can’t believe how much has happened. In some things, my core beliefs, particularly related to what I am doing, have been strengthened. In others, it seems that my perspective on things has changed and grown.

Foremost things on my mind:

1. Passing my Gateway.

I didn’t quite make full proficiency on my Fall Teaching Gateway, which is a difficult thing to deal with. The up side is, I got concrete, specific, and actionable feedback on aspects of where I was that were getting in the way of becoming the best educator I can be. It’s amazing what you don’t even notice about yourself except with careful self-analysis and feedback from others. I’ve been getting a lot of support in working on these things, and I already feel as if I have improved.  So, this is a good process, despite the increased stress level.

2. Philosophy of Education

The final paper prompt for our Language, Power, and Democracy class reads as follows:

In our positional authority, teachers consciously (or not) make a myriad of curricular, procedural and moral decisions that have significant implications for our students’ learning. These decisions are deeply informed by our educational philosophy, which is strongly shaped by our (fluid and often shifting) social location, life experiences and our political analysis of these.

For this assignment I invite you to clearly state your philosophy of education and analyze, through a
personal, intellectual and political lens, how your social location influences your beliefs around schooling and your role as a professional teacher in addressing systemic inequity.

This written work provides the space for you to continue articulating your philosophy of education
particularly as it pertains to questions of inquiry, equity, language, power, and democracy. You will also conduct an intellectual, political and personal analysis of your philosophy of education. Grounded in a clear reading of the historical forces, structural context and institutional practices that have contributed to the current status of public schooling, you will continue unpacking your personal histories to identify your own social location, how it fits in the larger context, and how your social location shapes your philosophy of education.

Finally, the assignment aspires to help you draw explicit connections between a teacher’s philosophy of education and social location on the one hand, and classroom practice, student learning, and knowledge construction on the other to ultimately shed light on the possibilities of creating, sustaining and nurturing democratic classrooms that contribute to delivering the promise of quality education for all.

Yeah, no pressure right? It sounds imposing, but actually, doing the readings and preparatory writings for this assignment has been one of the best experiences in BTR for me (at least on the academic end of things). I’ve been exposed to very powerful writings by intellectuals such as Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Jonathan Kozol, and Sonia Nieto which have built on my per-existing core beliefs while profoundly changing how I view those beliefs in the context of my life. I am now in the process of connecting these new thinkers with the ideas already in my personal canon — from my own thinking and also informed by my exposure to John Dewey, the Dalai Lama, Carl Sagan, Immanuel Kant, John F. Kennedy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nelson Mandela, and my own grandfather to name a few.

Condensing all of that into something concise and coherent to say about what I believe about education, particularly science education, is a daunting challenge — but one in which I am gladly immersing myself right now.

Maybe I’ll post some draft excerpts from that paper as I start getting my thoughts more solidified.

Recruiting STEM Professionals into Teaching

When I tell people that I went from working as a NASA research engineer to a transition into teaching physics in urban public schools, the response I most often get is something along the lines of “oh, how noble of you!” or perhaps “what a selfless thing to do!” I’ve been finding it difficult to react to these kinds of statements. There is nothing really wrong with this perspective I suppose, and I certainly don’t wish to appear as if I am ungrateful for the well-wishes of those who clearly intend to be positive and supportive of my career choice. But I have to confess to a nagging discomfort about what it feels like such statements imply.

Why is it assumed that my motivations for entering teaching were altruistic? That it is somehow a step down, or a sacrifice of some kind, or a service, for me as an educated and personally accomplished engineer to enter teaching? Why is this not applauded as a strong career choice to which I was aspiring and then achieved? I mean, it’s not like the BTR admissions process was a cakewalk; in fact, I don’t think I have ever been through such a rigorous screening (not even for NASA), nor have I ever before been in the same cohort with so many uniquely accomplished people as my present colleagues. And so far, teaching is among the hardest things I have done in my life — my no-kidding, dead-serious goal for last week was simply “suck less.” I’m certainly not here graciously bestowing my munificence on the yearning masses.

So why the implicit attitude that teaching is only for them that can’t do? Have we lost sight of the possibility that there could be so many reasons besides money or status to choose a profession? I chose teaching because I know it is an important profession that has a wide impact on people and our nation’s social well-being. I also like the daily challenge and creativity required when trying to manage the intersection of people and ideas all the time. These are important qualities for me.

I have no idea how to fix the tangled paradoxed of teaching entry, but I can say what I would ideally like to have in teaching as a profession. Want more trained scientists and engineers entering teaching? I can’t speak for everyone with a STEM degree, but here’s my stab at what my wishlist would have looked like for teaching just coming coming out of my undergrad with a Bachelors in Aerospace Engineering:

  • Actively recruit me. It probably hasn’t occurred to me that I could teach. Convince me based on how teaching is a meaningful, useful, and challenging career, and be able to truthfully tell me most of the following:
  • The offered starting salary need not be competitive with top engineering jobs, but it should be comfortable and secure.
  • Acknowledge that not all teachers are equal in effectiveness. My salary level above the baseline should depend solely on my merit as an educator.
  • Define merit as an educator as a combination of:
    a) Peer review of my teaching (by other respected teachers/colleagues, highest weight factor)
    b) Positive outcomes for students (prepared for future classes/college, increased scores on authentic assessments of skills that matter)
    c) Contribution to the field (making my practice open and public, publishing and sharing results from both innovation and failure in my classroom, attending conferences, collaborating with and assisting other teachers, mentoring, etc)
  • Acknowledge that not all teaching positions are created equal.
    a) Actively incentivize needed specialties such as STEM, ESL, and Special Education.
    b) Actively incentivize needed placements such as rural and urban schools.
  • Affirm that the following factors are irrelevant to student learning, hence irrelevant to my performance as an educator, and hence irrelevant to my pay/incentives:
    a) standardized test scores
    b) time in grade / time in service
    c) tenure
  • Don’t make tenure a given or a time-dependent milestone. Challenge me to earn it.
    a) The primary factor in granting tenure is the assessment of my peers and colleagues, my fellow educators.
    b) The primary factor in revoking tenure is the assessment of my peers and colleagues, my fellow educators.
    c) Grant me tenure only if I demonstrate the long-term potential to innovate and/or perform exceptionally. If I don’t need to excel to earn it, I don’t feel like it’s an achievement.
  • I recognize that teaching is it’s own profession and that content knowledge is not the same thing as knowing how to teach. But I’m an engineer and I already have a degree.
    a) Don’t try and get me to buy into theory; teach me to teach with case studies and a rigorous, practicum-based program that embeds me in the environment I’ll be teaching in. I’ll learn the theory I need to know through practice. I’ll read the textbooks if I decide to do a doctorate in education, not before.
    b) Don’t patronize me and risk a year of lost learning for students by letting me teach before I’m ready. I don’t want to be coddled — I want to be prepared.

Hmm. Acceptable list for now. I may revise it later. Thoughts from other STEM professionals or post-secondary students? What would teaching as a profession have to look like for you to seriously consider teaching? Would these suggestions improve or harm the perceived status of the profession to you and those with whom you interact most?