The Very Spring and Root

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

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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?



“Just” a Teacher

EdWeek recently ran an interesting article on the social status of teachers in this country vs abroad. The opening paragraphs of the article got me thinking right away:

One of the most troubling things that the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, hears about her profession can be summed up in a single observation: the idea that she and other top-performing colleagues are “just” teachers.

The word “just” serves as a reminder of a subtle mindset among some in the United States that a career in K-12 teaching, while considered noble, is nevertheless somehow seen as beneath the capacity of talented young men and women.

The response that I have received to my decision to change careers from research engineering to teaching has been mixed. Family and close friends have been overwhelmingly supportive, and I am grateful for that; I’m certainly going to need all the positive thoughts I can get. Even the colleagues here at NASA, the ones whom I will soon be leaving, have responded in large part with inspired encouragement. For example, even though I am not leaving for 4-5 more months, three coworkers have already stopped by with donations of references, materials, posters, and objects for my future science classroom.

However, NASA is itself a place full of intelligent, passionate, idealistic people, so perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised at this kind of a response from my coworkers. The general public response when the subject has been brought up is more along the lines of “Wow… that’s pretty cool. But that’s insane. Why would you do that?”

Certainly there are very practical reasons to not do what I did, but the underlying problem is an ugly one: why should it have to be such a sacrifice to teach? As much as people say they see individual teachers as noble and pursuing high calling, the same people seem on the whole opposed to putting through the reforms we need to address this.  Because simultaneously, these same people (us, we) are the voters, who are reluctant to raise salaries for a profession which as a collective is increasingly being perceived as bureaucratically bloated, ineffective, and even overpaid.

I don’t buy it. There may indeed be areas of mismanagement, wasteful bureaucracy, and antagonistic protectionism that need fixing, but on the whole I think JFK had it right:

Modern cynics and skeptics … see no harm in paying to those whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.
— John F. Kennedy

It’s half a century later… and here we still are.

How do we make it so that a qualified engineer deciding to go into teaching isn’t a big deal, isn’t seen as something crazy, but is maybe even lauded as an achievement? I don’t think all of that has to do with money, though money certainly is a factor. There’s also the concept of professionalism, which implies a sense of individual discretion in the approach to the objective. There is independence from criticism arising from external entities. There is the perceived selectivity of entry. Addressing each of these will require a hard look at training, standards, personnel practices, and how the money gets spent. Only in conjunction with this can we credibly ask for the commitment to increase spending on education overall.

Beyond all this though, is a more fundamental issue: there must be a respect for the end result of the service being provided.

I shared the above article with Dr. Christian Gelzer, a historian and former professor of history. He is also someone I count as a valued confidante and mentor. I quote his response below, with permission:

If you denigrate a pursuit, as Americans have done for teaching for generations and generations, what more can one expect? I still point to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life as a pivotal work on the subject because he traced a genuine animosity toward intellectual activity from the late Colonial period on. Even better, it won the Pulitzer that year, most ironic. Think of all those who “made it” without book learnin’ and you’ve got a list of American greats, including Andrew Carnegie, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, to list but three. Even Thomas Jefferson had a warm spot in his heart for people of the soil, far warmer than he ever had for those who created factories (stuff that took brains). This isn’t a recent problem in the US and it won’t be fixed in five lifetimes, I’ll wager. The culture simply does not, has not, and never will value the likes of JQ Adams or those who—and I think this is integral to the problem—would pursue a calling or career not because it gives the best income, but because it rewards the soul and contributes to the commonweal one is a part of in a nation. Those are downright impolitic things to say.

I was a teacher, albeit at a different level, and I was forever frustrated by the abject indifference my former profession held for teaching—indeed, I was warned many times not to say that I liked teaching when I went on a job interview. I was never taught how to teach, doubtlessly because my mentors could not have cared less about the act, and because they probably assumed we’d all pick up what little we needed to get by by stumbling through it the first time. I enjoyed teaching, I relished trying to figure out how to get students to understand why we keep harping on the Romans so many centuries later, or why looking for the ones who make the decisions about things can be really rewarding, even when the culprits (I say that fondly) had the peculiarities of Nikola Tesla. You could no sooner make someone a teacher in 6 weeks than you could make a carrier-qualified F-18 navy pilot in 6 weeks, and anyone who says so or thinks so is as dumb as a bag of hammers. But will we as a nation, as a people ever come around to the idea of having our children aching for the chance to become a teacher?

I have to agree in large part with Christian’s sentiments. A culture that has devolved to, for example, demand that a candidate for office mask, or even apologize for, the fact that he or she is an educated intellectual is not a culture which will be sustainable as a democracy. Yet this this happens all the time today. See if you can count how often President Obama has been characterized as an “out-of-touch liberal elitist” for his “condescending and professorial” manner. Sure, he is remarkably well-educated; but regardless of one’s politics it says something when demagogues can successfully apply those labels to him despite the fact that he grew up well outside of the elite class in a single-parent home, slept on the street in an alleyway the first night he moved to Harlem, and was working as a community organizer in the south-side projects of Chicago.

How do we turn around that culture? Is it even possible to associate status with knowledge in a country in which some educators make as little as $20,000 or so per year and our celebrities and athletes make hundreds of millions? Not that those figures need to be reversed, but the the distance between those extremes should at least be… well, less extreme.

The money issue and the rigor issue are controversial subjects full of heated debate today. What is sobering is that they seem to be only the surface expression of a much deeper problem. And I have no idea what to do about that.  All I know is I’m going to try and be the best educator I can be, and hopefully the path forward will become clearer as I go.




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