The Very Spring and Root

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

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teaching

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:



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.



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?



Gender Gaps in Engineering and Teaching

Katie Mangan over at the Chronicle of Higher Education has posted an article called In Terms of Gender, Engineering and Teaching Are Lopsided – Diversity in Academe. The article includes a photo and some quotes from me.

I don’t think it comes across well in the article, and this is probably just due to how I phrased things, but it’s not so much that I see myself as a role model for girls to go into STEM careers (for starters, I’m not female).  Rather, I see it as part of my job to ignore what society tells anyone that they can’t do and focus on bringing out what they can do. That includes women in STEM fields, among a vast array of other demographic disparities. Mangan’s article does draw needed attention to this important issues, and I’m glad I had the conversation with her.

To take a step back though and look at the big picture… I think the gender gap in any profession, including teaching and engineering, has a lot to do with the perceived status of the profession. That’s why I got raised eyebrows for my career move (that and maybe the salary hit) — not because engineering is “testosterone-fueled” as Mangan writes. (What does that mean anyway? That engineering requires testosterone to run? I disagree with that perhaps unintentionally reinforcing implication.)

The real question some people were wondering, whether consciously or not, was why would I want to voluntarily move from what society treats as a high status profession to one it treats as a low status one?

By extension then, we see the layer underneath: despite the advances women have made in graduation rates, they are still unconsciously relegated to lower status within almost any profession. It’s not a huge leap to predict from there that our highest status professions (doctors, law firm partners, CEOs, superstar athletes, engineers, etc) are going to be predominantly male. We can claim neo-liberalism all we want, but the statistics repeatedly show that our underlying assumptions and how we have chosen to structure society are still infused with inequities — among them, allowing women to reach their potential in all fields.

We have a long way to go, on so many issues. It starts in the classroom. Which is why I’m here.



Roxanna Elden on hanging in there

Roxanna Elden, as interviewed on NPR, said exactly what I needed right now:

ELDEN: First of all, you have to hang in there because you have to know that it’s that time of year. And also, it helps to know I think, the great teachers of the future know they’re not great yet. They want so badly to be everything that these students need them to be, but at the same time they are very hard on themselves when they fall short. So if you have those moments where you’re wondering – like what I wondered was, you know, how did these teachers get – these kids get stuck with a teacher like me, that can actually be a sign of kind of a point in your growth. It’s a low point that it still points in becoming a teacher that you hope to be.

I was pretty hard on myself earlier this week when I was grading lab reports. It was just so painfully clear in retrospect how I should have structured the lab differently. Seems like the students did learn about applying some experimental techniques, but there are still some raging misconceptions about acceleration. Considering the amount of time and effort it took on the part of both students and instructors to arrive at only a small amount of apparent learning, this was a costly error. However, it was valuable too, and I just need to keep that in mind and make the right changes for next time.



Literacy in the Science Classroom

I’ve been thinking a lot about literacy across the curriculum since I took a class called… well, Literacy Across the Curriculum. As a science teacher in training, I suppose one might wonder why I would want to think so much about literacy, but the more I do the more I realize how important it will be.

Literacy as a goal is an important prerequisite for science instruction as it is a primary means by which science content is accessed. In other words, a student’s aptitude for, learning of, and/or inclination towards science may be irrelevant if they are unable to read the textbook, write what they know on an exam, or share their thoughts with peers. This means that it isn’t enough to simply focus on content. Literacy as the means by which science is accessed in effect makes it my job as a science teacher to ensure functional literacy in my students.

Literacy as a process is also an important tool that may be used to open up many oft-neglected aspects of science education. I am saddened and/or annoyed when I come across people who assume science is little more than crunching equations, sitting at a computer, or conducting solitary experiments in an isolated laboratory. But given how education and the media present science to the public, who can blame them?

Science which is politicized suffers from accusations of manipulative agendas, and the science which touches on contemporary social issues is often labeled as “controversial” or “disputed.” Human-caused climate change, the link between vaccinations and autism, the veracity of Darwinian evolution, ethical considerations of genetic engineering, the origins of our planet and universe, the appropriateness of funding for scientific endeavors — these are all issues in contemporary American life that are highly interwoven with scientific research and discourse. There are many more examples ranging from the mundane to the cosmic. Nearly every aspect of daily modern life is influenced by science, yet in many cases, science education can remain far removed from a place of relevance in students’ lives.

It seems to me that as education experiences a push towards increasing quantification in the name of accountability, the scientific and mathematical disciplines have been particularly susceptible to a systematic gutting of all that is not quantifiable. The ease with which certain aspects of science and math (e.g. numeracy and equation solving) may be quantified has made it just as easy to push out the “fuzzier” aspects of these two disciplines, reinforcing a negative feedback loop of misconception regarding what science actually is.

Real science cannot ever be de-politicized or de-socialized. Science is always conducted towards some end, and these ends are driven (and funded) based on socio-political objectives and needs. To isolate science from the other disciplines and focus purely on its quantitative aspects is to strip science of its essential humanity, and relegate it to the safe sterility of some abstract laboratory in the public imagination.

Ironically, it is imagination that is perhaps the most neglected aspect of science education. Science is two-sided in this fashion. On the one hand, study of what is, how the world works and our relationship to it. On the other, it must also be an imagining of what could be. The latter aspect is the core of what drives innovation, research, and scientific progress, and it is tied intimately with cross-disciplinary, out-of-the-box thinking.

This will be a major focus of my residency year I think. Lot’s to try and figure out here, maybe for the rest of my career.



Man Up: Be a Teacher

Something about my visit to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative a couple of weeks ago stuck with me, and it’s only recently that my percolating thoughts on the matter have condensed into something bloggable.

During the welcome presentation, a gentleman from the board of DSNI (or possibly DSNCS) came in to say hi. He spoke briefly but warmly. On the way out he turned and added: “And by the way. Fellas. Where you at? Stand up, stand up. [applause] Fellas, I’m glad you’re here. Ladies too, but fellas… thank you for being here.”

At the time, I was caught off guard by the attention and the words. I think that was the first time it really directly occurred to me that I might want to think about what it means to be a male teacher.

Among my reading since then has been G. Jeffrey MacDonald’s article in the Christian Science Monitor, “Too Few Good Men.” The following passage really hit a chord:

On the one hand, a recent survey shows that men continue to shun the field of early childhood education for seemingly timeless reasons: low pay, low status, and stereotypes about teaching youngsters as being a feminine endeavor. Add to the list a heightened fear of being accused of sexual abuse, and the result is a field saddled with a mounting image problem when it comes to recruiting men.

On the other hand, many children without a father at home crave a male presence in the predominantly female domain of elementary school. And as the push for more male teachers grows, a chorus of voices is delivering a fresh case for why men should consider teaching youngsters: They need what men have to offer uniquely as men.

“We all need someone to emulate,” says Bryan Nelson, a former teacher and director of MenTeach, a Minnesota-based organization for the recruitment of male teachers. “Men show boys what they could become. And girls need to see a nurturing male in order to see what kind of men they’d like to have in their lives.”

I then tried looking at Census data to help me characterize the issue in my head, and discovered via KidsCount that 55% of Boston’s children are growing up in a single-parent home (2010). Of all single-parent families, approximately 84% (nationally) are headed by women. One estimate puts the proportion of fatherless homes in urban communities at around 70%.

So the upshot is that there has been a dawning realization over the last few weeks that this isn’t just about poverty, good science education, and closing the achievement gap — in many cases, I might actually be one of a very few men, and perhaps even the only male role model, consistently in the day-to-day life of my students.

By no stretch does that mean that I should, or even can, replace a father figure. But it does mean that I have the potential to create a profoundly positive or negative impact on how my students, of either gender, view men and deal with men in their adult lives. I will be part of a fabric that can help fight gender role stereotypes, strengthen character, and redefine what “manhood” means to the next generation. That’s a humbling and empowering thought.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. The flip side of the male teacher issue hardly needs explication. Just Google for “male teacher” in the news. As Lauren Cox puts it in “The Mistrusted Male Teacher” :

Nelson, who took a graduate fellowship at Harvard to study men in secondary school teaching, found that overzealous suspicions of sexual abuse are one of the top three reasons why the teaching profession doesn’t draw more men. From his research, the other two reasons are perceptions about men’s nurturing abilities and low social status combined with low pay.

Graham Holley, chief executive of the Training and Development Agency for Schools (U.K.) spells it out more explicitly:

“In my view, the biggest obstacle is society’s attitude. Men are deterred, partly because there is a prurient element of society that questions the motivation when men wish to work closely with young children.

“That is an immensely sad indictment of the way, in this so-called enlightened century, we can still be so uncritically suspicious of people who share the most selfless of motives: to help improve young lives.

“This fear of being labelled a pedophile is the single biggest deterrent to men who would otherwise consider teaching in our primary schools”

(quoted by Martin Beckford in The Telegraph)

That particular quote is for primary school, in which we have the most severe dearth of male teachers, and you can find plenty more with a simple internet search. While I acknowledge the particularly high need for male teachers at the primary school level, I also couldn’t search for “Male High School Teacher” (or any variants) without having to wade through news media on sexual abuse, teacher-student sex scandals, and harassment allegations.

As an unmarried male in my twenties going into a high school classroom, this clearly has an effect on how others will perceive me and how I perceive my roles and boundaries. The implicit message I’m getting is “Toe the line, or you’re done. Even if you do toe the line, you might be done anyway.” That is, even if I do nothing wrong, the system appears to have perception bias and suspicion against me from the start. How do I reconcile this with what everyone agrees is a huge need for more healthy and appropriate adult male relationships with youth?

On the one hand, I have a powerful chance to be a much-needed positive male role model for my students, including adolescent female students. On the other hand, I may have to be fighting a constant uphill battle against society’s perceptions of the teaching profession as it relates to masculinity.

This is whole thing is not a light subject it turns out, and by the way I haven’t even taught yet, so I’m sure this will be an evolving reflection over the next few years and perhaps beyond. I don’t have answers to these questions, and maybe I won’t for a long time. I’m still excited for the challenge though.

On a more amusing note, Nelson (quoted in Cox, cited above) also appears to hold a dim view of the effect my career transition from research engineering to teaching will have on my dating life:

“And if you’re a single man and you’re going out to date somebody, when they ask you ‘what do you do?’ it just doesn’t have the same cache [sic] as saying I’m an engineer or a scientist.”

I guess I wasn’t aware that science nerds and enginerds were a particularly hot commodity; though to be fair, I don’t think I ever tried the “hey baby, I’m a rocket scientist” line at a bar. The times I could have had… ah well, too late now. Guess I might as well work on that positive male role model schtick and see what that does for me. It’s not like it’s rocket science — in fact, I think it might be harder.



My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation Of Underprivileged Kids vs. Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher

Link: My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation Of Underprivileged Kids vs. Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher

Ahhhh, The Onion. Yep. This sort of speaks for itself.



A little light evening reading…



Is intelligence something you have, or something you get?

It’s only two days into orientation, and we don’t even start formal classes until next Monday. But already there has been much in BTR to challenge me and prompt reflection.

In the first place, the cohort is incredibly diverse, not just in ethnic background and gender but also in content area, family social class, politics, perspectives, and preferred approach to intellectual discussion. The very fact of such a broad cross-section of people in the same room, all educated and passionate, is bound to create a sense of hugeness to this endeavor. We also realize that, in order to effectively address our common purpose, we must face head-on a disturbingly large number of interconnected issues together, all of which even individually are normally “third rail” topics in polite and professional conversation. The resulting mix is as charged as a thunderstorm, yet affirming and heady at the same time.

My favorite discussion so far has been a small-group breakout session on Resnik and Hall’s “Principles of Learning for Effort-Based Education”. In it, the two authors explore the social and cultural forces that shape how we Americans often harbor misconceptions about the nature of aptitude, effort, and intelligence. They attempt to create a new working definition for “intelligence” based on cognitive and social science research. I won’t summarize the whole nuanced article here, but rather focus on a specific facet:

The core problem is that our strong belief in the importance of intelligence and aptitude leads to a devaluing of effort.

Most of the discussion focused on the the negative side of this (i.e. that low expectations of students can drive a self-fulfilling cycle of low-performance), and I think deservedly so since this is a central impediment to learning in urban schools. However, in reflecting later, I wondered if unreasonable positive expectations might be detrimental in their own way too.

An example, using “positive” ethnic stereotypes. I remember a Filipino friend of mine telling me that growing up, she was afraid of being seen as “the dumb Asian”, and therefore was afraid of doing anything that might reveal incompetence or lack of knowledge. In other words, the superficially positive perception that Asians (both east and south) somehow have a natural aptitude for learning and “just get it” or are “just smart” can make them feel socially pressured to appear as if they understand and don’t need to put in a high amount of effort to do so. Outwardly, they may have become good at “faking it”, latching onto key phrases and repackaging them for their peers and teachers, but inwardly they may really want to ask a question or admit they don’t understand the why and the how. Or, they may decline to use study hours to indicate that they are above all that, but make things harder for themselves later when they have to rush in privacy. Thus, a great amount of material is memorized and repackaged (great for standardized test scores and even grades in many classrooms), but little in the way of actual thinking and learning have taken place.

In any of these cases, the student’s learning is still compromised by a devaluing of effort brought on by perceptions of intelligence and aptitude, even though the perception is, on the surface, a positive one.

Anyway, soooo many more thoughts on this and other subjects, but alas, many other items on the to-do list at the moment. Summary: I love this program, and can’t wait for Day 3 tomorrow (we got the day off for the holiday).

Next on the list: beer and socializing with my new cohort! Very important.

Happy Independence Day everyone! Toward a more perfect union…




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