The Very Spring and Root

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

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why teach

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:



Aside  Comment

Teaching Underground just posted some Friday Inspiration for the teachers who follow that blog. An excerpt:

Every day I influence the minds of a generation of youth.  Probably more than 100 kids a year care more about what I say than the President.  Decisions that I make every day will impact the quality of life for over 100 kids more directly than legislative decisions.  One hundred children-citizens of my county will learn from me whether they can name the members of our school board or not.  Lot’s of people can claim that they are “in it for the children” but I’m in it so deep that my contribution can be measured.



Why I Didn’t Choose TFA

The most common question I get when I explain what I am going off to Boston to do is: “Oh, so like Teach for America?” I’m never quite sure how to respond to that, but the immediate association between lateral entry into teaching and Teach for America makes me uncomfortable now. The answer is no, I’m not doing something like TFA, and for very good reasons.

On the surface, Boston Teacher Residency and Teach for America appear to have much in common, and indeed I applied to, and was accepted to, both programs. They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides. They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits, and send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools. They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

So what’s the difference? As a good applicant should, I was continuously researching both of these organizations throughout the application process, in order to make an informed decision. What I discovered under the surface surprised and disturbed me, even some of what I got straight from TFA staff themselves.

Bear in mind, I am a new BTR recruit… I do not in any way speak for the program or anyone else but myself. This is purely based off of my research into the issues and my personal experience with the application processes of these organizations.

Let me go point by point.

They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides.

Not much surface-level difference here. But when it comes to strategy, there is a world of difference. BTR is a partnership with the existing system, taking what already works in public education and distilling the best elements thereof to improve itself. It is locally-focused and has a holistic, long-term investment in the communities it serves. This seems far better aligning with the true problem in teacher staffing, which is not recruitment, but retention[pdf] of qualified individuals.

By contrast, TFA is a large, national non-profit organization, whose members for the most part leave after their two-year commitment. TFA claims a roughly 60% retention rate of corps members “staying in education” after their 2-year stint, though they include those who have gone on to other positions in education besides the classroom, as well as those who have moved out of their initial high-needs assignment. Counting these factors brings the percentage down to about 44%. By the fifth year, slightly less than 15% remain.

As for BTR? Fully 80% of those hired in the program’s ten-year history are still teaching in Boston Public Schools.

They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits.

The first part of this statement is unequivocally true. Never in applying to undergraduate programs, graduate schools, or three employers (including NASA) have I experienced such a varied gauntlet as those to which these programs subjected me. Application questions, several essays, content examinations, responses to articles and videos, observation of group interaction and teamwork, multiple interviews, demonstration of the practice… there is no question that both of these programs are highly selective.

But what about the second part of the statement, about rigorous training? BTR offers a 13-month masters in education program, including full licensure in your subject, incorporating a full school year of mentorship in an urban school modeled on a medical residency… and they give it to you at effectively no charge, before you are placed into a classroom as a teacher of record for other people’s children. Following this, they offer ongoing mentoring and support as residents develop and grow as educators. Many of my fellow candidates at the final Selection Day were career-changers or had post-graduate experience in their field of study or in education.

By contrast, TFA compresses your training into a 5-week Institute, in which the most hands-on training you get is small classes of summer students. A masters degree is possible in most assignment regions, but is generally on your own time and dime… in addition to simultaneously teaching full-time, getting credentialed (because you entered the classroom on an emergency or waiver credential), and participating in TFA programming. As far as I could tell, all but two of my fellow candidates at the final interview day were undergraduate fresh-outs.

Now, I have done some challenging things in my life, but I do not in any way feel prepared to teach, let alone teach in a failing urban school, just based on my content knowledge, experience, and idealism. Maybe I’m misjudging the scale of the challenge, but right now I seriously can’t believe that someone would choose to send in such inexperienced young people (intelligent and high-achieving though they may be) into our most challenging schools. Especially when there is an option for more rigorous preparation that doesn’t cost you as much and allows you to focus on learning to teach before you actually enter the field!

Unless… unless the goal isn’t to recruit, retain, and grow long-term educators…

They both send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools.

Again, on the surface-level, absolutely true. But considering what I have gone over already, particularly about preparation, what am I to conclude about the nature of the program and the intentions of its applicants? What does each program incentivize?

I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that TFA appears to incentivize the entry of those in a hurry or those in it to check off a box. The core problem in our public schools is retaining high-quality teachers in high-needs areas. If you are in this for the short term, you are probably going to do more harm than good for your students by becoming a teacher. By all means, get involved through volunteering, advocacy, fundraising, or mentoring… but don’t use the futures of your students as collateral for your own idealistic goals.  If you are not in this for the short-term (but still don’t want to go through the traditional schools of education), why go with a program like TFA when so many residency programs with more rigor and preparation exist?

I found myself asking the question, whose interests are best served by the approach of each of these programs, the students or the recruits? The nation absolutely needs every talented, intelligent, passionate, and creative person it can muster to the cause of improving our education system. But if an additional year of preparation and a long-term view of that on which you are about to embark deter you, then I would suggest that you are getting into teaching for the wrong reasons.

They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

In light of the previous discussion, there isn’t much left to add here. I’ll just leave you with a link to a great article in Rethinking Schools, Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America.

In the end, it really wasn’t much of a question… the reasoning, given what I have discovered and more importantly what I value, pointed to one clear choice, and I took it. Boston, here I come.



Resignation Letter to Colleagues

From: Ratnayake, Nalin A. (DFRC-RA)
Date: Thu, 26 Jan 2012 15:03:59 -0600
Subject: saddle up

Dear Colleagues,

It will be awhile yet before this takes effect, but I wanted you to hear about this on my own terms, not through vague rumors. Today I gave notice that I will be resigning from my present position as an aerospace research engineer at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center by the end of May 2012.

NASA has been very kind to me. In my five and a half years here, Dryden has afforded me the opportunity to accrue unique engineering knowledge, a masters degree, and a life-changing leadership development experience. I also feel honored to have had the privilege of working with some of the most creative and intelligent people I have ever met. The best part about Dryden is definitely its people, and I will miss you.

Notwithstanding my gratitude for these opportunities, I have been unable to ignore a stronger calling within me, one which has been simmering for years and only recently boiled over into action. I will be leaving Dryden for the intellectual trenches – to the front lines of a social inequity that has been a thorn in my brain for a long time.

I have been accepted to, and have accepted an offer from, the Boston Teacher Residency, on a track for teaching high school physics. After a one-year immersive Masters in Education program, including a rigorous mentoring process focused on holistic urban community development and modeled on a medical residency, graduates are placed into urban schools in struggling communities with the greatest need for their skills. I have been quite humbled by the qualifications, experience, and character of my fellow inductees to BTR’s 10th Cohort.

My motivations are largely personal. I recognize that I will be taking a significant pay cut and leaving a relatively secure federal research position for a profession whose respect and security are paradoxically coming increasingly under fire, even as we recognize more and more its value to society. However, I will not pass up the chance to join this movement.

The primary motivation for everything I have seriously pursued in my life has always been social relevance. My interest in engineering was only partially about technical fascination; it was more broadly about engineering being a crossroads of people and ideas for the benefit of society. I dreamed of working for NASA as a kid because I suppose I saw it as the very bleeding edge of what was possible in peaceful research and exploration; the place where we take on the hardest things our species can imagine, and through succeeding (or even trying), we unlock the benefits for our fellow human beings.

But from a broader perspective, one need only pay marginal attention to the state of our nation to see a whole host of fronts in sore need of creative, passionate, and motivated people undaunted by the odds or the magnitude of the objective. For example, education. The students that are the majority in our urban schools are 3.5 times more likely to grow up in poverty, and subject to its debilitating effects on learning and achievement in the aggregate. In some urban districts, graduation rates are as low as 8%. The situation is even more dire in math and science, fields in which we as a nation have been particularly negligent in preparing the future of our economic and national security, health and welfare, and innovative prowess. The need for qualified science and math teachers over the next ten years is estimated to top 500,000, as roughly two million teachers retire while the student population continues to grow. Hardest hit will be the poor districts that subsist on a never-ending series of long-term, under-qualified substitutes… because there is no one else, and frankly hasn’t been for a long time. The nation that could put a man on another celestial body for the sake of a political principle can’t do better than that by our own classrooms?

To be perfectly honest, I stared at the acceptance form for days before I decided to just turn off my brain, close my eyes, and click yes. In my heart I already knew, but I thought I had to also convince my brain… but there is no way that would have ever happened, because I admit that there is no logical reason to do this. Service to an ideal often inherently entails a modicum of irrational risk; it will never “make sense” to do it in a material context. But had I turned this down, at this point in my life when I have the clear opportunity, am free of debt, and am as of yet unrestricted by any dependents… I think I would have regretted it for a long time. So, as my awareness of these injustices has grown, my individual success has taken on new context: I have decided that it is time to pay it forward, in return for all that this country has enabled me and my family to achieve.

The impending massive turnover in the leadership of private and public institutions over the next decade will soon give our generation the opportunity to make significant positive change in the world.

I hope that in the next chapters of my life I can do justice to the level of gratitude I feel to the experiences, friends, and colleagues I have been fortunate to encounter in this one. Thank you for helping to make me who I am, and for preparing me for what lies ahead. In return, I pledge to work very hard to improve the scientific literacy and curiosity of the electorate supporting your work, set an example for raising the bar on who we as a society want in our most important profession (as many in it already do daily), and to hopefully send you many intelligent, curious, and smartass interns.

I will be around for a few months yet, so you have plenty of time to attempt to inform me that I’m crazy. But this is already locked in. Soon it will be time to saddle up and see if my principles can survive the trenches of reality… time to try and build a better world.

Nalin.



Tradeoffs – Or: Exhibit A on Why We Should Pay Teachers More

Excerpt from a conversation with a coworker here at NASA Dryden, in my personal opinion one of the smartest people we have. Note that he knows I’m considering a career opportunity, but he doesn’t know at this point what it is. I presume the assumption is that I am going for another engineering-related position.

So, two rocket scientists were walking down the tarmac…

Me: Yeah, I’m still thinking about it. It’s a tradeoff. I really believe in the mission of the organization, but I just want to make sure I’m not doing something stupid. It would be a lot less pay, and I don’t know what to do about the house and all my stuff. It’s a lot to give up.

Coworker: I say go for it, if you think you can do it. That kind of passion for something greater, that’s worth so much more. Like, one time, I was thinking about teaching you know? Math. I would love that. I know I could help students learn to love it like I do.

Me: Why didn’t you?

Coworker: I have to support my parents now. There’s no way. Even if I didn’t have that, you know, it would be nice to support a family. I had this one math teacher… made Calc fun and understandable. I wish I could do that. But yeah, there’s no way. I could go into engineering which is so much more secure, so yeah, it made no sense to go teach.

So… yeah. Do we need to pay our teachers like rocket scientists? Maybe, maybe not. The better question is: what would a rocket scientist teaching and mentoring your kids every day for a school year be worth to you?

I’m single, debt-free, and without dependents; futhermore, I have the academic qualifications and work experience to return to engineering if teaching really doesnt work out. Though I would be giving up a lot to do this, I can actually seriously consider it without having to make these kinds of tradeoffs. Should highly qualified people who want to teach have to pit their desire to make a difference against the material security of their families?



Letter of Intent, Draft 3

Here is another take on my previously posted draft letter of intent. Thanks to Vihangi, Amy, Aleks, and Julia for the proofreads and feedback.

I seek to join Teach for America in order to directly address our nation’s most dire of inequities: the disparity in the quality of accessible education across social demographics. I know that through Teach For America, I cannot directly ease poverty or fix broken families. I can, however, enable these students to break out of the prison of social class, to which they have been relegated by fate and forgotten by their nation. In a world of systemic racial and socio-economic divides, quality education is the only equalizer – the only pathway that can empower individuals of any background to reach their potentials.

As the successful child of immigrants to this country, I have truly lived the American Dream. Yet, I know that I was fortunate to have been born under two very serendipitous circumstances. My parents were educated and were likely headed for successful careers before coming here; and while my family has never been what I would term wealthy, neither have I ever been in need of the foundations on which individual merit can actually build success. Many students across our nation lack even these basic elements – such as stable families, freedom from hunger and violence, and a supportive community. As my awareness of these injustices has grown, my individual success has taken on new context: I realize that it is time for me to pay it forward, in return for all that this country has enabled me to achieve.

As a NASA research engineer, I have been honored to work with some of the world’s most creative, passionate, and intelligent people on the cutting-edge engineering challenges of today: energy, environment, transportation, and exploration. Addressing these challenges requires viewing science as something much grander and more beautiful than a dry sequence of memorized facts. Science is applied curiosity – powered by wonder, and expressed through the language of mathematics. I intend to instill this perspective by setting a personal example of hardworking grit and a curious mind. I would also make full use of my experience to bring an array of practical applications to the forefront of my pedagogy.

As an engineer, I know that any credible metric of success must be rooted in quantifiable results. However, in addition to increasing performance on standardized exams, there are qualities which are far more critical to our nation’s scientific competitiveness. The true test of the scientist is to apply creative innovation to solving challenging, integrated problems. Evidence of these qualities in my students would be my personal metric of success. I would strive daily to cultivate them in my students by incorporating critical thinking, oral and written communication, and creative design in my lessons and grading metrics to the greatest degree possible. I know that an integrated, creative, and applied approach to science and mathematics will inspire the individual success of my students and provide them with opportunities to meet the local, national, and global technical challenges of tomorrow.



And… Steve Jobs for the Tipping Point

The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.



Letter of Intent, Draft 1

Draft below, wrote this on the train back from Sac yesterday… any feedback? 500-word limit (I think it is 503 words at the moment).

On the letter of intent, make sure you answer the questions thoroughly. It’s a good idea to begin with an outline to make sure you fully answer the questions in a meaningful way. Here are the questions asked for the letter of intent:

1. Why do you seek to join Teach For America?
2. What would you hope to accomplish as a corps member?
3. How would you determine your success as a corps member?

 _____________________________________________________________

As the successful child of immigrants to this country, I have truly lived the American Dream. Yet even as I reflect on my achievements, I know that I had the good fortune to have been born under two very serendipitous circumstances. My parents were already educated and were likely headed for successful careers before coming here; and while my family has never been what I would term wealthy, neither have I ever been in true need of the basic foundations on which individual merit can actually build success. My sense of justice aches for the students across our nation and the world who lack even these basic elements – such as stable families, freedom from hunger and violence, and a supportive community – yet are still expected to achieve greatness with the same (or less) investment as those born to comparative privilege.

Realizing the American Dream has turned me into the worst kind of idealist – the stubborn kind. The knowledge of preventable human suffering (or loss of potential) is an ever-present reminder that no matter how much I achieve as an individual, my true happiness can never be fulfilled until I share what I have gained with those who are less fortunate. I know that through Teach For America, I cannot directly ease poverty or fix broken families. I can, however, enable those students who need it most to break out of the prison of social class – to which they have been relegated by fate and forgotten by their nation.

My desire is to bring the wonder for the physical world that I have experienced in my career to the classrooms of these students. As a corps member, I hope to provide the catalyst for scientific literacy that our least-privileged students need. As a NASA research engineer, I have been honored to work with some of the world’s most creative, passionate, and intelligent people on the cutting-edge engineering challenges of today: energy, environment, transportation, and exploration. Addressing these challenges requires viewing science as something much grander and more beautiful than a dry sequence of memorized facts. Science is applied curiosity – powered by wonder, and expressed through the language of mathematics. I intend to instill this perspective by setting a personal example of hardworking grit and a curious mind. I would also make full use of my experience to bring an array of practical applications to the forefront of my pedagogy.

As an engineer, I know that any credible metric of success must be rooted in quantifiable results. But in addition to increasing performance on exams, there are qualities which are far more critical to our nation’s scientific competitiveness. I know that the true test of the scientist is to apply creative innovation to challenging, integrated problems. This skill is difficult to measure. However, I would strive daily to instill this quality in my students, and its reflection would be a key metric of gauging my own success at enabling their own American Dreams.

(Edited 10/5/11 with a revised essay.)




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