The Very Spring and Root

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

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January 2012

Status  Comment

Took the MTEL Communication and Literacy test on Saturday… required considerable thought, but was able to finish early with about an hour to spare (4 hour limit). Next up: MTEL Physics on March 4. That one I will probably need to review for… Mechanics, Electrostatics, Electromagnetics, Thermodynamics, Waves, Acoustics, Optics, and basic Relativity and Quantum.

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.


BTR Acceptance… Running GTalk Commentary

me: i have the BTR acceptance form up
sort of just staring at it
Sent at 12:50 PM on Wednesday

Amy: hah, well you have a few days that you can just stare at it

me: no, i dont need to stare at it
there is no further information i need
in my heart i already know
its just getting my brain to press the button
Sent at 1:20 PM on Wednesday

me: so….
i just turned my brain off and pressed yes
Sent at 1:35 PM on Wednesday

Amy: B-)

me: so i turned my brain back on and its just going ohshitohshitohshit
Sent at 1:38 PM on Wednesday

me: AMY
Sent at 1:44 PM on Wednesday

Amy: 😀
you just made a brave choice to improve the world
it will be difficult, painful, terrifying, wonderful and deeply gratifying
Sent at 1:52 PM on Wednesday

me: /gulp
Sent at 1:55 PM on Wednesday

me: i must be insane
ohhhhhh shit
Sent at 2:07 PM on Wednesday

Quote  Comment

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

-Shakespeare, Julius Caesar IV.3

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?

Quote  Comment

For education … is the mainspring of our economic and social progress … it is the highest expression of achievement in our society, enriching and ennobling human life.

– John F. Kennedy

Kodak Playfull 1080p HD

BTR requires residents to purchase a portable digital camcorder for recording/archiving lessons, analyzing them myself later, and submitting them for review. I hopped online just to look and found that there was a sale on the one they recommended (it actually ends today… $40 off).

Snagged a Kodak Playfull 1080p HD portable camcorder, plus some accessories. Maybe I need to figure out how to do video blogging now!

From Kodak’s product page:

Bold and beautiful—full HD video and pictures

  • Full 1080p high definition captures your life in amazing detail
  • Easily switch to still camera mode to catch 5 MP, 16:9 widescreen HD still pictures

Choose the resolution that works for you:

  • 1080p—great for stunning playback on your HDTV[8]
  • 720p at 60 fps—for fast action and super slow motion playback
  • 720p at 30 fps—ideal for general recording in high definition
  • WVGA—perfect for conserving space on your memory card or smaller files sizes for web use


With Extreme Pleasure

Dear Nalin,


It is with extreme pleasure that we write to offer you a Teacher Resident position in the Boston Teacher Residency program for the 2012-13 school year. You are to be congratulated; the admissions process is extremely competitive and only a small percentage of applicants are accepted. We have selected you based upon your demonstrated potential to become an outstanding educator for Boston’s children – welcome to BTR Cohort 10!

Below we have included important information for you to review as you make an enrollment decision. We recommend that you print this letter as well as the linked documents and review them carefully in order to make an informed decision. If you have any questions or concerns about any of the information, please do not hesitate to contact us. Contact information for admissions staff is included at the end of this letter.


You have been accepted for the following content: Science – HS Physics

As a district-based teacher preparation program, BTR endeavors to prepare teachers to meet the needs of the Boston Public Schools. We partner closely with BPS Human Resources in an effort to align our acceptance decisions with the projected hiring needs in School Year 2013-14, during which Cohort 10 grads will be entering BPS as teachers of record. It is important to keep in mind that there are many factors that may impact projected teacher openings within the next two school years; the current economy, school climate, and any unanticipated events that may occur within this time frame make it difficult to project exact openings well in advance.

That said, based upon what we do know about Boston’s student population and high-needs instructional areas, all BTR residents will be prepared to teach in the content area and/or grade level for which they have been accepted [Program Offered], and will also receive training to work with students with learning disabilities and with English Language Learners within their content/grade. The training provided by BTR during the residency will be geared toward preparing you to be a successful educator not only for your content/grade, but also to teach that content/grade for these student populations. This preparation includes: 

  • Masters degree in Education – granted by UMass Boston after successful completion of BTR coursework taught by BTR faculty
  • Massachusetts Initial Teacher License in the content/grade for which you have been accepted [Program Offered] – upon successfully meeting requirements of the residency placement and practicum
  • Coursework and training to work with students with learning disabilities within your content classroom [i.e. teaching your content/grade within a Special Education setting]
  • Coursework and training required to work with English Language Learners within your content classroom [i.e. teaching your content/grade within an ELL setting]


You have been assigned the following dual license track: Special Education

In addition to the training and preparation outlined above, all residents are assigned a dual licensure track based upon their application and qualifications. The SpEd and ELL training provided during the residency year prepares all residents to work with these student populations within a regular education setting. We believe this training is essential for any teacher in the Boston Public Schools. However, after the residency year, graduates may pursue additional licensure in either Special Education or English as a Second Language, which will provide further experience with and training in a range of instructional settings for those student populations.

Next steps:

The Welcome Packet linked below contains a more detailed New Resident Checklist to help you plan next steps and things to prepare/complete in advance of the residency year. Below, we’ve included more immediate next steps required for enrollment.


We ask that you submit your enrollment decision via the Online Enrollment Form no later than 5pm on January 31, 2012. In order to help you make an informed decision and answer Frequently Asked Questions, we have included a link to the New Resident Welcome Packet below. [Please note that all forms will be reviewed in detail at a future New Resident Info Session — there is no need to complete any paperwork at this time.]


Please review carefully the BTR MTEL Policy included in the Welcome Packet. Please understand that by accepting our offer of admission, you are agreeing to take all MTEL tests necessary at each test date until you have passed them.

BTR institutes this policy so that all Residents are able to finish with the MTEL requirement and concentrate on learning to teach during the preparation year. You can register at: If for any reason you do not pass one or more of the tests you must take it again on the next available test date.

After enrollment:

Mark your calendars: an information session for newly enrolled residents has been scheduled for February 27th, 2012 at our offices at 6 Beacon Street. We will send additional information to enrolled residents after the enrollment deadline with details on registration as well as web/phone alternatives for those with prior commitments or who are out of town and cannot attend. No need to RSVP now; a follow up email will be sent in early February to those who have enrolled by the January 31st enrollment deadline, and will include information on what to bring/prepare.


After enrollment, new Cohort 10 residents will be asked to complete the following UMass Boston application materials and bring them to the New Resident Info Session:

  • Complete UMass Boston Application Pages 2-4 and Page 6
  • A check for the $60 application fee made out to UMass Boston
We will forward your application materials (and your BTR application) to UMass Boston at which point you will become an applicant of UMass Boston and must formally be accepted through their Graduate Admissions office. Additional information about UMass Boston is included in the Welcome Packet; we will also discuss UMass in detail at the New Resident Info Session.

We strongly recommend that you apply for federal financial aid as early as possible by completing and submitting an online FAFSA. You should have your information sent directly to UMass/Boston. The process is free, and you are not obligated to accept any loans that you are granted – so you are not committing to anything by applying for financial aid. However, in our experience, most residents will choose to take out student loans during the residency year and it is helpful to apply as early as possible since funding is limited. Please note that regardless of other financial aid, completing the FAFSA will be a required component for all residents who intend to use the AmeriCorps Ed Award to cover degree costs from UMass Boston.


Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about the program or enrollment process:

Carolyn Chen, Recruitment & Admissions Manager
Kate Diedrick, Admissions Associate

We very much look forward to working with you, and are excited to have you join our community of talented and committed educators working in service of the children and families of Boston.

Again, congratulations.


BTR Admissions

Correspondence with my “Thought Partner”

Hi [TFA Recruiter], thanks for offering yourself as a thought partner. Here is my honest line of thinking, though I am also looking forward to speaking with [Other TFA Recruiter] soon as well.

I am interested in teaching long-term, as a career. TFA is one among many entry programs to which I have applied. While I am genuinely excited to have been accepted to TFA, I am in the nice position of having a choice between TFA and these other programs, some of which include built-in masters programs and classroom residency time in the training process.

My direct concern with TFA is that, even though the preparation is much faster, it seems consequently much less effective. I am not interested in teaching for two years and leaving, so a year-long preparation program (as some of the other programs offer) is not of major concern. Why should I choose TFA over a program with more rigorous preparation, if I have a long-term commitment to education?

More broadly, I have done quite a bit of analysis (I am, after all, a research engineer) on TFA from the data available, and have arrived at some serious concerns about the organization in general.

For example, how would you justify TFA’s expansion into regions in which, due to the recession, there is apparently a surplus of already-qualified teachers? When I applied to TFA, I assumed that I would be placed into schools for which no qualified personnel are available; in analyzing the contracts you have with Washington, California, and Massachusetts as examples, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Another serious concern is what appears from your own documents to be what is in my opinion an over-reliance on quantitative data. Again, I am a research engineer, I *love* data – it takes me to my happy nerd place. But I also understand the limitations of data, and the importance of human factors. When we screen applicants to NASA, the quantitative elements of the applicant’s portfolio (grades, test scores, etc) are used for cutting off a minimum threshold only; 60 years of doing the hardest science and engineering imaginable has led us firmly to the conclusion that of far greater importance is creativity, judgement, analytical skill, and critical thinking. We don’t care as much about what they know as we do about how they approach what they *don’t* know. What does TFA believe about these factors, and how are those values built into the way you assess CMs and teach them how to teach students?

Of more general concern are the following:
What is the relationship between TFA CMs and traditional teachers? How do you respond to the (often highly vitriolic) accusations that TFA is displacing qualified, experienced teachers in favor of less expensive, less-well-trained, temporary teachers? What is the difference between a two-year CM and a long-term substitute? Are these issues different for the specific case of math/science, and/or the Bay Area?

Thanks for your time and support. I haven’t decided against accepting the TFA position by any means, but these are the questions I am pondering.