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?

Um, Yes Actually, We Should Learn Hard Math

Andrew Hacker has written a mind-numbingly inane Op-Ed for the New York Times, entitled “Is Algebra Necessary?”, in which he opines:

A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.


Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.

Can I just highlight the absurdly self-centered fallacy of Hacker’s perspective? I would love to hear the logical contortions this “writer and social scientist” might present if I asked him why I should have been required to learn history, literature, government, and the arts if I was in school to be an engineer. I can think of no concrete argument (taking Hacker’s premises as the foundation) which could possibly justify why any of these subjects should be necessary for technical professions.

Maybe I missed something, but I thought the whole point of education was to expose us to new ideas and make us well-rounded citizens, prepared to critically analyze the information being presented to us, reflect on our role and potential in society, and be able choose among many paths later in life. Hacker seems to have a more short-term and utilitarian view of the purpose of schooling; one that I find blindly compartmentalizing and reductionist.

I’ve gotta hand it to him though — lowering your standards to the point where they are already met is a pretty effective method of removing things that are hard from your life.

Absolutely. Freaking. Amazing. Kind of having a nerdgasm here.


Fractal pancakes and organ pancakes!  Now I know what’s been missing from my morning routine all these years.  These are from Saipancakes and if you’re not satisfied with what you see here, don’t worry, they have lots more.

…those lungs look extra tasty, don’t they?

(via neatorama)

TFA Acceptance: Secondary School Math, Bay Area

Dear Nalin,I am pleased to extend you an offer to join the Teach For America 2012 corps! Your acceptance into Teach For America reflects your outstanding accomplishments, leadership potential, and commitment to expanding educational opportunity for children in low-income communities. In order to secure your place in the 2012 corps, you must complete the confirmation forms on the Applicant Center on or before Monday, January 30 at 6 p.m. ET.

Changing children’s life trajectories by effecting meaningful gains in their academic achievement is an incredibly challenging pursuit. You have demonstrated great potential to excel as a classroom leader who will work in partnership with families, schools, and communities to offer your students the educational opportunities they deserve, and we are excited to welcome you to this effort. More than 28,000 Teach For America corps members and alumni are using their unique talents, skills, and perspectives to help transform education for children in low-income communities and address the factors that contribute to educational inequity, and we hope that you will join us in this important work.

On the Applicant Center, you can view a special welcome video from our Chief Executive Officer and Founder Wendy Kopp, as well as access information that will help you make an informed decision about this significant commitment, including:

  • Regional and grade/subject assignment: In determining your assignment, we made the best possible match between your regional, grade-level, and subject-area preferences, the projected needs of the school districts with which we work, and the requirements necessary to teach in those districts. Since we carefully consider each applicant’s qualifications and preferences when determining his or her assignment, we rarely reassign an applicant to a new region.
  • Information about your region: Over the next few days, staff members from your region will be welcoming you to the 2012 corps. In addition, you can access important resources on the Applicant Center that will provide: details about living and teaching in your region; information about the summer institute; and the phone numbers and/or e-mail addresses for corps members and alumni who would be happy to answer any questions you have.

If we can be of any assistance, please contact us at Congratulations again, and welcome to Teach For America!


Sean Waldheim
Vice President, Admission


We are pleased to invite you to join the 2012 Teach For America corps and are excited to assign you to teachmathematics (grades 6-12) in Bay Area, with option to join 2012 charter corps in Sacramento. In order to reserve or decline your place in the corps, you must complete our accept or decline forms by January 30 at 6 p.m. Eastern Time.