The Very Spring and Root

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

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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

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.

Why Not? Apply Anyway.

So… that’s basically what I’m thinking. Criticisms of TFA as an organization aside, from the research I’ve done, it does seem to be the most direct path from working professional to teaching in a high-need area. Going the “traditional” route means going back to school and doing a degree in education. And further, going the alternative route to certification by directly hiring on with a school district seems to be a non-starter… as cold as it sounds, it seems like programs with the political clout of TFA are the only way to get into districts that are laying off on the whole.

There are similar programs, such as Math for America or The New Teacher Project, but I’m not sure either of these is a better choice. For one thing, I would want to teach science, not math necessarily (and anyway my grades in pure math, while good, would probably not compete in a program focused exclusively on the subject).  MFA also requires at least a year of going back to school and a five-year commitment. TNTP appears to be the exact same organization as TFA, except with a different name and a focus on particular cities over a national program. (Probably not-so-incidentally, TNTP was founded by notable TFA alumna Michelle Rhee.)

Hey school districts: If you are so hurting for experienced STEM professionals to consider teaching as a career, but don’t like the incursion of external non-profits, then how about a nice “STEM PROFESSIONALS: CLICK HERE FOR OUR FAST-TRACK ENTRY PROGRAM!” button that would help this along?

So, I started a TFA application. I’m going for it. Haven’t decided yet if I truly want to do it, but there is no harm in going through the application process just to see what will happen. Initial online application due October 26th, several follow-up steps come after depending on how far you get, and I would know my admission status and where/what I would be teaching by January 17. I would then have until January 30 to decide whether or not to accept.

IF I accept, I see this going one of three ways:

  1. I love it. Well great, now I have a teaching credential and experience in the classroom, I could take my credential and go to another school or stay put and keep fighting the good fight where I end up. This would be the intended outcome of accepting: long-term teaching career.
  2. I hate it, or at least don’t love it, and want to return to engineering or a technical field. Well great, 2 years of teaching isn’t going to erase my Bachelors and Masters in Aerospace Engineering, 5-year research stint at a NASA center, and 8 publications.
  3. I hate it, or I at least don’t love it, and want to do something else entirely different. Well, the above technical qualifications, former civil service, leadership experience, teaching credential and experience. and a Masters in Education (possible in most TFA deployments)… sounds like I could go many places with that. Education policy? Research/science policy? Run for public office? Work for a think tank? Lead somewhere else in civic engagement?

I mean, why not, really? Life is short… I’ve got one shot to experience the world and make a lasting positive impact on it. Is spending the next 40 years in engineering the best use of what I have to give?

Quarter-Life Crisis

Education in America as a subject has interested me for a long time. There’s a personal side to it, and an intellectual side as well. All four of my grandparents were educators back in Sri Lanka, before my parents immgrated to Washington state in the late 70’s. I grew up outside of Boise, ID, attending public school. I remember the good and the bad.  My middle school was surrounded by farmland at the time and basically falling apart physically, for example. Oh yeah, and I’m pretty sure I was the only non-white and non-Christian student at my elementary school… interesting social dynamic. But I also remember the fantastic teachers here and there who really and truely cared. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them, for sure.

Intellectually (and more abstractly), I do firmly believe that “education should be the great equalizer”, that education appears to be the only factor (besides, obviously, money) in our society that can allow one to transcend social class, that we are not a true meritocracy until such things as access to education are made as independent of demographic as possible. I’ve been reading up a lot on these.  More darkly, I am afraid that my contributions to research now will mean little in the alarmingly near future if our nation continues its death spiral into complete scientific illiteracy.

Today I am a propulsion systems research and development engineer at one of NASA’s research installations. I enjoy my career here. I have a comfortable salary, a secure job, challenging work, and very dedicated, passionate colleagues. I have no logical reason to leave. But lately I feel something missing… maybe its my grandparents’ blood rising, or maybe just my increased attention on education and education reform lately. Or maybe it’s my increasing immersion in Buddhism and the realization that my measures of “success” haven’t been exactly in line with what I purport to value most.

Whatever it is, for some reason a few months ago, after I mentioned in conversation for the umpteenth time “we should get more STEM professionals to share their knowledge in the classroom”, I caught myself and thought, well, maybe is it time to put up or shut up?

I think that I know a decent amount of math and science, considering my present job and all… I’m also a huge history, literature, and theatre nerd… and I understand how well-rounded individuals who can tie the “fuzzier” subjects into their technical fields make for some of the most creative and innovative leaders in R&D. And I genuinely, wholeheartedly think science is fun. I love it. I think, I hope, that I could teach that. I’m still not sure I want to make that career change yet, but it’s something I’m thinking about.

The appeal of a program like Teach for America to me is that, while I fully recognize that the task (teaching in high-need schools) may be harder than a “normal” pathway into teaching in a more “normal” community, the logistics seem much easier. TFA appears to be already in arrangements with schools and credentialing programs, and appears to be truly committed to improving the plight of underachieving schools in high-poverty communities, etc.  I also do like the two-year commitment. While I agree with the multitude of criticism out there that TFA seems to encourage a revolving door of law and business school applicants who want the check box on their resume, I have no such deferred plans. I am honestly interested in teaching as a career, but am unsure as to whether I fully realize what that means and if I really do want to devote the rest of my life to it. I think that a two-year commitment gives me both a chance to get thrown into the mud to see if I can actually wrestle with the elephants, but also an out if I decide that I really hate it and its not for me.

Thanks to great counter-perspective blogs from TFA’ers like Gary Rubinstein, I’m definitely now thinking twice about TFA, but the problem is I wouldn’t know what to do otherwise. I didn’t realize the degree to which different states’ educational systems vary. Most of the official websites for credentialing and entering teaching as a normal hire into the school system are, at best, tangled messes of regulations, links to obscure documents, and what seem like mutually contradictory statements.

So, I suppose my specific question would be then, what else? What other pathway would work should I decide to leave NASA and go teach in a public school? Should I have to go back to school for an education degree to apply my skills to the classroom? In an environment in which traditional teachers appear to be getting laid off by the thousands, should I wait for the odd chance that there is a traditional posting available and that they are also willing to accept me on a conditional credential waiver? Does the purported need for STEM teachers make the layoff situation irrelevent? Or should I use TFA as a convenient trial period and entry point into the profession?

Actually, let’s get even more basic than that:

Is leaving a GS-12 research position with federal benefits at a high-level government research installation where I work with wonderful, passionate colleagues for a career in public education a really really stupid idea? Or one of the best things I could do for myself and the nation?

Stay tuned as I explore these questions and more. I may not end up changing careers afterall – in fact, this is what I consider to be the most probable outcome at this point. But I would at least like some documentation of the journey. So here goes.