I think I need to change my career. Is teaching the right one for me?
July 22, 2009 8:06 AM   Subscribe

Should I go in to teaching? What's it like teaching primary (up to 11-12 year old kids)? Do you get to do much science?

I'm a junior academic, on my 3rd fixed term contract, and I am coming to the realization that the academic job market is not going to provide me with what I want: a permanent position in the city where my partner lives and works. I simply don't have the track record in research. I am fairly confident that this is due to poor luck rather than lack of ability, but that doesn't help my CV any. I have thought long and hard about what I like doing, and what I am passionate about, and it's science, particularly encouraging women and girls to get involved in science. I've done some science communication to the public events, and they're great. I've done some teaching of undergraduates, and I love it... indeed one of the problems with research posts for me is that I don't get to do much teaching. So teaching is the obvious choice for me.

But... I don't think I have the stability or stamina for high school classes, and I am not sure that I'd be able to do much proper science with younger age groups, and I'm not sure that going in to teaching just because you've failed at something else is a good motivation. There's a sense in which I have backed the wrong horse for so long now I don't know what other horses are out there, and I get the feeling that maybe I've overlooked other career options. Whatever I end up doing I am resigned to starting again near the bottom of the system, and taking the financial hit; I'm OK with that, but am keen to make the right choice now as it'd be even harder to change again in a few years.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure what you mean by "proper science", but my interest in science was sparked by an elementary school teacher. The mysteries of the natural world, the scale of things--from the universe to the tiny worlds seen through a microscope--can have a profound, life-long influence on children. Go for it.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:22 AM on July 22, 2009

"What's it like teaching primary (up to 11-12 year old kids)? Do you get to do much science?"

Children in that age range get very little actual science education. My daughter went through most of those years -- at a very academic school -- without any significant attention paid to the sciences beyond the minimum required by state curricula. And personally, I'm not entirely convinced even that minimum was met. NCLB and the defunding of programs that aren't geared toward state standardized testing really destroyed science, music, and history education.

She recently completed 6th grade, the first year students get single-subject periods, and got a bit of science education every other day. But 6th grade is very much at the upper end of the age range you're talking about. Yet that's when science education in any recognizable form begins.
posted by majick at 8:24 AM on July 22, 2009

Have you done any work with academics in the Learning Sciences field? It's a fairly new field, so I don't know if there's a program at your institution. It's pretty free-form in terms of what individual LS people do (both in subjects and in practices), so I'd recommend looking specifically for people who work around science education in Learning Sciences.

I know a couple women in LS who work on physics and math education--not just professional development for teachers, necessarily, but actually focusing on precisely your concern: doing proper science with younger age groups. Some LS people come from teaching backgrounds, others don't. Some are actively involved in teaching while they do their research, others aren't.

I don't want to put my foot in my mouth and say the wrong thing about Schools of Ed. It varies from place to place how connected or separate the LS and Ed programs are. But from what I've seen, LS has a ton more flexibility than Schools of Ed while still frequently working directly with teachers. So that's why I'd recommend seeking out the LS people first.

Feel free to MeMail me if you'd like.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:24 AM on July 22, 2009

One thing that you need to know about teaching is how relentless it is. Once the kids plop down in the classroom, you are ON for the rest of the day, usually until 4:00, if you have parents who want to talk to you.

This does not sound like a major deal, but with most jobs, one can steal away a moment here and there, or more than a moment, but with teaching, its pretty much that your time is taken.

I respect teachers a lot for that.
posted by Danf at 8:25 AM on July 22, 2009

I am not a scientist, but I did face a similar question when I graduated from school with a music degree. I was strongly encouraged to get and education certificate and go into teaching, as opposed to being a starving musician all my life. I had many friends who have done this, and some have found that they really enjoy teaching, others not so much.
I think what you have to accept if you choose go into teaching (especially at the middle school level) is
1) You will have to deal with people who do not want to be there and do not want to learn about science.

2) Some of your job will consist of teaching what you like, science. Other parts of your job will have nothing to do with that, like going to mandatory meetings that have nothing to do with what you teach, shuffling paperwork, or teaching classes outside your specialty, like PE or monitoring a study hall.

3) Dealing with young people also means dealing with their parents. A lot of my teacher friends say that that's the real challenge.

I decided that I could not deal with all of that, so I did not go into teaching and am actually pretty glad I didn't.

That's not to say teaching isn't a wonderful and rewarding experience, it is. But like any job, it has its negatives. If you can deal with those negatives, and you really have an interest in teaching, go for it.
posted by firemonkey at 8:36 AM on July 22, 2009

I used to volunteer with a Let's Talk Science program that went to elementary/junior high/high schools. There's a huge movement towards integrating subject areas in order to connect learning experiences, so it leaves a lot of room for you to teach extra science here and there. You can always throw in a few minutes here and there to connect a basic science concept to what is going on. Some schools have a science curriculum coordinator, you could aim for that sort of position (regular teacher, just more of a leadership role in helping design stuff). Add science-y words to the spelling list each week. You wouldn't believe how exciting learning how to spell CHEMISTRY and seeing a video of an experiment is to an eight year old. Go to an elementary school in your area, ask if you can volunteer a couple mornings/afternoons/days with a class, 'interview' the teachers. Honestly, ask if you could take a few of them out for dinner to talk about it. A thank you of HEALTHY food for the staff room can pretty much get you whatever you want ;) Also, be super extra specially nice to the office people- they're the gatekeepers.

Teaching is taxing, but esp. in elementary there's nothing like being the most important adult in a kid's day from 9-3. This is courtesy of my mom, who has taught for 30 years in grades 2-5.
posted by variella at 9:01 AM on July 22, 2009

I was a teacher in 4,5,6 grade levels for many years. I loved it, then with No Child Left Behind, ended up feeling ethically compromised and could no longer be a party to public education.

I cannot in any way suggest that anyone be a teacher. As an example, I had many close friends and family members who were teachers in the public school, dozens really, and with the exception of one all have quit(and that one wishes to be done). It is a relentless, thankless, under-paid job. When you say "start at the bottom", you should understand that is where you will stay. When I asked a close friend what was the feeling of retirement after 35 years of teaching he responded, "That I left feeling like a dinosaur. That I left holding the same job I did the day I started. And that I am happy to just have landed a full time job in the produce section at Safeway."

This is VERY common. In my state, Arizona, if you are a spouse to someone with good pay, then it might be OK. But with that in mind, the job is treated like a 'housewife's' job. It really is. Combine that with a school system that has no fomalized discipline policy and 3 months of standardized tests and I can not see any reason anyone with a skill set would choose to enter the career. Unless you can beleive and afford to do it FROM THE HEART. This is the only way anyone I know who still teaches survives it.
1. You don't need the money
2. You can float above the griefers due to your passion.

In short, without a touch of cynicism: Don't Do It.
posted by BrodieShadeTree at 9:07 AM on July 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

Tough call. Not sure how much science there is in the junior grades, and traditional teaching lore indicates that age 11-12 can be the very worst to teach. I'd recommend asking yourself these questions:

1. Are you an organized and logical thinker?

2. Do you love children?

3. Are you a patient person?

4. Can you deal with things on the fly?

5. Do you have a sense of humour?

6. Can you stay calm during an emergency?

7. Are you able to see something from many points of view?

8. Are you non-judgmental?

9. Do you like schedules and routines?

10. Are you comfortable speaking in front of large groups?

If you can answer yes to most of these questions, you'd probably be a good teacher. It's lots of work, but can be incredibly rewarding. Good luck!
posted by Go Banana at 9:22 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

But... I don't think I have the stability or stamina for high school classes

Having taught high school, I would say that you would probably need more stamina teaching elementary grades, simply because you need to prep for multiple subjects rather than just one.

That said, many folks with no teaching experience have a lot of assumptions about teaching. You may wish to contact a local school and see if you can sit in for a week with two or three teachers as an observer.

I would also dispute the assumption that teachers are "always on." The problem with teachers who complain about teaching conditions is that they often have never had any other working experience besides being a teacher.

Certainly, it's challenging being a teacher, but it's challenging being a police officer, and it's challenging managing a sales team. Many, many jobs require you to be "on" from 7:30am to 7:30pm. The major difference, of course, is pay, so if you can't survive on a teacher's salary, you shouldn't take the job. That said, most people (after satisfying their basic salary needs) are not in careers for the money.

Maybe you could teach at private school. In Canada, at least, private schools pay teachers lower salaries than in public schools (Canadian teachers are relatively well-paid, although the salary is too low for me), but they have more and better resources - more prep time, for example.

In terms of lack of discipline, most kids are good (ie, they are not homicidal, anitsocial thugs), and good classroom management is a skill experienced teachers use to shape/control behaviour. "Discipline policies" are for weak teachers, except when kids are threatening the safety of other students.

If you find that you don't think teaching is going to be a good fit, but still want to help kids explore careers in science, you should consider becoming active with science fairs, as a judge or as an organizer.

Good luck with your career plans!
posted by KokuRyu at 9:25 AM on July 22, 2009

I used to work at a science camp that had kids from the ages of 6 to 12. I worked with the youngest of those, and boy, do they have an appetite for science.

If you want to work with younger kids and do science, I recommend looking for a science-oriented program that visits many schools or working as a school's science coordinator (like what variella mentioned), rather than becoming a classroom teacher at an elementary school. I think you'll have a lot more fun that way - and hopefully, if you're having fun, so are the kids.
posted by pemberkins at 9:29 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Speaking as a recovering educator (music, all ages and a variety of institutions from elementary school to university as well as private, 15 years in the job) who has left many happy and enriched students in his wake but suffered the wear and tear of doing it right I'll offer this pithy insight wholeheartedly: teaching is a calling, not a career choice.

If you are to be a successful teacher (of anything) you will know it in your heart and be drawn to pedagogy naturally. In other words, your expressed desire to help and your drive/love of educating will outweigh most of your other concerns. A great teacher will have been one for a long while before the first professional paycheck arrives.
posted by sid abotu at 10:01 AM on July 22, 2009

If you'd like to try something part-time, you could teach for an after-school science program such as Mad Science (full disclosure: my husband does this, after giving up on a career in academia). You won't make a lot of money but it will give you a chance to teach science in elementary school classrooms for a few hours a week, and maybe that would help you decide if it's a career path you'd like to pursue. Memail me if you'd like more info.
posted by beandip at 10:07 AM on July 22, 2009

You can ask yourself all sorts of questions and do lots of thinking on whether to be a teacher or not but nothing will give you a better answer than going into a school and volunteering. Most schools have teachers who are happy to have you in their classroom once a week to learn about being a teacher. If you want lots of science and to encourage girls to get into science , I would recommend high school. Give it a try, volunteer a few times and you will know if it's for you or not.

I often have people into my classroom. You don't have to be actively involved at first, you can just observe. After a couple of visits, most teachers will ask you if you want to lead the class in something. They will likely have the lesson all set up for you, you will just be delivering the lesson. Or it could be something as simple as leading a class discussion.

The volunteer experience also looks great when you apply to university for your teaching degree. The universities here in Vancouver won't even consider someone who does not have some sort of volunteer, coaching or teaching experience.

Good Luck.
posted by sadtomato at 10:28 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

In so many cities, so many states, teachers are scum. Treated like dirt. Besides all the bad stuff that one faces in "the system," there is the horror of parents, who "know better."

But that said: I have an odd feeling that in the immediate future the only sure jobs around are going to be hands-on jobs where a person must be present-- cops, bus drivers, nurses, and teachers. White collar jobs--India. Blue collar? China. If the job can be outsourced it will be.

Teaching: why not try some substitute teaching to get a feel for it? Not nearly the same but at least you get to chat with staff, teachers.

A good teacher is a joy for any system. And yes, many do burn out.
posted by Postroad at 11:15 AM on July 22, 2009

don't know what state you are in. In Texas, at that grade level, most schools have science teachers that teach science all day long to different groups of kids. That particular age group is 6th grade and it isn't a bad gig here because there is not currently a test in science for that grade level. There is a state curriculum, but it is pretty broad and not too bad to teach.
posted by busboy789 at 11:27 AM on July 22, 2009

On the track of other horses to back, many research institutions, (eg. big museums) have positions for education co-ordinators and workshop leaders. You still get to teach but it's not quite as full on, and you're still part of an active community.
posted by freya_lamb at 11:39 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I teach second grade in New York City and I can tell you that I am able to devote very little time to teaching science. I often have to get creative and integrate it with language arts or math, but that usually leads to a watering down of the content, which is a shame. Science, in many states and school districts, is not a content area that is subject to standardized testing at lower grade levels. What does that mean? It means it's neglected in the classroom. My school gives me 40 minutes to teach science two days a week.

I don't think I have the stability or stamina for high school classes

This is a difficult time to pursue teaching. NYC isn't hiring, most districts in California are laying off teachers, and districts all over the country are looking for ways to drastically cut costs. And if you think teaching elementary school is a sinecure, you're wrong. It is incredibly time consuming and draining--especially in elementary school. I taught high school social studies for a short time and it required much less of me than 7 year olds do. You think it's easy to teach a lesson when a kid gets a bloody nose, two kids start arguing because one accidentally touched the other one, someone is playing with staples in the carpet, girls are braiding each other's hair, kids start "ewwwing!" when someone puts a booger on the carpet, a kid pees on her chair, half the kids can't read at grade level, and some kids who haven't yet been diagnosed with emotional problems are literally mooing like a cow, barking like a dog, and crawling under furniture? You'd be shocked at how long it takes for them to complete the simplest of tasks. Kids are amazing and silly and incredibly fun to be around; but when you work in a system that places unbelievable pressure on you to produce high scores on tests with absolutely no support given to you, all their fun and silly behavior becomes frustrating. Then the kids go home and you're still at school planning and grading and cleaning up spills and snot and setting up things for the next day. You're up at night thinking about how to motivate Javier to sit the fuck down and read or whether Emmanuel is getting abused at home or how to get Sam to finish her homework or why Lisa has been absent 83 days this year or why Naomi still can't add single-digit numbers.

I am resigned to starting again near the bottom of the system, and taking the financial hit

Not sure where you would fall on a salary schedule, but you can take a look at this to help give you an idea of how your salary would be determined.

To sum up my rambling response to your question: don't teach elementary school if your heart is in science UNLESS you can find a school that will hire you to just teach science to several classes.
posted by HotPatatta at 12:49 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

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