Advice on whether to go into teaching high school science
October 2, 2014 7:34 AM   Subscribe

Hello. I'm hoping that some current or retired teachers may be able to provide some advice. Extended background information included. I'm not asking for folks to tell me what to do but I'd love some opinions from educators. Thanks so much.

Some background: I went back to college later in life (mid 20s) and originally had plans for a BA in Biology. I didn't have any specific career plans (ridiculous I now know) and realized about my junior year that unless I kept going for a Masters and beyond, I couldn't do much with a BA in Biology. So, I swapped to a Gen Ed degree to broaden the classes I could take. I did end up with a minor in Biology as I had already completed quite a bit of classes by that point.

Skip ahead to now. I'm in IT for local government. Technology is something that has always come naturally but I don't have much of a passion for it. I ended up here just from capitalizing on my aptitudes and trying to pay off student loans. I'm rather discontent now as I don't find the job fulfilling at all. I'm at a point now where I have to move my skills forward to advance but I just have no interest in doing that. The bright part of the job for me now though is teaching skill classes (Office, etc). After the first few, I really felt 'at home' sharing my knowledge and teaching.

After my class reviews from the students came in (and glowing I might add), a few had commented about my skill for teaching. This got me thinking of high school and college. I was always happy to help others catch on to new things. Tutored a number of folks in high school and college just for the enjoyment of helping them learn and seeing those light bulb moments on their face. One of my college professors commented after a class presentation that I should have gone into teaching. I didn't think much of it at the time but now I'm realizing that there were signs all over the place.

My state (Missouri) does offer alternative certification methods but everything I'm reading online from other teachers across the nation seems so doom and gloom. Education seems to be very dysfunctional right now and I'm starting to wonder whether the fulfillment of teaching will outweigh the negatives at this point.
posted by guyarcher to Education (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Can you afford it? I'm serious; most of the public school teachers I know are either single and frugal, or have a supporting spouse.

What is your goal? What defines fulfillment for you?

I am not an educator, but have spent a lot of time working with them, talking with them, and a friend with a Masters in the sciences took this route when we were part of a large redundancy drive at the start of the Great Recession with the support of their IT-world spouse.

Am guessing by your name (forgive if wrong) that you are male - help balance out the ratio of men to women in teaching our youngsters.

One thing to keep in mind - teenagers who want to take your skills class are a of a different mindset of the larger group of teens who might not want to be in your class.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 8:03 AM on October 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

I was a person who switched from an IT career and did alternative certification to become a high school English teacher.

For me, it was mostly stressful and frustrating. Education is dysfunctional in the extreme. Very little has changed in the nation's classrooms since the 19th century.

I had an average of 36 students registered for my classes. That is too many to really teach well.

If you think that teaching will be standing and giving exciting lectures and managing productive labs, it's not. I thought since I gave great trainings that I'd be endlessly fascinating to my students. It ain't necessarily so.

There is an art called Classroom Management and it governs everything that happens in the classroom. I had no idea, and the consequences of not knowing hit me like a ton of bricks.

Also, what would you do if you had 3 juvenile sex offenders in one of your classes? It happened to me. What would you do if two girls started pummelling each other in your class? How well do you deal with kids with IEPs? What if you had one Autistic kid, three who don't speak English and 4 kids with different learning disabilities, all in the same class.

How organized are you? Can you take role, give an assignment, grade the previous class's assignments and keep a hairy eye-ball on everyone all at the same time?

What if they decide it would be hilarious to throw fetal pigs at each other?

Did you know that you can't have students hand back each other's work? Did you know they can't swap papers to grade?

How do you feel about teaching to a standardized test? How do you feel about teaching not your subject on the standardized test? Because for 3 months, that's what you'll be doing. Drilling on how to take a standardized test, drilling on how to read passages on a standardized test, drilling on how to do problems on the standardized test. Good times.

Is there fulfillment? Every so often. I once was doing a lesson and the class was getting restless, and one of the kids said, "Shut up! This is interesting." One out of 30.

One of my students had a toddler and was struggling with traditional school. I spoke to her counselor and got her into a special school for young mothers. That was rewarding.

A few of my students have been pregnant. How comfortable would you be buying a ginger ale for a queasy kid?

How do you feel about earning $36,000 to start? I had a Masters and I started at $42,000.

How do you feel about spending about 3 hours per day grading and keeping track of grades? Usually at home, in the evenings?

If you enjoy training and teaching, I suggest you become an IT trainer.

Teaching high school is a calling. I lasted two years before I ran back to corporate America.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:05 AM on October 2, 2014 [9 favorites]

My husband is a high school chemistry teacher and he loves it. He has frustration, as we all do, with the general trends in education, but because of what he teaches, he is less affected by some of it (like -- not many people take the standardized test for chemistry since biology is the science course they're more likely to have had when they're being tested).

He is also really good at walking that line of being a hardass and still really being a teacher the students like even if they don't like how hard he pushes them sometimes. And I definitely do not support him financially -- our salaries are more or less equal and we have two children and we have a lot of debt. But we're living fine. He disappears for a few hours each weekend to grade, and he's often doing work until 10 or 11 at night after the kids go to bed at around 8, but he's five years in now and he has a rhythm that works for us.

What I would say is that teaching is not easy --- and those first few years in particular are really rough --- , and it's definitely not for everyone. Another relative of mine really thought he wanted to be a teacher and was doing an accelerated teaching program --- his second semester in he was student teaching and he found he really didn't like it. It wasn't what he thought it would be AT ALL so he left. And that's okay, too.

What you should do is start talking to teachers, to partners of teachers, to friends of teachers, etc. Call the program who would issue your certification and ask if they can put you in touch with other people who went through that process. Find out what teaching in Missouri is like if you intend to stay there --- because I'm sure it's going to be very different from teaching in Massachusetts (where we live). And mostly -- if at all possible, find out if you can visit a few classrooms and do some observations BEFORE deciding if you want to become a teacher.
posted by zizzle at 8:27 AM on October 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Well, money isn't a driving factor in my life. As long as I have a roof over my head and bills are paid, I'm rather content. I've driven the same junky car for over 10 years now (can afford replacing) because I just don't see a need for material wealth if what I have is doing the job. So the money isn't a concern for me.

I do understand that not every student is going to have that passion for learning. I was a high school student once too. ;)

I'm also aware of the importance of classroom management. I've been doing a lot of research lately on going into teaching and I repeatedly see that being brought up as a needed skill. I don't think the certification program covers much with that but did plan on looking into other options or classes for that front.

It's likely naive but fulfillment to me is helping to change lives. I keep thinking back to those teachers that truly made a difference in my life and how much I want to do the same for someone else.

In the end, I know I don't have the passion for IT. The thought of spending the rest of my life surrounded by technical documentation and knowledge advancement in a topic that I find largely boring is mind numbing.

Thanks for the advice. Love to hear more.
posted by guyarcher at 8:30 AM on October 2, 2014

It is not clear from your question what sort of advice/opinion you want.

I went from HS teaching to IT and back over a dozen years. It will be hard work, mostly poorly paid, and the public HS students who are involuntarily assigned to your Bio class will be very different from the ones in your Office class & your memory of HS. I recommend that you volunteer to tutor at the local urban HS.
Ruthless Bunny's summary is accurate, and there are many more similar stories on the green. Most people who think of a teaching career is a 'Plan B' (or C) option are not good teachers & don't enjoy it.
posted by TDIpod at 8:32 AM on October 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program encourages STEM students and professionals to pursue careers as K-12 STEM teachers by giving higher education institutions funding for scholarships, stipends, and programming. Those who receive scholarships and stipends are required to teach for two years in a high-needs school district for every year of support that they receive. I don't know if that's something you'd consider but it seems like a good program.
posted by kat518 at 8:40 AM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

High school SCIENCE teachers are in high demand, especially if you are willing to go where the job is. Plenty of people want to be English teachers, but not many want or are capable of being science teachers.

If you teach biology, you will probably have a bunch of unmotivated 14-year-olds who have to take the class to get their one science unit. HOWEVER. If you can get into teaching chemistry or especially physics, especially at the AP level, you will teach the most motivated, hard-working students in the school. That sounds like it would be a good fit for you. You won't have (much) money, but you will have job security and students who like learning.

Assess if you're willing to teach chem and especially physics, if you're able to teach it, if you can live with the money, and if you're willing to teach in an extremely rural or extremely under-funded city school, and if you're willing to live where you teach.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:43 AM on October 2, 2014

I appreciate the honest opinions and advice. I'll check into that link Kat. Thank you.

Chemistry is also an option. I took a number of those classes in college and tutored as well. Maybe Physics down the road but that would be later.

I am going to check into the local high schools and check the possibility of sitting in on some classes or speaking with some teachers about their experience in MO.
posted by guyarcher at 8:48 AM on October 2, 2014

You could also substitute teach to get a feel for the high school classroom and its management challenges. Subs pools are generally pretty easy to get into, if you're schedule's flexible enough and you're willing to answer your phone and go at early-ass AM.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:51 AM on October 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

especially at the AP level, you will teach the most motivated, hard-working students in the school.

This is highly debatable --- and is another potential point of frustration in teaching. DO NOT GO INTO TEACHING THINKING THIS IS THE CASE! I hear about how this is NOT the case every evening. Sometimes you have really smart kids who are really lazy who fail classes because they just won't do the work. And sometimes you have really motivated kids that the guidance counselors want to pull out of honors because their grades aren't B or higher even though they'd be bored as heck in the next level down.

Teaching AP and honors does not guarantee anything more than that these kids asked to be put in an honors or AP class, their parents approved it, and the guidance office that arranges the students' schedules placed them in the class.
posted by zizzle at 9:09 AM on October 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also don't go in thinking that kids who AREN'T in Honors and AP AREN'T motivated and hardworking. There are all types at all levels.
posted by zizzle at 9:12 AM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

My Sophomore Honors class were a mess. They were all the big shit in middle school and in the Freshman classes and they were full of themselves. Hormones made them squirmy. Frankly, I challenged them more, but their work was often sub-par, mostly because they could give a shit. They could pull themselves together occasionally though, and they were kind of fun on those rare days.

My favorite class was a Debate class that was full of Freshmen who were in the magnet program (robotics.) Bright, thoughtful, fun, and decently respectful. It was a loose class where we read the papers and discussed current events.

It's a grab bag and there's a lot to be said for chemistry between the kids contributing to a good class.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:20 AM on October 2, 2014

So, all sorts of opinions and experiences across the board. What really worried me about research was how often I read articles from teachers or ex-teachers who were adamantly against people going into teaching in general. For one positive article, I'd read 15 negative ones.

I think you folks have given me a fair bit to think about as well as some ideas. It's very much appreciated.
posted by guyarcher at 9:46 AM on October 2, 2014

If I were you, I'd look into private school teaching, not just public school teaching. The environment at many private schools is extremely nice, and the classes are often small and full of motivated kids. I switched during high school from a public school where I was miserable (huge classes, lots of busywork, overworked stressed-out teachers) to a private boarding school (a huge scholarship made this possible for me), and it was like night and day. I had very small classes (some as small as five students), and I had teachers who were brilliant and were passionate about their work and their academic subjects and would chat to us in the evenings about interesting developments in their academic fields, etc. Some of the most inspirational people in my life have been teachers and mentors from that school. My strong sense was that all of the teachers and students at my private school absolutely loved being there (which was very different from my public school, where I had the distinct impression no one, students or teachers, wanted to be there). I think the pay at private schools is variable, and probably less across the board than public schools, but the environment and facilities are usually much nicer (and some even provide their teachers with free room and board), and it might be a much less bumpy ride into the field in terms of the classroom experience you'd have. Plus, I think private schools don't have to be as rigorous as public schools regarding their teachers' certification. I believe the jobs are often quite competitive to get, but humanities private school jobs are much more oversubscribed than ones in the sciences, and if you can show them that you have outside interests or skills that you can bring as well (IT at my school definitely would have counted), then that will likely be a big plus.
posted by ClaireBear at 9:52 AM on October 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Teaching adults is so incredibly different, and in my opinion, way more fun than teaching kids. If you like kids and can handle the classroom management, you might like it. I would definitely sub at the grade level you want to teach before committing.
posted by queens86 at 9:53 AM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

So, all sorts of opinions and experiences across the board. What really worried me about research was how often I read articles from teachers or ex-teachers who were adamantly against people going into teaching in general. For one positive article, I'd read 15 negative ones.

When I plan a trip, I read TripAdvisor reviews for hotels. Five star hotels will have reviews like "1 star, the shampoo was lemon-scented and I hate lemons" or "0 stars, they wouldn't give me a free upgrade to the best room." It's frequently easier for people to complain rather than to gush. And the people who love teaching are probably too busy creating amazing lesson plans and going to students' activities to complain.

Teaching is hard. Some people find it rewarding and love doing it. Some don't and are often more vocal about it than those who do. Good luck!
posted by kat518 at 10:29 AM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why not look into teaching technology courses to kiddos? I changed careers from IT/management consulting to teaching and loved it, despite the challenges and lower pay. I am currently teaching teachers but would go back to the classroom in a heartbeat... what I'd LOVE to do, though, is teach IT and business courses. I haven't looked into those reqs yet (and they would vary greatly state to state) but those are areas where you wouldn't be teaching to a test, students are often motivated, and those skills have real applications post-high school (regardless of college or career path).
posted by adorap0621 at 11:14 AM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might need to go back to school to get that BA in biology (or chemistry or whatever) first. My understanding is that under No Child Left Behind, you need to have a degree in the specific subject you're teaching (not just Gen Ed). Could be wrong on this, but definitely somethign to add into the mix of things to research.
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:28 AM on October 2, 2014

I am an educator, though I don't teach at a school (I do programs at nature centers and afterschool programs, sometimes working with a class over and over and sometimes just for the day). I really enjoy teaching and interacting with kids and love the work that I do (though not the pay... I'd take a teacher salary any day), but I get to sidestep a lot of the BS of working as a 'real' teacher. While I teach to standards and have to interact with a lot of school administration, I don't have to do it 24/7 or worry about things like standardized testing.

Anyway, I don't know that the skills that you need to give a presentation are the same that you need to teach a HS classroom. Classroom management is such a huge part of teaching. I'm not sure subbing will give you the joy of teaching, but I would definitely find some way to get experience in a classroom before you make this jump. Tutoring is also completely different from teaching--it's lots of fun to build those relationships with kids, but trying to do it when there are 25 other kids in the room is tough.

What about starting by teaching evening tech classes to teens and adults? You could probably do this part time or on a volunteer basis to try it out.
posted by geegollygosh at 11:37 AM on October 2, 2014

You should check out Masters of Arts in Teaching or MAT programs. Your local state college/university may offer them. These programs generally do an excellent job of preparing you for real teaching jobs.
posted by mareli at 11:44 AM on October 2, 2014

I used to teach high school before going back for a PhD and becoming a college teacher. I'm jumping in here because I think the "15 negative responses for every positive" needs some balancing out. I really loved teaching high school, and often miss the feeling of connecting intellectually with kids at that point in their lives when they were learning for the first time the things I had to offer . Not all kids are receptive to your teaching, but a few always are, and you remember them forever.
posted by third rail at 12:40 PM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I once had an extremely cushy job teaching at a magnet high school. The kids were mostly motivated, and I had few discipline problems. So for me, teaching was almost as good as it gets. But the job got extremely boring very fast, because typically you are teaching several sections of the same class, so you say the same old stuff 2-3 times per day. Or you have an absurd number of classes to prep, which has its own downsides, mostly taking more time and energy. You answer basically the same kinds of questions in every class, and it just gets so old. I say this as someone who loves working with kids and watching them grow. (I now do private tutoring, so my job has tons of variety.)

Besides all that, grading is horribly tedious and soul sucking, but it has to be done because your kids need feedback. There's a good chance you'll be evaluated by vice principals who don't know crap about teaching and would likely fail your high school class as adults. You may be on the hook for getting classroom supplies for your classes. You will probably have to deal with some really obnoxious parents. You will probably have some colleagues who clearly don't even like kids, leaving you with a bizarre "WTF, why do they even want this job?" feeling, and it's extremely hard for the districts to fire the bad ones, especially in science, because who would replace them? They can barely hire enough almost-qualified people as is. Students that you come to care about will get stuck with these crappy teachers later on. These crappy teachers often end up with smaller classes (due to parents who are assertive enough to get their kids away from them), and good teachers end up with bigger classes and thus even more work.

AND... to even get there, you will most likely have to jump through a number of godawful hoops. In my situation, the education classes I had to take to get certified were the biggest waste of time of my life. Seriously useless. (I have heard this is not universal, but it's a real possibility.) Now there are also weird NCLB criteria to satisfy, as if you needed to deal with more nonsense paperwork.

In short, the kids can be really amazing, but there are so many BS aspects to the job that I can't recommend it to someone who isn't totally on board. I suggest you try to get in some hardcore volunteering to get a better sense of whether this would be a good fit for you before making any major life changes.
posted by ktkt at 2:47 PM on October 2, 2014

I teach High School in NYC. And it drives me crazy. There are so many problems and so much dysfunction. But makes it kind of addictive. I mean you honestly have the most ridiculous conversations like I did today about who drew a penis on whose bookbag and why (not even in my class, but during an "additional school building responsibilty period" but it's just...wall to wall life. I teach in a pretty rough neighborhood and still so many of the kids are in good moods (except for the sullen, angry, sleepy and hungry ones of course) and excited about (well, not school that often) but just about all sorts of things. They can be hilarious and terrible and all sorts of things- sometimes in the same day. Maybe you are giving a test and a fire alarm/drill goes off (also today)...I mean, you really are not going to be Robin Williams in Dead Poet's society. Or maybe you will. It's a lot less "captain my captain" and a lot more of Frank McCourt's first line as a teacher "who threw their sandwich across the room?" Etc.

The real question is "why not do it"? Something like 50% of people in NYC quit w/in 5 years, so they come, try it and then do something else. Why not check out it? You sound ready for it- I think it's like having kids- you can read all the books, do all the research but you won't know unless you actually do it.

Also, I don't know where you live but if it's NYC, or even if it's not, read Jonathan Kozol's books. Oh, Missouri, sorry, didn't see that originally. Also...don't look to kids for "glowing reviews" because ...if you want to base your self-image on a teenager's perspective of you (often, old, boring etc!:) - just by definition- a teacher and over 25 years old!) may be in for some soul crushing times! Even if they like you, they are still a tough, tough crowd!:)
posted by bquarters at 3:33 PM on October 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Okay. I'm still weighing the options and making a decision but you've all given me some ideas and tips to check things out before I make the full plunge. I'm going to go ahead and mark as resolved. Thank all of you very much.
posted by guyarcher at 5:56 PM on October 2, 2014

You should research your local retention rates before taking this plunge. If most schools show a bimodal distribution with most teachers leaving the district in a couple of years and a small few hanging on for their entire careers in the same district or even at the same school, that's not a healthy pattern. The ones who leave the district are very likely to have burned out and changed careers altogether. Lots of Teach For America kiddies are also not a good sign.

If you want to do this, maybe reconsider the alternative route and go for a M. Ed. whose coursework includes classroom management, long practicums, and a strong alumni network in the nearby districts. For example, Chicago's Urban Teachers Education Program. I don't know about Missouri, sorry.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:31 PM on October 2, 2014

I left the technology realm to teach just a few years ago. I'm making my way as a new teacher now. Lots of good advice upthread. I will echo: teaching is a calling. Don't do it unless you feel like there is no other job that will make you happy. There is much to love about teaching, but it's also, by far, the most difficult, demanding and stressful job I've ever had. I have trouble relaxing because I'm always worried that there's something I should be doing. But there's also 12+ weeks/year of vacation, so it balances out.

There is a HUGE gulf between teaching adults and children, I've done both. It's supremely frustrating when preventing a classroom full of petulant/apathetic 14-year-olds from falling into a vortex of chaos takes precedence over actually teaching content.

And yes, find a charter or private school if you can. I'm teaching Language Arts at a charter school, but I also get freedom to teach a weekly elective about the History of Gaming, so that's pretty sweet.
posted by gnutron at 7:39 AM on October 3, 2014

I've been a public school teacher for 11 years. I teach in California, which is one of the worst possible places to be a teacher.

There is nothing else I would ever want to do. High school (English mostly) is where I spent a decade of my life, and I loved it.

But this year, I made the switch to 6th grade English and History in an affluent district (but still a public school). It is a joy to teach these kids. They thank me at the end of class. They cheer when I tell them we're starting a new project. They get excited about learning new facts or finding something interesting on their own. They love to read. They love talking about what they're learning.

Is it still tough? Sure. Is it long hours and less money than I could make elsewhere? Sure.

I also don't do the typical "stand up and lecture" thing. Ever. I create learning experiences and help them acquire content through well-designed projects. That, to me, is a far better measure of a teacher than how well they can relate information. And it's far more time-wise of the actual tasks you do as a teacher than lecture/content delivery.

Also, you don't need a BA in your subject so long as you can pass a subject-matter competency exam. I have a degree in English and History, but still had to take those exams because my degree was earned outside of California. Sigh. Sometimes the regulation we deal with is just plain stupid. But that's no different than any other career, really.

Feel free to gmail me (same name as mefi) if you want to talk or have questions.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:01 AM on October 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

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