When I was twenty-two years old, I took a position as an aerospace engineer working on the design of NASA’s next-generation spacecraft. I considered it my
dream job. With a degree in mechanical engineering, the only career ambition I could articulate was that I wanted to work on something space-related. As I walked down the cubicle aisles on my first day of work, I was awestruck by the drawings of Apollo-like spacecraft structures. This wasn’t some documentary on the space industry – this was what I was going to be working on. The pinnacle of my career star-struckness occurred at a meeting I attended between my manager and a group of NASA representatives in which they discussed how much the heat shield would deflect when the craft landed in water, and how much g-force astronauts could withstand. We were indeed working on some real space…stuff.
I was extremely motivated during my first year of work. I got in earlier and stayed later than most, and I tried to learn everything I could from my more experienced colleagues. The work certainly wasn’t easy. Our team was trying to re-engineer, with modern technology, something that was designed in the sixties. As a design engineer, I had to integrate the efforts of several different groups that often didn’t talk to each other or even get along very well. Because we were working on a one-of-a-kind project, many of the problems we ran into were being solved for the first time. I had to come up with design solutions that met several requirements and my deadlines haunted me like a thousand nightmares. Over the course of the next few years, I completed my work with a relatively high level of success. I received awards and exceptional performance reviews, and I gained the respect of my colleagues, some of whom had been in the business for about as long as I had been alive.
Despite all of this, I felt there was something missing. I was working on an intriguing and challenging project, and I was being recognized for my success, but I struggled with the question of why I was doing it. What higher purpose was I serving? My inability to answer this question led me down a journey that included a year and a half of traveling, reading and thinking that culminated in my applying and being accepted to Teach For America.
Because I’ve worked as a teacher and an aerospace engineer, I find it fascinating how different the public perception of both careers is, especially when the realities of the professions are considered. When I told people that I worked on the design of a NASA spacecraft, their mouths would drop and their eyes would pop, their minds no doubt filled with images of men in white lab coats running between rocket engines and black boards filled with equations of untold complexity. The truth is that most people will give aerospace engineers tremendous respect without having any idea what they actually do.
And then there’s teaching. No one can fully understand how difficult teaching is until he or she personally experiences it. When I solved engineering problems, I had to use my brain. When I solve teaching problems, I use my entire being – everything I have. A typical engineering task involves sending an email to a colleague about a design solution that we had been working on that week. A typical teacher task involves explaining for the fourth time how to get the variable out of the exponent while two students put their heads down, three students start texting, two girls in the back start talking and one student provokes another from across the classroom. As a teacher, I must prioritize the problems of getting the distracted students refocused and stabilizing the cross-classroom conflict before it escalates into a shouting match or worse, all the while making sure the learning of the other twenty-five students in the room doesn’t come to a complete halt. I also must solve these problems in a consistent, respectful way that best serves the needs of the students because if I don’t, the problems will increase in number and become more difficult to solve.
As an engineer, I dealt with very complex design problems, but before I decided how to solve them, I had a chance to think, research, and reflect for hours, days, or even weeks. I was also solving them as part of a team and had many opportunities to consult colleagues for advice before making any decisions. As a teacher, I have seconds to decide how to solve several problems at once for hours at a time without any real break. Teachers are almost always the only adults in the room and for many teachers, the adults who should be supporting them actually make their jobs more challenging. There are days of teaching that make a day in the office seem like a vacation.
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about teaching is that it is a single job. Teaching is actually two jobs. The first job is the one that teachers are familiar with and that people who have not taught can pretend doesn’t exist. The tasks involved in this job include lesson planning, grading, calling parents, writing emails, filling out paperwork, going to meetings, attending training, tutoring, and occasionally sponsoring a club or coaching a sport. The time allotted to teachers for this work is usually one hour per workday. The reality, however, is that the time spent on these tasks could easily fill a traditional forty-hour work week.
And then there’s the teaching part of teaching, which would more aptly be called the performance. Because it is a performance. When Monday morning arrives, there is no time for a teacher to recount weekend activities in the coffee room. There is no time to ease into the week by reading news websites in between checking emails. Every morning a teacher is on stage, conducting a symphony of human development. A teacher must simultaneously explain the content correctly, make the material interesting, ensure that students are staying on task and that they understand the material, and be ready to deal with the curve balls that will be thrown at her every fifteen seconds – without flinching – for five hours. And if, for some reason, she is not able to inspire, educate, and relate to thirty students at once, she has to be ready to get them back on track because no matter what students say or do to detract from the lesson, they want structure, they want to learn and they want to be prepared for life.
That said, I experience more failure every five minutes of teaching than I experienced in a week as an engineer. Giving a presentation to NASA about how the thermal protection system of a spacecraft is connected to the primary structure is a cakewalk compared to trying to get thirty teenagers excited about logarithms. A difficult moment in engineering involves a customer in a big meeting pointing out a design problem that I hadn’t considered. The concerns of the customer can be eased with a carefully crafted statement that basically says, “You’re right. We’ll look into it.” A difficult moment in teaching involves a student – one who has a history of being bullied and having suicidal thoughts – telling me that she is pregnant thirty seconds before class starts. What carefully crafted statement is going to help her?
The moments of success seem to come less often as a teacher, but when they do arrive, they can make up for all the failures. The excitement on a student’s face when she understands something after struggling with it for a while. The look a student gives you when he realizes you really care about him. That lesson when all the energy in the room is directed toward the day’s objective. The shared laughter between teacher and student that comes from a joke that only they understand. Sometimes the successes don’t come until well down the line, when a teacher realizes she played a big part in altering a student’s life for the better – like when I found out the two-minute presentation I gave on petroleum engineering changed what one of my students wanted to do with his life. In each second of her chaotic day, a teacher has a chance to drastically change the life of her students for the better. How many people can say that?
New teachers should understand that pouring your soul into something you care so deeply about yet fail at so regularly is one of the most difficult things you will ever experience in your life. The corps members that I work with in my community could have entered any field and succeeded because they are extremely competent people who work hard. Teaching, though, is different. In teaching, a person can be extremely competent, work relentlessly, and still fail miserably. In fact, that is the reality for most first-year corps members who are often put into positions in which success seems impossible. For people who have been so successful up to that point in their lives, failure is a difficult thing to face, especially when that failure involves young people not being able to realize their full potential in life.
Because of all this, sometimes teachers think about leaving for other professions. As someone who quit his job designing a NASA spacecraft during a severe recession without any clear plan, I realize that sometimes you have to do what feels right to you. For me, thirty pairs of eyes looking up at me answer the once-burning question about the higher purpose of my work. As someone with a great education and leadership qualities, you have the opportunity to do whatever you want. You can choose to leave whenever you want. You can go into any field and achieve great things. You have that choice.
Just don’t forget about the ones who don’t have a choice. Don’t forget about the ones that don’t get to choose what school they go to. Who don’t get to choose who their teachers are. Who don’t get to choose how the students around them act. Who don’t get to choose what environment they were born into. Don’t forget about them. They’ll be there Monday morning.