Forum on Education of the American Physical Society
The Road From Bell Labs Researcher to High School Science Teacher
B.I. Greene, Summit High School, Summit NJ 07901
It seems as if everywhere I look there are reports, discussions and debates over the state of science education in America. Issues of curriculum, instruction format, learning style and gender, to name just a few, are debated and examined up and down the educational line. I have little or no formal training in these matters, and choose not to discuss them here.
Since the 5 years I have been teaching high school science however, I have often been asked for advice regarding the career shift I had made. Technically trained individuals are contemplating similar moves and are clearly hesitant or worried about what they might or might not be getting into. I am writing this article with those people in mind.
I had a productive and wonderfully enjoyable career at Bell Laboratories during the years 1980 to 2001. Having obtained my PhD in physical chemistry doing picosecond spectroscopy, I continued in the research area at Bell Labs developing new and improved ultra-short pulsed laser systems. I was able to collaborate with amazingly talented people, and over the 20+ years I spent there, wrote roughly 50 journal articles in areas of short pulse lasers, molecular dynamics, nonlinear optics, and fiber optics. Furthermore, we were encouraged to present our work at professional conferences and write patents were applicable, all of which I did.
By 2001, the telecom bubble had begun to deflate, and it was clear to many in the research area that life was rapidly changing. Some left to academic jobs, others to competitors, and many people just retired. Lucent offered early retirement packages on at least a few occasions, and without being coerced at the age of 47, I took the offer of full retirement. I harbor no bitter feelings or resentment about my career at the Labs, and quite to the contrary, consider myself quite fortunate to have had the opportunity to work there and to leave under such generous conditions. Many of my colleagues were not so fortunate.
In New Jersey, we have something called the “Alternate Route”, which is a state sponsored program that allows professional people outside of education to enter the field via a certification process without going back to school and obtaining a formal education degree (if one wishes to teach in private school, no certification is necessary). The way it works is quite simple. First you take a standardized test (the Praxis) in your subject area to prove that you know the material. This should pose no problem except sometimes questions are asked on material you haven’t thought about for 30 years. Next get hired by a school. Then during your first year of work you must take 200 classroom hours of education instruction (at night in my case) which is provided by the state at numerous locations. After completing one year of teaching and the 200 hours of instruction, one is awarded a full teaching certificate, the same certificate that you would have obtained if you pursued a teaching career in college. What a great deal! Many states have similar programs. The only problem is that when you look a little closer, you find that by 3 years out, less than half of the people going “the alternate route” are still teaching.
Contrary to what some people may think, teaching is incredibly hard work. Teaching is a skilled trade, one which requires practice, instruction and nurturing. There are very few people who are instinctually natural at it, and even those people improve dramatically with time.
For many different reasons, teaching is not for everyone. Perhaps the saddest sights I can remember are those of bitter and angry ca. 60 year old laid-off engineers in need of work, turning to education as a last resort. Many would point blank confess this to me in casual conversation. It is very unlikely that these people will have the patience, energy or attitude necessary to succeed. By succeed I unfortunately do not mean to become a good teacher, but rather merely being able to maintain sustained educational employment.
So what are the challenges of the classroom and why are they so difficult to master for many? You can find the answer in any number of text books on the subject, but to fully understand the nature of the beast, you must work it out for yourself, often making painful and stressful mistakes the first few times around. Many scientists come into a high school thinking that the course material is trivial, and to a large extent it is. What they don’t appreciate is the ability to present the material to teenagers in a day to day way, so that they can understand and maintain motivation, is by no means trivial. Once you have lost them either in attitude or content, a whole floodgate of other problems arise and the proverbial horrific 1st year teaching results. Every veteran teacher can sympathize with how initially hard it can be, but one must be able to rapidly and willingly learn from your mistakes. You must be able to take advise from your peers and supervisors constructively and make rapid and effective improvements.
One of the largest failed expectations was that the ability to deliver an effective and vibrant technical talk to your technical peers should somehow be translatable to the high school classroom. I like to draw an analogy to the difference between a gourmet chef fussing and perfecting a meal to that of a short-order cook cranking out 3 blue-plate-specials a day, 24/7 in the local dinner. While it helps to be upbeat, animated and enthusiastic in either case, the goals are totally different, yet every bit as admirable.
There are many features of classroom teaching that must be understood and implemented. Children have a very well defined attention span. Their attention ebbs and flows depending on the time of day, and minute by minute in the class. Techniques that work with this fact and don’t ignore or fight it are critical. Students need to be stimulated with worthwhile educational material that is both doable and challenging. Students have to get up and work with their hands, work collaboratively, work visually, work verbally, work with math and abstraction. Ultimately, the students have to feel good about what they are learning and the time they are spending with you.
When teaching in public school, the expectation is that you work with all types of students, from the most needy to the most talented. You learn that there are challenges and rewards associated with all ability and age groups. You may ultimately prefer to work with one group or another, but the reality of our public system requires flexibility. A mandate expressed by one job applicant that “I do not teach the dummies!” is definitely out of line, out of place and out of touch with reality.
Unfortunately, many alternate route teachers initially find themselves in less than ideal schools or school settings. While in math and science there is more need for qualified teachers than in the humanities, nevertheless this can still be a problem. A good deal of attrition occurs at this point. Learn what you can and move on. Any good teacher must be flexible and have a strong survival instinct.
As anyone who has changed careers in mid life can attest to, it is psychologically very hard to go from a respected senior position back down to that of a total novice. Often I would be stunned to see 25 year-olds working far more effectively than myself. Nevertheless, these thoughts are best put aside, and the 25 year-old approached and asked for advice. I had no problem doing this, but many I fear would.
And yes, after the classroom skills are mastered, you will find that the students, their parents and the administration will come to value the professional experience that you have had in fields of science and technology. You will be able to use the correct terminology and jargon the way textbook-only learned knowledge will never enable one to do. You will have the depth and perspective to enrich the curriculum and guide students into possible professional technical careers. The students can tell the difference, and will look up to you and in some cases admire you for where you have been and what you have done. You will become a positive role model and turn people who where science-phobic into people who are if nothing else, appreciative of science. You will go home exhausted on a typical day, but feel that you have really earned your pay and done something worthwhile.