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Tales of a 40-Something Student Teacher

TeachHUB Interview

Student Teacher InterviewAfter over 25 years in the high-tech field, Dave, aka Mr. Math Teacher, left his long term engineering profession to begin his new career as a teacher.

Dave opens up about his decision to embark on a new career in the teaching field and his experience on being back in the classroom.

Dave documented his experience as an atypical student teacher as a high school math teacher in a predominantly low income district.

In your blog, you mention you have struggled with math. Why did you decide to teach a subject that had a history of challenging you?

What better way to improve in something than to teach it? I cannot tell you how many “light bulb” moments I had the past two years as I revisited math in detail. I also have a degree in electrical engineering, as well as an MBA in finance and marketing, so math pervaded my college curricula. Additionally, mathematics is the most hated subject for many, many Americans, whether a student now, or not, so there is a definite need for someone who struggled with it to share his experiences overcoming it.

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Also, I am excited to learn more about equitable and accessible math curriculum and instruction, as well as other pedagogical considerations, so I can start out as a math teacher for all students: rich or poor, self-confident or self-conscious, struggling or excelling, excited or bored, math hater or lover, English conversant or not.

After over 25 years in the engineering and high tech field, what made you decide to embark on a new career as a teacher?

I felt something calling me but it took a long while to figure it out. I first thought about teaching in earnest in the mid 2000’s after my wife started teaching. I was laid off in March 2009 and decided that was my sign.

Did you find it difficult to adjust to classroom life?

Believe it or not, I always enjoyed being in a classroom. Nearly all of my experience in the classroom was as a student, whether in primary, secondary, college, grad school, or other.

To acclimate to the classroom in a non-student role, I spent time volunteering in my two boy’s elementary classrooms and volunteering at a local charter high school. Now, as a student teacher in a traditional high school, I continue adjusting to the rhythms of school, and its 55-minute periods. It is a very different experience from outside the classroom, and sometimes feels like the movie “Groundhog Day” with similar scenarios happening over and over again.

How has your actual experience in the classroom differed from your expectations?

I can tell you it is considerably different standing instead of sitting in the classroom. I also experienced the old “walk-a-mile in my shoes” moment. Very few who have not spent time teaching in a classroom can understand the feeling. No matter how insightfully you plan, how well you prepare, how much you know, or how passionately you teach, something is guaranteed to go awry.

A classroom is a crushing crucible compared to the benign work areas of many others; rarely does one outside of a classroom have to juggle so many skills nearly simultaneously in such a dynamic environment. I say this based on my lifetime experience on the outside looking in, and two years on the inside looking out.

What has been the biggest challenge for you as a teacher?

Informally assessing student understanding on a daily basis is the most important challenge since it is so critical; this is best known as “formative assessment” or “assessment for learning.” Tuning into students sufficiently to discern how well they understand the current concept, adjusting instruction accordingly, finding ways to engage students in self-assessment, and repeating this process until you feel students are ready to move on is not a trivial exercise.

Keeping students engaged from bell to bell so they have minimal opportunities to act out or disrupt the class is another key challenge. When teaching, I prefer time to pause, to think, to ask questions, and to facilitate a discussion as opposed to managing a high tempo, constantly changing, fun-filled edutainment experience. I am someone whose approach is more akin to a marathon runner than a sprinter; however, we can sprint once in a while to mix up the pace. So matching my style with my students is a work in process as I learn more and different pedagogical approaches.

Additionally, I teach underprivileged students. Many do not have adequate resources or support structure to help them succeed academically. As a parent of two boys, one in primary school and one in secondary school, I can say parental involvement is paramount in student success. Unfortunately, many schools today rely too much on parents, giving assignments that students are unable to complete on their own. This is inequitable and inappropriate in my opinion.

What has been your most rewarding moment?

Prior to starting my MA in Ed and credential program, I spent over 300 hours helping struggling students with math in a local charter high school. Over 95% of students were Hispanic and nearly 70% were low-income. I also helped eight seniors after school with two week-long interventions after they failed their first semester of geometry; all eight passed both semesters and graduated. It was a great experience seeing them walk across the stage and receive their diplomas.

More recently, and more representative of a true moment, I helped a student in AP Statistics late last year and afterward she loudly exclaimed “Oh, My God! I feel so smart!”

Which is more stressful – being an engineer or a teacher? Why?

I believe it depends more upon the person than the job. Both jobs can be very stressful, especially if you are a Type A personality. I must say that I have never worked harder than in my limited, and brief, experience as a teacher.

Teaching anywhere from 20 to 40 students per period, five periods a day, five days a week, in a fashion that does not bore them to death, seeking to determine their level of understanding moment by moment so as to revise one’s approach, juggling the inordinate amount of distractions and unanticipated challenges in classroom life, and maintaining your composure, patience, and passion, not to mention subject matter knowledge and sanity, is much, much more of a challenge than most jobs other than air traffic controller, riot police officer, infantry soldier, emergency room doctor or nurse, or other such dynamic, high pressure, high stakes role.

With the incessant drumbeat for teacher accountability, and education reform, on top of the myriad challenges of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top (RttT), Individual Education Plans (IEPs), mainstreamed language learners, differentiated instruction, and other requirements, on top of day-to-day classroom management, curriculum planning, lesson planning, instruction, assessment, and reflection, it is amazing that teachers have not walked off their jobs en masse across the country. I challenge anyone who has not spent time in a classroom recently to teach anything they choose to students for one week, preferably in a school in Program Improvement (PI), so they can better appreciate the challenges many teachers face as they strive to help students become world-class learners. It is easier said than done.

What advice would you give to someone looking to leave their current career and head back to school to become a teacher?

1. Be passionate about wanting to help children learn, even if it is initially just helping them learn how to learn.
2. Observe as many classes in your subject area in as many schools as possible.
3. Make sure you research what is required, and how long it takes, to become a credentialed teacher in your subject area. It will have taken me 30 months since I first decided I wanted to apply to a school of education to when I start teaching as a credentialed teacher this coming September.

You mention that your career was in the high tech field. What did you do on a day-to-day basis? Do you ever miss engineering?

I spent my career in the wireless communications and GPS location industries, working in engineering, marketing, sales, product management, and business development. My first job was making circuit boards for electronic devices. It was a hazardous job with chemicals and machinery all around. Starting in a job like that, and working my way up to a role where I conducted business with companies like Motorola, Nokia, Research in Motion, Samsung, LG, at&t, Sprint, Verizon, and many others is something of which I am quite proud, especially as a first generation college graduate. At the same time, I do not miss the travel schedule, the crazy pace of global competition, the endless meetings, or the mind-numbing conference calls.

What do you bring from your past career experiences into your new teaching career?

My hope is that students will come to appreciate when I weave real-world context into their mathematics curricula such as learning more about smart phones, GPS receivers, internet phones, software applications, and such. I’ve traveled the world in technical and business roles so I plan to bring those experiences into the class as well, with the goal of making the class more interesting.

Mathematics curricula today is mostly one boring lecture after the next, with limited opportunities for rich, student-centered learning, which makes me want to tear my hair out... what little is left of it, anyway. Math instruction today does not keep students in rapt attention; however, there are many discovery-based approaches that could capture their interest better than just note taking.

Sadly, the standardized testing craze limits mathematics teachers’ ability to make their content interesting, especially if students are mostly measured on procedural knowledge. Paul Lockharts book entitled "A Mathematician’s Lament” gives great perspective on today's dilemma. Also, see “The Race to Nowhere” and reflect upon your current teaching philosophy as it impacts the lives of so many of our nation’s children. 

Even with your busy schedule, you are an active member in the Twitter education community. What has been your favorite tweet?

I have two of them, both by Diane Ravitch tweeting about two of my posts!  I am honored that such a prominent author, researcher, historian and educator like Diane Ravitch would tweet about my blog post! 

Her first tweet was "How to discourage STEM researchers" which linked to my blog post on the subject and the second tweet said "The real cause of the status quo in education:" and linked to my blog post about the well-meant but misguided policies currently in place in our education system today. 

Learn more about Dave and watch him transition into his new teaching career through his blog, Reflections of a Math Teacher Candidate. You can also follow Dave on twitter with the username @mathequality.

Share your student teaching stories in the comments section!