Breaking Up with Teaching v2

This is an attempt for me to understand my own motivations of leaving the field of teaching. For an explanation, see part one here.

Suspect 4: Opportunities

“The difference between an escape and an exit is really just context.” – Andy Greenwald, author who does awesome recaps of Game of Thrones

I think about motives a lot. My M.O. is to make decisions and then try to understand them after the fact. So I’ve made a decision and now I’m thinking: am I running away or am I running towards? I think the latter more than the former, even though the tone might not seem like it.

I’ve been working as a teacher for five years. As I began to entertain the idea of trying something else, I realize how pigeon-holed I had become. This is my fault, I work at a private school that doesn’t put any emphasis on student performance on standardized tests, the lifeblood of funding for other schools. I’ve spent five years trying to build up my skills in the techniques of holding mathematical discussions (namely the “Modified Moore Method”).  I became so specialized that it’s hard for others to see how my skill set would fit into various jobs I’ve applied for.

I experienced a moment (read: months) of claustrophobia. I never intended to teach my whole life. Again, I’m accepting total accountability here. Teachers basically have one-year contracts, and until I started looking for something else, I couldn’t see further than that one year.

When I discussed leaving the profession, friends of mine reacted strangely. Forgive the strawmen here, but when someone decides to sell real estate after working as a corporate salesman, no one really blinks an eye. If a truck driver settles down and decides to get an office job, who objects? When a teacher decides to leave teaching, there’s genuine shock. It’s part guilt and part where’s-your-sense-of-duty. There’s “Oh but the kids will miss you”, “We’re losing a good one.” and my personal favorite, “But you get summmmmmmmmers offfffff.”

People will say these things if you’re the worst teacher in the world and students throw a party as you walk out the door. Why? Because they’re merely pleasantries and people are nice. In reality, most people think that teachers are pretty interchangeable (or even totally replaceable).

Seen from I-35 Highways

What does that ad tell you? That with a couple of weeks of training you can be as good as the other teachers. That perception matches up with reality because your pay is pretty much the same.

The first step as I thought about exiting was: ok, what else is there? I tried to gain some traction with some of the bigger education agencies out there as a teacher trainer or working in policy, but couldn’t really get my foot in the door. I am convinced that my skill set just wasn’t marketable enough. I needed to improve in some area in order to create opportunities for myself.

Suspect 5: Value and Advancement

Most of our strengths and weaknesses as a nation – our ingenuity and our industriousness, our arrogance and our impatience – stem from our unshakeable belief in the idea that we choose our own course. – Nate silver

This suspect is really an accomplice (so to speak) of time and pay. What value do teachers actually create? Will the movement towards automation of learning continue? I honestly don’t know, but I don’t see the valuation of teachers increasing very quickly over time. There’s a supply problem – too many people going into teaching (with merit or not).

Last year I read Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. I was genuinely moved. I hadn’t read a book that had the holy triumvirate of good story-telling, super clear mathematical analysis, and new approaches old problems. I wanted to be more like Nate.

Let me digress a bit. When I was a kid, I had numbers on the brain all the time. When I learned about factoring integers, I played this really cool game by myself called “factor all the license plates.” My mom’s license plate started with 403. I still remember the day that I figured out it 403 = 31 x 13. (I walked home by myself a lot obviously). As I continued through middle school, my math classes got pretty dull.

I enrolled in college as a Physics major because Physics problems were much more enjoyable to analyze. The bulk of my math classes during freshmen and sophomore year were super tedious Calculus classes – symbol manipulation, memorization of esoteric proofs, and bland instruction. Then I took a class that was inquiry-based, and I was back forever. No Physics class on earth can stand up to the pure joy that radiates through my soul when I tackle interesting mathematical problems.

Flash forward, and over the last four years I regularly attended Math Teacher’s Circle meetings. MTC’s are professional development meet-ups for math teachers where we hear from speakers who show us what kinds of Mathematics they use. Usually they bring us problems to solve that are clever and novel and have nothing to do with state standards; they’re just fun. It was a way for me to continue taking psuedo-math classes while being fed (!!!) for free.

One speaker described what he did at the Department of Transportation. Admittedly, I would not have predicted many interesting math problems living in that space. He told us the story of creating a good system to determine when to replace DoT vehicles. The main constraints were that new cars cost a lot, and repairs of older vehicles cost a lot. But the best system anyone had come up with at that point was to replace the whole fleet every ten years. No analysis, just someone’s best guess. Based on some assumptions and after a few quick calculations, we had come up with an entirely new system for replacing the vehicles that saved millions of dollars for the state

I was completely smitten. I asked the presenter to lunch and he described other tools that I had never seen in my abstract mathematics classes: optimization, linear programming, risk analysis, forecasting, multi-criteria decision making, and spreadsheet engineering.

I love solving problems. I love using creative means to solve them. I’m not a salesman, I’m not a manager. I’m a problem solver at heart. But teaching is like middle management without the incentives like hitting sales goals. Teaching allowed me to build up interpersonal skills more than anything else, which is great but hard to communicate. I’m itching to do math again. I decided to see if I could hop on this analysis train.

Suspect 6: Comfort

Rocky: He took his best shot at becoming champ. What shot did you ever take? Bartender: Hey, Rocky, if you’re not happy with your life, that’s nice. But I got a business goin’. I don’t have to take no shots. Rocky: (gives stink eye to bartender, throws down crumpled bills) Stick that up your business. Bartender: You want me to take a shot? All right, I’ll take a shot! (drinks) – Rocky (1977)

I’m at a point now where continuing being a teacher is not really an option.

Staying means comfort. It means I’ve taught this class before and I know everything.

Comfort means stagnation. Why make new stuff, I’ve got all this old stuff, let’s just run that back – it worked last time, right? (And there’s not really an incentive to do new stuff other than avoiding boredom).

Stagnation means misery. Some people love doing the same thing day after day, but I need new problems. I need mathematical problems to solve, not managerial ones.

It’s time for me to get uncomfortable, because that’s where growth comes from. Here’s my shot.

I found a graduate school program that offers the kinds of skills I would like to have, and it’s right down the street from me. It’s terrifying to be a novice again. It’s exhilarating because who gets to do this at 30 years old? It’s oh-my-god-I’m-not-going-to-get-a-paycheck for a year. It’s heart-wrenching because saying goodbye to kids and my support group (colleagues) is hard (most of the time). It’s ego-checking because I’m going to school again as all my friends continue their normal jobs, and why can’t I just be happy at work?

Like I said in the beginning, I think I’m running towards something that’s new and fresh and better suited for me now. I loved that I taught. I don’t think of it like a military service where everyone does their part, but I think it’s what I needed at the time. Now I have to see what other adventures lie beyond the immediacy before me.


4 thoughts on “Breaking Up with Teaching v2

  1. Yes, this is a similar route I went down (right down to the majoring in Physics part). I was 28, had been teaching for 7 years and wanted to just try… something new. I received my masters degree in Atmospheric Science and felt like a total novice and a bit of a fish out of water. I’d always been interested in weather and climate, but I was suddenly surrounded by 22 year-olds with undergrads in meteorology. It took a year to not feel like a total imbecile, especially since I left the teaching profession just as I began to feel like something of an “expert” or at least, “not an imbecile.” Oh, and there’s also the fact that my professors were mostly pretty awful teachers, wholly uninterested in the art of teaching and solely interested in their research – that was frustrating.

    I’m glad you found something that moved you and pushed you to further your education in that direction. You never know if you’ll wind your way back to education, even if only tangentially or from afar. I mean, you have a kid now, so chances are you’ll become invested either way. I hope you still continue to think about education-like stuff and post your musings here, even if they are just musings, even/especially if they are about analytics.

  2. Pingback: Furthering Education: Signal or Human Capital? | Right Brained Math

  3. I enjoy your use of quotes. I kept some of them from your old Math Skills website 🙂

    Even though I got my cert. through Texas Teachers, I have the same thought when I see that billboard.

    It’s been almost a year since this post. You’re almost done with the masters program! Enjoyed reading this and appreciated your candor.

    • Thanks Thom! It’s surreal to think I wrote any of this, glad I got super capable folks to replace me.

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