Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s Harder (Ryan Fuller)

Ryan Fuller, a former aerospace engineer, is a high school teacher in Colorado Springs, Colo.This piece appeared in Slate, December 18, 2013 A version of this post originally appeared on TeacherPop, the blog of Teach for America corps members.

 In 2007, when I was 22, I took a position as an aerospace engineer working on the design of NASA’s next-generation spacecraft. It was my dream job. I had just received a degree in mechanical engineering, and the only career ambition I could articulate was to work on something space-related. On my first days of work, I was awestruck by the drawings of Apollo-like spacecraft structures, by the conversations about how the heat shield would deflect when the craft landed in water and how much g-force astronauts could withstand. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t just watching a documentary on the space industry—I was inside it.

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 wasn’t easy. Our team was trying to re-engineer, with modern technology, something that was designed in the ’60s. 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. My deadlines haunted me like a thousand nightmares. Over the course of the next few years, though, 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.

Because I’ve worked as an aerospace engineer and later as a teacher through Teach for America—this is my second year of teaching 11th grade math and robotics at Sierra High School in Colorado Springs—I find the public perception of both careers to be fascinating. When I tell people that I worked on the design of a NASA spacecraft, their mouths drop and their eyes pop, and their minds are no doubt filled with images of men in white lab coats running between rocket engines and blackboards filled with equations of untold complexity. Most people will give aerospace engineers tremendous respect, without having any idea what they actually do.

But no one can fully understand how difficult teaching in America’s highest-need communities 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 potential design solution. 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 25 students in the room doesn’t come to a complete halt. I also must address 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 also 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, and with no other adults in the room to support them. There are days of teaching that make a day in the office seem like a vacation.

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; people who have not taught can pretend it doesn’t exist. The tasks involved in this first 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. But these tasks alone could easily fill a traditional 40-hour work week.

The second job is the teaching part of teaching, which would more aptly be called the performance. Every day, a teacher takes the stage to conduct 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 understanding the material, and be ready to deal with the curve balls that will be thrown at her every 15 seconds—without flinching—for five hours. If, for some reason, she is not able to inspire, educate, and relate to 30 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.

I experience more failure every five minutes of teaching than I experienced in an entire week as an engineer. Giving a presentation to NASA about how the thermal protection system of a spacecraft is connected to its primary structure is a cakewalk compared to getting 30 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 customer’s concerns can be eased with a carefully crafted statement along the lines of, “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 30 seconds before class starts. What carefully crafted statement will help her?

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 a concept after lots of struggle; the feeling of exhilaration when all the energy in the room is directed toward the day’s lesson; the shared laughter between teacher and student at a joke that only they understand. Sometimes successes doesn’t strike until later, as when I found out that a two-minute presentation I gave on petroleum engineering changed the areer path of one of my students. In each second of her chaotic day, a teacher has a chance to transform the lives of young people for the better. How many aerospace engineers can say that?

In teaching, a person can be extremely competent, work relentlessly, and still fail miserably. Especially in the first year or two on the job, success can seem 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 in high-need communities 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 understand the power of doing what feels right to you—you have that choice, that privilege.

Just don’t forget about the ones who don’t have much in the way of choices and privileges. 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 kind of environment they were born into. Don’t forget about them. They’ll be there Monday morning.

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28 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

28 responses to “Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s Harder (Ryan Fuller)

  1. Alice in PA

    As a former nuclear engineer turned physics teacher ( 20 years now), I completely agree! My neutrons behaved predictably according to specific physical laws. Humans do not! That makes teaching more difficult than many people understand.
    On a different note, I am once again appalled that the most vulnerable children receive the least prepared teachers via programs like TFA. And I say this as a person who did not have any education training when I jumped into a job at a Catholic school. Luckily, the socioeconomic status of my students helped/protected them and they came to me prepared to learn with adequate nutrition, safer and stimulation. It was not until five years later when I was taking graduate education classes that I came to deeply understand effective teaching. And it was not until I transferred to a public school that I experienced first hand the full spectrum of students.
    I also mentor student teachers and only about half who come from the STEM fields are able to effectively teach, even after having a top notch prep program and being on the job some years. A degree in STEM does not mean you can teach it. In fact, my unit on nuclear physics is the hardest one for me to teacher because I have such deep specific knowledge that I have to work hard at remembering that my students do not. I fall into engineer-speak a lot during those lessons.
    If programs like TFA exist because there is a dearth of teachers in areas, then the underlying reasons need to be addressed akin to the problem of scarce rural doctors – there is no fast track program for a doctor.

  2. We are kindred spirits, Ryan. While I have two decades on you, we share many similarities: I am a former electrical engineer in my third year teaching mathematics at a Title I high school. I constantly tell family, friends, coworkers and the blogosphere that teaching is the most difficult job I have ever held, bar none. Like you, I’ve been fortunate to work on amazing technologies in my first career: laser radar systems, signal processing systems, GPS systems in a myriad of applications and services, and wireless / cellular systems used by the billions while working for companies ranging from startups (Digital Signal Corp.) to members of the Fortune 50 (GTE, Motorola) to GPS pioneers (Trimble) to CDMA wunderkinds (Qualcomm). I am confident that not one of the employees in those companies faces challenges in the course of their entire career that compare to what a Title I teacher confronts on a daily basis! I did not understand this truth, myself, until I walked a mile in a teacher’s shoes…

    BTW, I love the “compare and contrast” approach in your essay. It perfectly presents the challenges in teaching. Well done! I especially like the following excerpt as it captures my struggle.

    “In teaching, a person can be extremely competent, work relentlessly, and still fail miserably. Especially in the first year or two on the job, success can seem 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.”

    Check out my reflections on teaching when you get a moment at: http://mathequality.wordpress.com/2013/12/24/back-to-blogging/

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Dave, for commenting on Ryan’s piece.

    • As a former satellite operations trainer….I second, third, fourth….I tend to say that I wanted to be an astronaut and then I found teaching! This career is a true science, art, psychology, and challenge! I love it.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Terri, for comment.

      • I’m working towards the “loving it” part…I find myself frustrated too often by the persistent gap between student readiness for a course and the expectations (requirements) of the course…As teachers, we are too constrained by an archaic, overly rigid framework for certifying student understanding…we need to unbundle school to unleash learning!

  3. Pingback: Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s...

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  5. Tort

    To the “Those who can DO, those who can’t TEACH” crowd: Take notice and put your money where your mouth is.

    Thanks to you men and women who were the “doers” and who now teach and tell the truth.

  6. Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:
    A must read for those who believe teaching is a walk in the park.
    My comment to Ryan’s piece follow. Be sure to read his well written post.

    We are kindred spirits, Ryan. While I have two decades on you, we share many similarities: I am a former electrical engineer in my third year teaching mathematics at a Title I high school. I constantly tell family, friends, coworkers and the blogosphere that teaching is the most difficult job I have ever held, bar none. Like you, I’ve been fortunate to work on amazing technologies in my first career: laser radar systems, signal processing systems, GPS systems in a myriad of applications and services, and wireless / cellular systems used by the billions while working for companies ranging from startups (Digital Signal Corp.) to members of the Fortune 50 (GTE, Motorola) to GPS pioneers (Trimble) to CDMA wunderkinds (Qualcomm). I am confident that not one of the employees in those companies faces challenges in the course of their entire career that compare to what a Title I teacher confronts on a daily basis! I did not understand this truth, myself, until I walked a mile in a teacher’s shoes…

    BTW, I love the “compare and contrast” approach in your essay. It perfectly presents the challenges in teaching. Well done! I especially like the following excerpt as it captures my struggle.

    “In teaching, a person can be extremely competent, work relentlessly, and still fail miserably. Especially in the first year or two on the job, success can seem 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.”

  7. Pingback: Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s...

  8. Reblogged this on Planning 2 Learn – A 4th Grade Teacher and commented:
    As a former satellite operations trainer, I second! Teaching is harder than rocket science.

  9. Pingback: Teaching Isn't Rocket Science. It's Harder (Rya...

  10. Pingback: Working Towards “Loving It” | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

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  12. Peter Windome

    Many years ago my sister (a teacher) asked me what I thought of the teaching profession. I said that I believed to begin with, for competent dedicated teachers, class sizes should be cut in half and the teacher’s remuneration should be doubled.

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  14. Pingback: Teaching Isn't Rocket Science. It's Harder (Ryan Fuller) | South Australian Secondary Principals' Association

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