Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Teaching, Lies and Patience

As some of you may know, I'm applying for a teaching certificate. Some of you who didn't know are probably saying 'wait, isn't that putting students into Bob's Head on a regular basis?'. Probably, but Only a very specialized part of it that deals with Biology. Ok, that might not be better. Biological Science is one of those fields that squicks people. Still, High School Biology only leaves so much room for squick. In point of fact, my own preference is for less squick; molecular biology rather than zoology. Anyhow, I still remember enough to ace the Praxis general science test and score over 90% on the biology test, so I know the material. Now it's just a question of background checks and such. With the level of checking done in the past, I'm not too worried about that bit.

There are advantages and disadvantages to teaching as a career. One disadvantage is a comparitively low pay rate. One advantage is that pay rate increases reliably once you've achieved tenure. Another advantage is benefits. I was recently talking to my dad, who is due to retire from teaching in another half dozen years or so. I asked him how much he pays for health insurance. His response of 'Pay? You mean deductible?' floored me. I've been used to having half a grand or more docked from my pay each month to pay medical. Actually, if I add that money back onto the pot, it makes up about half the difference from my old job and a teacher's starting salary. Retirement benefits are another perk. The only 'retirement' fund available to me previously was a 401K. Employer-paid pension funds don't happen often for IT folks, and they don't happen at all for IT consultants. My dad's retirement is going to be better than what I was making at my last job, by quite a good margin. Don't get me wrong; I don't begrudge him that, but I've been employed for roughly 18 of the last 20 years and not once have I had an employer do more than 'matching funds, vested when you've been with the company longer than we keep employees'.

So yeah. Teaching looks better and better from an economics standpoint. Then there's the work itself. I hear a lot of teachers complaining about a lack of respect, but I can't think of a single person I'd be embarrassed to tell what I did for a living as a teacher. More importantly, I don't think there's a single person I'd need to tell what teaching is. You just say 'I'm a teacher', and they reply 'what do you teach', and you respond with a subject or grade level for elementary teachers. I've had hour long discussions with people about what a Project Manager does, and there are people who still think I wrote code for a living. Then again, that's a popular misconception: if you are in IT, anywhere in IT, you write code. The popular belief is that you also know how to solder, can't spell, live with your parents and are bereft of meaningful social skills.

OK, each of those is accurate in some cases. Some IT guys write code, although they're mostly in departments that have broken themselves off from 'IT' now. Some IT guys can repair electronics, although most of them realize that it's cheaper, more reliable and faster to swap out the broken part for a new one. More than one IT person I know of can't spell beyond a phonetic level, but that's by no means a universal trait. I know of a few IT folks who lived with parents until later in life, but that was mostly a cost-saving measure, not a social one. Finally, I've known IT guys with no social skills, but I've known many other professionals with no socials skills to speak of either. Actually a final note is that I've known nearly as many women in IT as I've known men, so they're not all 'guys', except in a metaphoric sense.

That actually leads into my next point, which relates to teaching. Terry Pratchett nailed it in The Science of Discworld, where he referred to it as 'lies to X', the most repeated version being 'lies to children' which are generally imparted by teachers attempting to get students to understand something at a basic level. People tell lies for a variety of reasons, but a very common reason is when they can't understand something and need a simplified version to grasp. In the case of IT guys, the original IT guys were a iconoclastic bunch, with the only unifying characteristic being that iconoclasty and a rather different worldview, one in which things worked if you follow rules. Minus the iconoclasty, that's rather the same as clockmakers and engineers, so the stereotype of the IT guy was born as a 'particularly weird engineer'.

Similar things happen with the sciences at a high school level. I realized once I was in college that High School Biology covered biology up until, say, the mid 1800's, with vague allusions to the 1900's. Bio I & II in college covered that same ground, but actually pulled in some information from the 50's. It wasn't until I hit junior & senior level coursework that I started learning things from my own lifetime. Quite often, they contradicted things that I had learned in High School, just as later discoveries contradicted things that were believed earlier. In some cases it was clarification rather than contradiction, but there were some contradictions. There were some huge ones in my physics courses, as I recall, and even some in my Chemistry courses, although I couldn't be sure; my High School Chemistry was too involved with making things go 'boom'. So there exists the very real possibility that I'll need to simplify things to the point of being incorrect in order to simplify them enough for students to understand. I hope not, but we shall see.

Either way, Teaching will be a different kind of career for me. My previous career, IT, is all about speed. Make it work faster, get it done faster. Cheaper is often a goal too, but faster is the name of the game, especially as a consulting IT person. For those in need of clarification, a 'consulting' IT person is one who doesn't work for the company he's supporting. He works for a dedicated IT company, which lives or dies based on the contracts it gets. Teaching isn't.

About speed, that is. Short of reverse engineering the brain and uploading memories, there's no way to speed up the learning process. So I'll be forced to slow down, from a tactical perspective. From a strategic one, too. Ask anyone in IT, and they'll have a plan for early retirement, if they plan for it at all. It may not be a good plan, but they've got one. Teaching, on the other hand, is a long term thing. It's a different way of thinking, one more suited to patience and contemplation. Those of you who have read this far might guess that I'm all about contemplation. Plus, there are summers off. To a guy who once had multiple employers seriously care that people were 'unproductive' during the 30 to 90 second periods when we were waiting for the phone to ring, the idea of two to three months of scheduled downtime is downright odd.

So yeah. I'm hoping that CE comes through soon, because all in all, teaching looks like a place I'd like to be.

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