One of my earliest friends at Caltech, Dr. K, gave me some excellent advice. After I described some of my twisted history from Caltech, he told me that I needed to write an essay on Why I Have Always Wanted To Be A Teacher. Being the open-minded procrastinator that I am, his advice languished on my frontal lobes for months. You may now witness my active response to his friendly and expert advice.
I am the son of a man who loved Science. Dad had an inquisitive and creative mind. Recreation and work were intertwined in his mind, for no recreation could go unstudied, and no job could escape at least a small exploitation for pleasure. It was unavoidable that I would be introduced to Great Wonders, by reading the perpetual supply of National Geographic magazines, by watching the great and beloved ‘Mr. Wizard‘, Don Herbert, or by faithfully reading The Amateur Scientist in ‘Scientific American‘ every month.
I have always loved Science and found joy in discovering nature.
School did not provide the stimulating experiences that I had at home. My classroom experiences were generally frustrating, especially for being a child who tried hard to behave well and as expected while other kids disrupted class.
I can make a difference in students’ experiences as a Teacher.
Several Teachers, in a few special moments that demonstrated their love for others and their ability to teach more than an academic subject, touched my life. My 4th-grade Teacher gave me a simple reassurance, something no other Teacher had devoted one minute to, that saved me from a debilitating personal shame. My 8th-grade Journalism Teacher, in a triumph of practicality over dogmatic control, used my sotto voce whisperings to admonish noisy classmates on the proper way to talk in class. My Senior English Teacher came to my defense when classmates protested my use of a word that they did not know. They complained about the ‘egghead’ vocabulary that ‘no one’ could know the meaning of. She told them that they were the ones who needed correction, and that they should take the opportunity to learn. She told them that I would not have used a word without knowing its meaning. Then, she trusted me enough to put me on the spot and asked me to define the word I had used.
My classroom experiences occasionally included valuable contributions to my life from Teachers.
I want to be like them.
My excellent public-school performance, dandy SAT scores, and guidance by Dad in writing college applications led me to attend the California Institute of Technology – Caltech. This was big-league stuff, a very selective admission to a great incubator of Scientists. I wanted to be a great Physicist. I discovered, through difficulties in college, that I did not yet have the discipline needed to achieve significant things in Science. I also was experiencing a period of spiritual growth, which gave me a heightened concern for the education of the general population, as compared to the education which advanced students experienced. I became determined to contribute to the advancement of Science understanding for the great majority of students who would not become Scientists.
Science research does not need me. Science education needs me.
Caltech did not appreciate my newly-asserted attitude. Caltech liked (oh – I checked: they still do) to quote Theodore Roosevelt, who, in an address at the Throop Institute (later Caltech) on March 21, 1911, called for “the one-hundredth man … with … cultural scientific training …”. They actually take that to mean Science first, culture second. That is fine, but it did not match my goals. When my academic struggles re-occurred, I had the privilege of meeting with the Academic Review Board. They were dis-impressed by my goal to teach, and I was offered an explicit and involuntary opportunity to study elsewhere.
Elsewhere was home. I returned to Springfield, attended MSU (then SMSU), and did what I could to end the agony of college. That meant taking the path of least resistance – a Physics degree. It also meant that, with a newly-acquired fiance, I did not have vast credentials to acquire the necessary employment to provide for The Kids’ Mom. I finagled a job as Test Equipment Technician at the Zenith TV factory. This evolved, in successive steps on the path of least resistance, into an Engineering career.
It was an accident of my life’s history that I did not start my career as a teacher.
The years as an Engineer were not devoid of contact with teaching. The Kids’ Mom was a Teacher (and a mighty good one). I provided occasional help for her preparation for Math and Science classes. Also, as occasionally happened in college, someone (often a co-worker) would need tutoring.
Tutoring, and helping a little with class prep, were too-infrequent
and eagerly-sought opportunities to teach.
Tutoring was strangely unsatisfying. No student ever needed to be tutored twice. Typically, they would seek tutoring while struggling with C‘s and D‘s. After a tutoring session, their test scores would raise by two or three grades – to A‘s and B‘s. They felt comfortable with the material and could handle it without further help.
I can accomplish the ultimate goal of teaching: teaching students to teach themselves.
One of the terminal conversations that I had with my last Engineering boss included a very brief discussion of mentoring. I suggested that my skills and experience were being misused, and that I could, as a minor element of my work, convey my skills and experience to other Engineers. That suggestion was not received favorably. The expedient of assigning me to plug some leak in the dike was judged to be necessary and a 100% full-time commitment.
The biggest disappointment from my Engineering career is that my employers placed no value on mentoring, and refused to devote resources to perpetuating experience and knowledge.
The Little Red-haired Girl has been amazingly supportive, despite the equally amazing frustration of the situation, during my hiatus from employment. She has listened patiently while I re-examined the prospect of becoming a Teacher. She told me “Go for it“. I love her for that. I also love her for being a Teacher – a person who was truly born to teach music. It makes me feel good to be close to such a fine Teacher.
It may not be a coincidence that both The Kids’ Mom and the Little Red-haired Girl are Teachers.
I have recently begun helping in several Middle School Science & Math classes for a few hours a week. It’s a good thing.
Today, Ms. C let me play Teacher. Her 6th-grade Science class got a short presentation on applications of quartz and other piezoelectric materials. It’s a big and noisy class (usually), but they were all quiet and pasted their eyes on me for 10 minutes! They eagerly asked interesting questions and they were interested in each other’s questions.
Today, I tutored a student, ‘Bob’. Bob has certain personal distractions that interfere with learning. I can see that there is progress despite the difficulty, and that my little academic assistance may make it a bit easier, some day, for Bob to overcome the distractions in life.
I have always wanted to be a Teacher because I can do it well, I can make a real difference, and I care about the people I teach.