Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s Harder.

Getting schooled.
Dec. 18 2013 5:06 PM

Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s Harder.

To solve engineering problems, you use your brain. Solving classroom problems uses your whole being.

The launch of STS-1 from pad 39A on April 12, 1981, carried astronauts John W. Young and Robert Crippen into a two-day Earth orbital mission.
Easier than teaching algebra.

Courtesy NASA

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.

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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.