It seems that my husband and I are somewhat unique–we both have PhDs and have chosen to return to the high school classroom rather than pursuing careers as college professors.
I often feel like the world looks at this choice we’ve made as some sort of failing condition. Once in a while I get a student asking me, carefully, why I’m not teaching college if I’ve got my doctorate. The assumption often seems that it’s because I couldn’t make it as an academic so now I’m stuck teaching high school.
The truth? When I was away from the high school classroom working on my doctoral course work full time, I missed the high school classroom so significantly that I realized I needed to get back to it as soon as possible. I felt unmoored when not in the high school classroom. I felt my work had been stripped of its relevance when I sat in my grad school classes and imagined the world of teaching practice. There are plenty of academics who can balance this distance from practice–I could not. And this lead to a bit of a crisis for me–why endure a difficult PhD program if I wasn’t heading for academia afterward?
I had to figure that out. And I did. The dissertation experience and my committee taught me how to write about my classroom with rigor. The researcher stance allows me to see things going on in my classroom I never noticed before. All the theory I’ve met through the doctoral experience has helped me to better articulate what’s going on in my classroom. And most importantly, I’m uniquely positioned to work on issues in education from the inside–something I could do far more of if only I could figure out how to bend the space-time continuum to give me more time (a full time high school language arts teaching position is pretty much all-consuming). I know that I am a far better teacher now after the experience of getting my doctorate and studying my own teaching for my dissertation. I’ve also been able to contribute in significant ways for my school, district, and state, ways that would not have been possible before all I got out of my experience in graduate school.
My husband holds a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology. He did not intend quite exactly to return to the high school classroom when he finished his program, but we were moving across the country for my doctoral program and he needed a job to support us. A high school job came up and he went for it–and he has never looked back. His training as a scientist via his PhD program is what has been critical for him. He now knows how to get his students thinking like scientists–they read scientific articles, they do sophisticated statistical analyses, and they engage in the scientific process through inquiry. In fact, he’s teaching a class for a local school of education this summer about just that–getting students to think scientifically. He was a good high school biology teacher before he left for his doctoral program, but now he’s a great one. And he has also contributed on the district, state, and even national level toward science education. Coming back into K12 practice with his PhD has been significant to the teaching of science.
If only graduate schools valued and encouraged returning to (or entering) K12 practice as an outcome for the PhD.
And then there’s the recent editorial (November 25, 2011) in the journal Science by editor Bruce Alberts. Alberts begins by acknowledging that our nation’s economic situation has also affected academia making funding more difficult to secure for early career science PhDs. He acknowledges that many of them are looking for alternate career paths besides becoming academic researchers. Then he writes of the import of science education across the country in our public school districts and suggests that science PhDs could play an important role in improving science education. It was about at this point that my husband stopped reading this editorial silently to himself and began reading it aloud to me as we both sat reading in our living room a few weeks ago. We looked at each other excitedly–was the editor of the journal SCIENCE about to call for science PhDs to go into the K12 classroom in order to work on science education from the inside? Was this to be the moment the tide turns and the K12 classroom would finally be considered an honorable, valued career for a PhD?
Not exactly. Alberts writes:
Thus, I would like to challenge a group of the relevant experts—teachers, principals, superintendents, education researchers, scientists, policy-makers, and experienced science curriculum specialists from school systems—to create a 15-month program aimed at preparing and certifying outstanding Ph.D. scientists as “science curriculum specialists” whom U.S. school districts would want to hire. These individuals would need to be competitively selected, provided with prestigious fellowships to cover their living expenses, and networked to each other and to the scientific and engineering communities. The goal is to produce large numbers of school system administrators with “science in their souls,” passionate people skilled at working inside the system to connect it to the very best resources available for helping science teachers to inspire their students.
I’m sorry, Bruce, but you totally missed it here. There is nothing more effective in education than a passionate, well-trained classroom teacher. We do not need more administrators, especially administrators who have maybe never had K12 classroom teaching experience. But getting more of the most talented teachers IN classrooms would be powerful. Why not call for PhDs to enter K12 practice and work on the teaching of science from the inside? Why not call out the academy and ask it to start encouraging PhDs to choose this path? Certainly not all who complete a PhD program are cut out for K12 teaching, but I would venture that many of them could be awesome at it. And many of them don’t even consider it because the academy doesn’t encourage them to.
The timing is perfect to spread science and its values by “spreading” young scientists and engineers into new types of careers.
Yes. I agree. Let’s encourage them to take on the K12 classroom.
In my mind, there is no more important work than that.