Advice from someone on the “other” other side

In my last hastily written post, I wrote about the process of interviewing from the side of the interviewers. That’s because I’ve been heavily immersed in it for the past few weeks. But it wasn’t so long ago that I was on the job market myself, writing personal statements, meeting myriad people, and giving my demo lessons. And as a first time teacher, I had no idea what to do or expect. I mean, I had my education classes, but they were ages ago (I went to grad school after getting certified to teach), and they didn’t cover any of the practical stuff on how to get a job.

Fortunately, my sister is in education — she teaches at an independent school in Massachusetts, and she went through the whole rigmarole and gave me loads of advice. She also put me in touch with a number of her teacher friends who I asked tons of questions to. I didn’t know the wide diversity of independent schools until I talked with them. Boarding? Day? Mixed boarding and day? How many classes is it normal to teach? How many different preps? What does a dorm parent do? etc.

I also did a lot of library/book research to find out salary information, how to write a good resume, and where to look to find public schools with openings (I’m certified in Massachusetts), and how to find independent schools with openings.

In other words, it wasn’t an easy process. But I learned a number of things along the way that I would recommend to anyone going on the job market. I think most of these mainly apply to independent schools, but I’m not sure…

1. STAYING ORGANIZED. You’ll likely be applying to work at a number of different schools, and you’re going to be communicating with a number of different people at a number of different schools in a number of different ways (mailing a letter of intent perhaps, email correspondence, phone conversations).

No matter how good a memory you have (personally, I have the memory of a goldfish), create an Information Sheet for each school with the name of the school, the address of the school, the relevant info (what you like about it, what you don’t like about it, what duties beyond teaching the position they’re hiring for requires, salary info if you can get it, etc.). Also, create a table below which documents the communication you’ve had with the school: the date of communication, if you contacted the school or if the school contacted you, the type of communication (phone, email, fax, letter), the “gist” of the contact, and if a followup is required.

Especially if you’re looking for independent schools through a company like Carney, Sandoe, & Associates, they’ll inundate you with options. Actually, it could just be the fact that I was a math teacher looking for a job in a large city, so there were lots of openings. But still, it can’t help but be organized.

2. PREPARING A DEMO LESSON. Prepare your demo lesson well, and email the teacher of the class you’re teaching to find out anything and everything you can. Some schools just told me to teach “completing the square” or “the golden ratio.” I promptly emailed the teacher of the class and asked them everything I needed to know to create an appropriate lesson: I wanted to know what they had just done, their ability level, if they all have graphing calculators or not, if they are comfortable using them, if there was something concrete they wanted them to be able to do at the end of the class, etc.

I then used this information as my guide to create my lesson. But I always “overprepared” meaning that I had the equivalent of two lessons worth of material in case the students were super quick. I also had ideas of where to go if parts of the lesson were too hard. So, for example, in one demo lesson I did on “parametric equations and trigonometry,” I was told the student knew what parametric equations were.

It turns out that the teacher meant that she had just mentioned the term in the previous class; the students had no idea what parametric equations were. So even though a good chunk of the lesson I prepared was pretty much out the window, I had anticipated the possibility by starting my lesson off very slowly (to gauge the students to see where they were), and then instead of going full steam, I just focused on the basic concepts. We only got through half the lesson I had planned, but they came out knowing parametric equations & trig pretty darn well. I even got them to think in 3-D to create the equation of a helix!

In other words, make sure you consider the scaffolding of your lesson.

3. LEARNING NAMES! I’m terrible with names, and so my sister suggested that I ask each student to put up a namecard (I handed out large index cards, told them to fold them down, and passed out markers for them to write out their names). While they did that, I introduced myself, gave a corny story, told students they should be free to ask questions, and generally set up a relaxed atmosphere. I also arrived to the class early and shook everyone’s hand as they entered.

During the lesson, sometimes I let kids raise their hands, but sometimes I saw a quizzical face and I called on that student because they were struggling. I then coaxed them through the process to get them to understand. I did this naturally — I found I did this without thinking when doing my student teaching — but looking back, it has the added benefit of showing the administrators watching that I care about student learning.

4. FORGETTING THE EVALUATORS. I was nervous before each demo lesson, but I tell you, as soon as you’re up there in front of the students, you forget everything except your love of the subject you’re teaching and your students. I literally forgot that there were administrators and other teachers in the room, and maybe it was the adrenaline that did that. But if there’s a way you can make those 50 minutes about you and the students, do it.

5. BEING YOURSELF. My interviews were 1-day things, and they were long. I was shepherded around from administrator to learning specialist to department head to the math faculty to watch a demo class to tour the school. Some schools also had a group of students interview me. I would sometimes repeat myself (I answered the same questions over and over, and sometimes I forgot who I had said what to), but then I would joke about it.

And I talked about non-math teacher stuff too. Because you’re going to be working with these people for at least a year (hopefully much longer), and you need to see if you’re comfortable having a normal conversation with them.

The people in one school in particular was so stilted and awkward and I didn’t really get a “we could be friends” vibe from anyone there, that I just had to nix it, even though it was a school with a lot of promise (it was a new school getting itself off the ground, and expanding, and the possibility of helping a school go through that transition and develop a particular flavor was appealing to me).

5. ATTENDING MEAT MARKETS. I got my job through Carney Sandoe — they hooked me up to a lot of schools with math openings. But they, in conjunction with NAIS, hold a yearly job fair called FORUM (I think). If you want a job in an independent school, go to this. I did mini 15 or 30 minute interviews with around 30 schools in two days! The feedback I got from my interviewers at this thing was positive — and they highlighted the passion with which I talked about teaching and math, my energy level at the end of the day, and my personal statement, which a few said led them to consider me.

Because I’m a total newbie, I think that being idealistic, enthusiastic, and a bit naive is okay. And even though I don’t think I’m anywhere near an amazing candidate, I do remember one administrator pulling me aside at the conference who said, “I just have to tell you that I was sitting at a table near where you were interviewing, and your passion and enthusiasm were so amazing, and your answers were so genuine, that I just needed to tell you that if I had a math opening at my school, I would have offered it to you then.” Which literally made my day. Because there are many poker faces at these things, and I didn’t know how I was coming across (young and immature?). It was the first time I thought “hey, I’m going to get a job!”

6. DESCRIBING WEAKNESS. I’ve been asked what my biggest weakness as a teacher is. It’s hard to answer. The supposedly “correct” way to answer the question is to find something that you can spin as a positive. Like “My biggest failure is that I care too much about students, and that sometimes puts me in…” Or to take something you were bad at and talk about how you recognized it as a weakness and then adapted it to your teaching to improve. But it was hard for me because I had only done student teaching, and that had been ages ago. So I didn’t have a good answer to that question.

I answered: “My biggest weakness is that I don’t have experience. You’re going to be interviewing a ton of candidates here, and I bet almost all of them have more experience than me. What I can offer is only the fact that I’m a person always striving to do the best I can, and that I’m always on the quest for improvement. So even though I’m a neophyte now, I won’t be.”

A few schools asked me for something else, something about my teaching. So I went there, but it wasn’t good. So think of a good answer to this question.

7. BEING FLEXIBLE. When narrowing down the schools I was interested in, I realized that I shouldn’t have too many absolute criteria. I won’t work in Kentucky, say, but would I be willing to teach middle school? Because I kept my mind just a bit more open than I anticipated, I ended up at my current school, which had an opening for a teacher to teach middle and upper (high) school. During my talks with this school, I made it clear that I had never thought of teaching middle school before, but I would be willing to do it for a year, with the condition that if I wanted to switch to upper school full time the following year I could.

They agreed, and I’m now working at a great school that I almost passed by.

In fact, I found I love teaching 7th grade this year. They are so unexpectedly amazing that I keep thanking my past self for considering it. Next year, I’m still going to teach totally in the upper school, but that isn’t because I didn’t like 7th grade, but because I don’t enjoy being cross-divisional (more meetings, more to keep track of, etc.)

8. TRYING TO JUSTIFY A CAREER CHANGE: DON’T. Okay, so I don’t mean that. I mean: don’t be defensive about leaving your career. I decided to leave my PhD program to teach. And since I was so caught up with grad school for the last zillion years, I had it in my head that I had to explain my move to teaching. My sister told me not to be so “grad school was great but it had X, Y, and Z which didn’t sit well with me, so…” with it. So many people switch careers that it seemed to be a non-issue with my interviewers. Not one pushed the issue. I briefly explained my reasons, and how I was always hellbent on teaching (either at the high school or college level), and they accepted that and moved on in the interview.

So instead of talking why you’re leaving something, talk about why you’re going to teaching, and focus on what you learned from your experiences in your past life which will help make you a better teacher.

9. CRAFTING A PERSONAL STATEMENT. This was tricky for me, and now that I’m reading personal statements of other applicants, I wonder if mine is a bit too mushy. Still, maybe it works for new teachers, because I got a number of compliments on it when I sat down to certain interviews. It’s what — they said — got them to take a double look at me. Whatever. I’ll just end this post by letting you read it if you want. It’s heartfelt and true, but something just doesn’t quite sit right with me about it now that I’m re-reading it.

Doing and Being

With tassels dangling in my field of view and diploma in hand, I walked across the manicured high school lawn. After the graduation ceremonies and cheering had ended, Mr. Parent, my AP English teacher, pulled me aside and handed me a letter. This man helped me love literature through his passionate exhortations, but more than that, the respect he showed me – as he did every one of his students – generated in me a profound respect for him. He believed that every student has an inherent capacity and desire to learn anything, and through his demanding classes, he worked to tap into that. So when he imparted knowledge, I listened. Inside the envelope were words of encouragement for my future: “Teaching is not a matter of doing but of being.” Clearly he had heard me when I said I wanted to teach, and this was his sage advice. For years, I had sat in a desk and watched teachers do—preparing lesson plans, grading papers, meeting with students. Teaching is a matter of being? I chalked his advice up to one of Mr. Parent’s poetic turns of phrase. It would take years and experiences in a number of classrooms before I could fully appreciate the full weight of his words: being a teacher means being an important part of your students’ lives, as he was in mine.

In June 2003, I graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with two S.B. degrees in mathematics and science, technology, and society. Although Mr. Parent’s English class was my inspiration to become a teacher, mathematics was my passion. Some of my favorite nights in high school and college were spent trying to wrestle with a particularly stubborn problem. The unsolved puzzle could quickly become agonizing, but plodding forward almost always rewarded me with a sense of accomplishment and pride. In addition to pure mathematics, many of my courses required a profound understanding of physics principles—classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, circuits and electronics, principles of applied math, as well as courses on the history of physics. For over two years, I worked as a research assistant for a professor exploring the changing uses of particle physics diagrams in the twentieth century, and my undergraduate thesis centered around a high-energy particle physical laboratory on Long Island. I am excited to share the thrilling process of discovery and my knowledge of math and physics with young adults.

While my passion for math and the history of physics deepened with each new class, my desire to teach remained strong. In my senior year, I entered MIT’s Teacher Education Program. I observed a number of different classrooms from September to December and taught solo in my own classroom from January to June. While assisting in various other math classes, teaching two pre-calculus classes in an urban high school with a diverse population challenged me—and helped me grow—as a person and as an educator.

I will never forget a lesson I designed in my first month teaching pre-calculus, on inverse trigonometric functions like sin-1(x). We had just wrapped up a successful week on trig functions, during which my students came to understand the meaning and various applications of these functions, as well as how to graph them. I felt confident that this lesson would be easy for them. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Early in the class, the quizzical looks on my students’ faces started to appear, then multiply. The more questions they asked, the more my stomach churned and my chest tightened. They weren’t getting it. I reviewed trig functions and how to use their graphing calculators again, in a desperate attempt to clear things up, but their frustration only increased. Before class ended, I asked my students to write down what they learned and what questions remained, and I walked home defeated.

That evening, after taking a deep breath and reading through the students’ notes, I saw where I had gone wrong. It wasn’t the trigonometry which eluded them; it was the concepts of functions and inverses. Those concepts were introduced in the beginning of the school year—and forgotten in the intervening months. The next day, I re-introduced the material incorporating my insights from the previous night. I also gave them a handout I had prepared showing them how to use their calculators. The class was a huge success—the students breathed a sigh of relief that they understood the material, and I breathed a sigh of relief that I could meet them where they were and walk with them in our pursuit for understanding. My students and I were on the same team. I started to see glimpses of what Mr. Parent had tried to communicate years earlier. Designing and executing a great lesson plan is important, but it isn’t enough. Teaching well demands an emotional and personal investment on the part of the teacher. When it came to my students, their frustrations became my frustrations, and their successes became my successes. I soon learned that being a teacher is hard, rewarding work.

Soon after the high school year came to a close, my days at MIT were over. Clutching my degrees and walking across Killian Court, I had reached another crossroads. I was a teacher at heart—but my time at MIT made me wonder about teaching at the college level. Additionally, my time spent investigating the history of physics opened exciting new vistas of understanding and inquiry. Learning how scientific developments come to be in the world, understanding how they interact with us and society-at-large, strengthened my love for math and physics. A few months later, thanks partly to a National Science Foundation fellowship, I was in sunny Los Angeles pursuing an advanced degree in the history of science. At UCLA I took a rigorous course load and in 2005 received my masters in history. My scholarly research focused on education—by studying the interconnected developments in the rise of the modern high school and university and the discipline of American physics.

While in graduate school, I voluntarily deferred my NSF fellowship to lead discussion sections in three introductory history of science classes. Here too I led discussions with the philosophy that my students and I were part of a team, but this time instead of vectors and the law of sines, we were trying to uncover the parallels between thermodynamics and Darwinism, or debate the effects of media portrayals of global warming. Students enrolled in these classes came from all different disciplines, and it was challenging to bring them to a common meeting ground. Literature students, for instance, were often foiled by the technical physics documents, while mechanical engineers had trouble grasping the same documents’ historical significance. After my experience teaching pre-calculus, I knew could talk until I was blue in the face, but if my students didn’t understand, I wasn’t being a teacher—I would merely be doing teaching, and badly. To overcome this divide, I initiated new methods, such as forming groups with students from across the academic aisle, which proved successful. The skills I developed in these classes, such as leading lively discussions, honing student communication skills, and coaching students to think analytically, were added to the repertoire I already acquired. Midway through each of the courses, I asked for anonymous feedback from all of my students. I took their praise in stride and their suggestions into consideration.For me, being a teacher requires continuously demanding improvement, not just from students, but from myself as well. By the end of the three classes, my desire to teach – for thinking on my toes, seeing the glint of understanding in my students’ eyes, challenging young minds – was fixed.

Over the next year and a half, I began my dissertation research. But dusting off nineteenth century textbooks and combing university archives was isolating. Research wasn’t interactive. And I realized that pursuing a career in the history of science would ultimately lead to a professorship in a research university, where scholarly research is inordinately privileged over teaching. Although the joy that arises from learning is great—it was largely this joy that brought me to graduate school—it is the joy of teaching that brings me back to high school.

My experiences in Cambridge and Los Angeles forged the type of teacher I am. I believe that teaching requires constant adaptation based on student learning. Underlying this sentiment is my firm belief in the inherent capacity and desire of students to learn. I hold high, clearly-defined expectations for my students, but I provide them with the tools and helping hands to meet them. I teach enthusiastically on every topic, with the belief that enthusiasm is infectious. And I show that math and science are not merely textbook activities, but relevant to the surrounding world.From my time spent with these young men and women, Mr. Parent’s sage advice finally made sense. Teaching well truly was about being. Being flexible, a strong communicator, attentive to student learning, available for help, compassionate, organized, and dependable. In other words, striving to be for my students what Mr. Parent was for me.

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3 comments

  1. Help! I’m applying through Carney Sandoe right now and found your post looking for something (anything) about the personal statement/statement of teaching. I have lots of thoughts about where to go with this, but am not exactly sure what it’s about. Is your above statement what you wrote for that or is this something else?
    thanks so much.

    1. You should talk to Carney Sandoe to find out more. Call them up and talk to a representative. I used this as my Carney Sandoe statement, and when I went to the job fair meat market, I got a number of unsolicited compliments on it. I think if you were coming from a position where you had been teaching beforehand (I was green), you’d probably have to write something different.

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