Taken for Granted: Getting to Aaahhh!

CREDIT: Kelly Krause, AAAS

The hardest challenge Jeff Cruzan ever faced wasn't earning his Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. Nor was it his postdoc years at Harvard Medical School, doing molecular biology research that led to three papers in Science (here, here, and here). Cruzan's hardest challenge was meeting the expectations of students at Silver Lake Regional High School in Kingston, Massachusetts, during the very challenging first year of his new career as a science and math teacher.

Teaching is not a career for everyone, Cruzan believes, but it can deeply satisfy those well suited to it.

After six sometimes taxing but gratifying years spent introducing teenagers to chemistry, physics, and mathematics, Cruzan believes that “career changer” teachers like him -- people deeply versed in science and math who come to the K–12 classroom from extensive experience in their original fields -- have important contributions to make to the nation’s young people and the educational system.

Cruzan entered the high school teaching profession through one of the so-called "alternative pathways" to certification that exist in nearly every state, which allow participants to earn state teaching credentials without taking a traditional bachelors or graduate degree in teaching. He has become so committed to improving education that 2 years ago, with the help of some former students, he ran for and won a seat on the school committee of his home town, Sharon, Massachusetts.

Apart from high school teaching’s value to students and society, Cruzan recommends it as a very satisfying career for those fellow scientists who have the needed skills, values, and interests. Despite the challenges he has faced in his new line of work -- among them relatively low pay and missing some aspects of life in a research lab -- Cruzan feels that he’s “doing what I was made to do.”

The big switch

According to Profile of Teachers in the U.S. 2011, a report from of the National Center for Education Information, 16% of the nation’s public school teachers entered the profession through an alternate route like the one Cruzan followed. That percentage is likely to increase. The number of teachers receiving certification through these programs rose tenfold between the 1997–98 school year and the 2007–08 school year, from 6000 to 62,000. The report also notes the “striking trend” among school systems to hire teachers with alternate credentials.

Almost 40% of those who began teaching between 2005 and 2010 are the products of such programs, up from just 7% of the new hires between 1990 and 1999. Teachers with alternative preparation cluster strongly in such “high demand” subjects as math and science; 29% of such "alternative" teachers teach math and another 33% teach science. They are also likelier than their conventionally trained colleagues to teach in the higher grades, with 44% of those from alternate-route programs teaching grades 5 through 8 and 30% teaching grades 9 through 12.

Jeff Cruzan (CREDIT: Zackery Leman)

A wide variety of regional and other programs bring people into teaching who have a wide range of work experience, including one program specifically for military personnel planning to return to civilian life. Opportunities also exist in private and independent schools, which do not require faculty members to have state certification and can establish their own hiring standards. Cruzan, in fact, now works at the private Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. In addition to his classroom duties, he chairs the mathematics department for the secondary grades.

Cruzan began to consider a career change after a number of years in university labs. Like the prototypic academic whom Geoffrey Chaucer described centuries ago in The Canterbury Tales , he realized that “gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” He had a distinct knack for and “just truly enjoyed explaining things,” he says. “Anything that you don’t know that I know -- fly fishing or wood working or anything -- I’d be happy to teach.” This characteristic made him his lab’s go-to guy when newcomers needed orientation or explanation.

He decided to turn that bent into a vocation. With an academic post apparently out of reach, he chose the secondary level because he knew he enjoyed the “funny” and engaging youngsters of that age. After researching his state’s requirements for a teaching license, he arranged to participate in an “alternate path” program. He started teaching right away. He passed the state's required test of general literacy and communication skills as well as a subject-area test in chemistry. He received mentoring from experienced teachers. In his third year as a teacher, he passed another subject-area test, which qualified him to teach math. He soon moved to the private Moses Brown School, but if he had remained in the public school system he would next have taken coursework in education at a nearby state college.

How to succeed by really trying

Cruzan's years as an unofficial explainer -- and, probably, years spent doing other things, like research, that are widely considered to be difficult -- led him to expect a relatively easy transition. Instead, when he entered his own classroom, he was “stunned at how hard it was,” he recalls. But he persevered, gained confidence, and began to feel that he was succeeding. He “loved the job at Silver Lake,” he says, but a 50-minute commute each way from his home in the town of Sharon rankled, especially since his route took him directly past Sharon High School, mere minutes from his house. Eventually he put in an application there and was hired.

His experience at Sharon wasn’t great. He alludes to “disheartening” disagreements with a supervisor that led him to consider seeking work in industry. At first, he did not receive an offer to renew his first contract there. Parents and students protested, though, and eventually an offer to continue came through.

By that time, however, he had looked elsewhere and had “a very good interview” at Moses Brown. They made an offer, and he accepted. After he had begun the new job, some of his former Sharon High students encouraged him to run for the local school committee, and even helped him campaign. Now midway through his first term in elective office, he believes that as a classroom teacher he brings an important perspective to the committee, which consists mostly of parents.

There’s “a lot” going on in public schools “that is counterproductive,” he says; “I’m not a fan of a lot of the hoops that teachers have to jump through.” Private schools generally lack much of the bureaucracy inherent in public school systems. In many cases, however, they offer lower pay and less job security.

Success at teaching science and math -- subjects that students often consider difficult and even unpleasant -- to secondary-age youngsters depends on two things, Cruzan says. One is the teacher’s “connection to the students.” The other is deep knowledge of the subject matter that allows for presenting it in a variety of different ways. An enthusiastic and well-versed math teacher, for example, can serve the important role of helping “people deal with their math terrible anxiety.” Posted in his classroom is a sign stating, “As your math teacher I understand that I have the ability to crush the life out of your innate love for mathematics and I will try not to do so.”

The right choice?

What advice does Cruzan have for postdocs who think they might be also interested in high school teaching? First, he says, keep in mind that some aspects of the career are “tough. You’re not going to make much more money than you did as a postdoc. It’s going to be a tough couple of first years. There are some hoops that you need to jump through” to get started.

“The first question I’d ask is ‘Do you like kids? Do you like this age if you’re thinking about teaching them?’ You really have to.” Would-be teachers should ask themselves, "Do I enjoy teaching? Can I teach patiently? How do I feel about explaining it for the fourth or fifth time?" Cruzan says. They should be able to ask, "Still not getting it? OK, let’s try something else." This is necessary because “kids learn in many different ways."

Next, would-be teachers ought to experience the reality of the classroom before committing themselves. “One piece of advice you often hear is that they should … substitute teach,” Cruzan says. But because subs often lack authority in the classroom, he's not sure that substitute teaching offers a good example of what it feels like to be in charge of a course. Rather, he advises people to “make an opportunity to be guest in a class for a couple of days to get the experience.”

Teaching is not a career for everyone, Cruzan believes, but it can deeply satisfy those well suited to it. “I feel like I can help” the students, he says. “You can’t preach to them, but I think I can give them some perspective, which is hard for them to have" at their age. “If they screw up they think it’s the end of the world, that they’re the first one that’s ever done this. But I think you can get them excited.”

Cruzan fondly remembers the intellectual stimulation and challenge of his work in the lab. But that satisfaction has since been replaced by another, he says. “I love the feeling of being able to craft a succinct explanation, so that [students] say, ‘Ahhhhhh!’ ”

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

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