Those who can, teach
Andrew Kingham had a career change at the ripe old age of 47. Here he reflects on the effects of making this adjustment from engineer to teacher.
I used to be an engineer. And not just any engineer. No. For twenty years I glammed it up as a water and wastewater consulting engineer. But after an epiphany that the sewerage industry really did stink (getting retrenched will do that), I also had a brief (four year) career as a stay-at-home dad, wannabe creative writer and amateur stand-up comedian. But as my wife kept reminding me, being unemployed wasn’t really a career.
So needing to salvage my self-esteem and marriage, and having experience dealing with ideas, deadlines and silence, I decided, why not give secondary maths and science teaching a crack. So as a 49 year old, second year STEM teacher, with a background in the application of maths, physics and bad jokes, let me now share some personal insights about teaching.
Firstly, teaching is one of the most satisfying things I have done. Knowing I am potentially making a difference to the lives of young people is a buzz. It is also one of the most challenging and demanding things I have done. It has been relentless, consuming, and has challenged my perception of normality.
As I’ve discovered, teaching isn’t a nine-to-five job. It is a vocation that requires bleary eyed preparation, marking and reporting that often stretches deep into the night and frequently the weekends. It requires the wearing of many hats and dancing to many tunes, not all of them fashionable. It demands a skill-set that crosses many professions. It is founded on structure but thrives on fluidity. It is cyclical in its approaches but linear in its expected outcomes. It is evolving in its ideas but beholden to fads. And it is much politicised and consequentially paranoid about its own public perception. One might say you need to be schizophrenic to do it.
But you probably know that already. So what are the main differences between my previous corporate job and teaching? And in keeping with the universal need for more acronyms I have grouped my observations under: accountability, responsibility and status, or ARS for short. Because everyone relates to a short ARS.
As a consulting engineer I was directly accountable to my line-manager, sometimes a project manager, occasionally a client and ultimately an office or regional manager. The lines of accountability were well defined. In teaching the lines of accountability are much more diffuse. As a teacher I am directly accountable to my principal, with varying degrees of accountability to faculty heads and team leaders. However my main accountability is to every parent of every student I teach. So as opposed to consultancy where I was accountable to at most a handful of people, at the school I work where I teach 190 students, I am presently accountable to about four hundred people.
Another difference between working in a consulting environment and teaching is the measure of my performance. That is, what I am accountable for. As a consulting engineer most of what I was measured on related to how well I delivered projects. And while that included quality and time, what it generally boiled down to was cost. Did the projects I deliver come in at or under budget? A very tangible, albeit de-humanising, measure. As a teacher the measures for my performance are much more nebulous. Ultimately it is on growth in student learning. But how do you meaningfully and efficiently measure this to capture the role the teacher plays when there are so many other variables influencing the outcome? And how do you measure intangible aspects of student growth in resilience, confidence, independence, motivation, etc?
As an engineer I was responsible for ensuring designs and constructions that complied with Standards and Codes of Practice, and that they were delivered as efficiently as possible. I was also responsible for the management of works and processes to achieve these desired outcomes. In other words my responsibilities were, by and large, to complete tasks.
Teaching on the other hand has a greater breadth and complexity of responsibilities. I have responsibility to every student I teach to not only their academic learning, but their emotional development and social welfare too. This means teaching responsibilities cross over many and varied areas of expertise. And while this holistic responsibility to the student is a fundamental part of teaching, it can leave me feeling overwhelmed and at times vulnerable to acting outside my professional comfort zone.
One of the biggest differences between my previous career and teaching is the notion of status. The amount of authority or respect automatically afforded you based on your role. As an engineer my status was based on my position, experience and achievements. As I progressed, my status accrued. And that status was a badge I wore. It meant that I didn’t have to spend a lot of effort earning the respect of the people I worked with.
Now I contrast that with teaching. What I learnt very early on was as a teacher, particularly a beginning teacher, status (as opposed to authority) is not a universally recognised commodity with today’s adolescents. This is particularly the case when it comes to commanding their respect. Unlike walking into a boardroom full of hollow-eyed adults who you are presenting to for the first time, when you walk into a classroom full of twitching, sniggering, piercing-eyed adolescents for the first time, respect can be in short supply.
This is because in the world of adolescents, respect has to be earned. And while this took me a while to adjust to, in the long run it has made me a better teacher. Because having to work for my students’ respect has forced me to be more present and engaging than I might have been otherwise. And while winning the respect of some of my students has been challenging, when it was achieved, the improvements in student behaviour and learning made it worthwhile.
So what is the purpose of this article? I suppose it is to share my perspective and journey to teaching. But why? Well, to answer that perhaps I need to flesh-out the reason I transitioned from engineering to education. And that relates to my burning desire to make a difference. To do things that help make this world of ours a better place.
And after decades of trying as an engineer to do it through pipes and pumps, I truly believe that what I am now doing in influencing the lives of our future generation is far more beneficial. As it is the youth of today who will have to tackle much of the mess we and our forebears have made. I guess only time will tell.
Feature Image: Pixabay
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