Checking Boxes, Part I

Last week I took a test. It was one of the boring ones administered by computer, a string of multiple choice questions and a pair of short essays. The thing is, I was extremely nervous in the run-up to the test. More anxious than I had been since my comps. My stomach wasn’t in knots, but my body was taut with stress hormones. I was also chasing my kids around and managing urgent research and paperwork for a project. Focusing on anything for more than a few minutes was challenging. I worked through perhaps half of my planned study, leaving large swathes of the study guide untouched and never managing to complete a practice test.

And yet…and yet when I had driven to College Station, when I sat in the over-cushioned but somehow still uncomfortable chair you only find in waiting rooms…I was smiling. It was a slight smile that showed no teeth, one I wear most often in the run-up to athletic competitions. Sure enough, there was Berlioz’s “March to the Scaffold” from Symphonie Fantastique playing in my head. “Scotland the Brave” came hot on its heels (the closest thing my alma mater has to a fight song and something my college ultimate team used to sing-shout before games). I knew I was going to be fine.*

The test was a necessary step in becoming “highly qualified” by the standards of the Texas Board of Education. I’ve now officially embarked on becoming a middle school teacher. That’s weird for me to type. A year ago—even six months ago—I wouldn’t have believed it possible. I have a PhD. I was going to find a writing job or a consulting job or a tech job. Becoming a public school teacher wasn’t on the table. I wasn’t going to “settle” for that. I’m overqualified. And seriously…middle schoolers? I hated middle school. Why on earth would I ever want to go back to one?

Because I like teaching. I like waking up in the morning knowing that, if I do my job right, it will mean something to somebody. Teaching is a job I can care about, even if the money’s not great and there are tests and parents and bureaucracy to deal with. Hopefully I can make middle school suck less for some kids along the way.

Saturday I started my alternative certification training. Most of the day was designed to reinforce the feelings I mention in the previous paragraph. The company president and the guides talked up the emotional payoff (and, to a lesser extent, the emotional burden) of teaching. We talked in small groups about our favorite teachers, about their qualities and which ones we hoped we could emulate. We watched feel-good documentary clips about first-year teachers.

Then we talked a lot about how to channel our idealism into the practical concerns of the job hunt. It was an oddly mercenary turn, but one that I can appreciate. The program encourages its teachers-in-training to start their job hunts as soon as possible. For those of us looking to be employed by the time the 2014-2015 school year starts, that’s particularly urgent. The program doesn’t get paid until its graduates are working, so there’s incentive for them, too.

Alternative teacher certification manages to contrast with the dubious passage to professorhood at both the practical and ideological ends of the spectrum. Especially as an adjunct, the emphasis is on getting it over with…teaching prerequisite or general education classes checks boxes for the students and for the university. You get the students through or you fail them out; either way, they’re just passing through. As an adjunct, you’re also just passing through. You want to make a difference, and sometimes you can. It is seldom a goal of the institution, though. The life-changing stuff is for fullprofs with offices for office hours…or for fancy new buildings…or for the smiling ethnically-diverse friend groups that fill recruitment brochures. All the things that will be there next semester when you probably won’t be.

In my graduate programs, at least, there was seldom any practical advice for job hunting. “Have a badass CV and know people” is not much of a directive. Doubtless the lack of practical advice has something to do with the impossible math of hundreds of applicants for every tenure-track job, but I still find the contrast with my teacher training striking. The emphasis there is on understanding high need areas, on what to say and avoid saying in interviews. There’s no illusion that you get jobs solely on merit. You have to know the system, and you have to work the system. It’s possible for even an average applicant to work the system effectively, which is contrast enough with the academic job market.

*I have not actually gotten my scores yet, so I do not know whether that pre-test feeling has any connection to reality, but anyway…

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3 comments

  1. Hey Josh,

    I am glad you have found merit in the endless onshlaught that constitutes subbing in middle schools! I particularly appreciated the fact of having music to accompany your post (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwCuFaq2L3U). It is good you now see a viable path which felt impossible just half a year ago – could there be a clearer sign of growth? I now feel very lucky that I have gone in the direction of natural sciences/engineering, despite always not quite belonging socially, because the demand for number-crunchers is pretty high these days. Nevertheless, when I started taking unemployment benefits and was hoping to finish my PhD in less than half a year, I was quite worried that I would get offered a job too soon (which I would have had to take or lose the benefits for at least a month). In the end, it took a year until that happened (despite having a very buzzy and high-tech compatible specialisation), and though it was still all tech&research-related fields, I have caravaned through quite a few job-landscapes until it happened… (and, funny enough, when it did, I still had another half a year of working on the PhD in the evenings, weekends and ALL holidays to go, spending what scarce little free time I allowed myself with Leon, straining my marriage very badly along the way).
    Nevertheless, I don’t think we should regret having gone our respecitve paths. You never know what the future holds, and maybe it’s having a different outlook (you had gone through deep bowels of hell before getting there) than most middle school teachers that will set you apart later on and enable you new options. Just the same as I have no clue what I’ll be doing and where in 5 years time, but at least I know I’ll survive one way or another – the PhD has prepped me well emotionally & mentally… 🙂

    Take care,
    Jancsi

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