Sabbatical, Step 5: Present Tense

“I could help you, but it’s your fight.” -U2, “Get Out of Your Own Way”

The general public probably isn’t aware of this, but anyone who works with children and teens for a living has a favorite age group to work with. I was no different in pediatrics, and doubly so now that I’m entering education. Like any type of work, any profession, each age group has its upsides and downsides. It just depends on how you look at things and what you enjoy doing.

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Off to interview. And the rare sighting of me with a necktie.

In practice, I loved taking care of babies. The whole first year is awesome. Where some people see little blobs that eat, poop, and cry, I see rapid change and development. The only thing I didn’t like was when stranger anxiety set in, and the babies would HATE me with a fury greater than Hades until they were 1.5 to 2 years old. But I loved the visits from birth to twelve or fifteen months.

Then, around 18 months, until they hit 4 (sometimes it ends earlier and starts later), they become what is better known as “little jerks.” We call this the toddler years, but really, at this age the world is theirs and you are just in their way. Unfortunately,  you have to mold these tiny people into someone who can function in society. Developmentally, this age is all about “me, me, me!” It’s not their fault; they can’t help it. But toddler years are to be survived. Lest anyone think I’m being dismissive, please understand that I love my own children dearly. But the only reason they survived their toddler years is because they’re MINE, and not surviving those years would look really bad in a pediatric practice.

Around age 5, things start to get better, and to me, they get really interesting around age 8. The second half of elementary school, I think kids are really fascinating, and they seem to give up just a bit of the “me-centric” universe. Their personality is really pronounced. Real learning begins. Insight becomes a real thing. If we could just stay on this path, life would be great.

But they don’t. Then comes the second toddler years, otherwise known as junior high. And here’s the thing – a lot of kids are really smart at this stage. Smart and interesting. But it is another hugely “me-focused” portion of development. And frequently, you don’t know which child you are going to get on a specific day. If we could find a way to take of their blinders at this age, it would be fantastic. But again, we can’t. There is some upside to this age, but there are drawbacks. Maybe not even drawbacks. Just awkwardness.

Finally, age 14 or 15 comes around, and while there’s some drama, most teenagers at this stage can see a world beyond themselves. Which is awesome. It made for great interactions in the office, and certainly can in a school setting. You can start seeing jumping off points for their future, and what the possibilities are. It’s an exciting and fascinating time.

So, why write about this now? It totally influenced my decision as to where I should go as a teacher. I can’t teach babies, so that’s out. Early childhood education is out – toddlers. Ugh. Elementary education is in play, especially 4th and 5th grade. But you have to teach everything. Junior high is possible – it’s an odd spot. You teach a subject, but the kids are caught in this weird stage. You have some of the best elements of elementary school and secondary education, with some of the worst as well. Then there’s high school – I could be a subject teacher, and the age group suits me.

What to do? I dove right in. I took substitute teaching jobs as much as possible. If I was going to hopefully teach in the 2018-2019 school year, I would have to pick an area so I could start studying. And I had to make the decision somewhat expeditiously.

I taught in elementary and junior high. A woman at our church who teaches at an independent private school (and who had also become a teacher later in life) allowed me to sit in on her physics classes. I was volunteering at a school, and was able to follow 2 teachers into fifth grade classes and observe them. I talked to high school teachers that I knew, and a friend that is now and education administrator after teaching for several years.

I was armed with all the information I wanted, and then some. The thing is, I could see the pluses of each environment. Yes, there are drawbacks to each, but I could be equally happy teaching upper elementary students, junior high, or high school.

How did I make my decision?

Two things were very illuminating to me. I was in a fifth grade class as a teacher was doing a reading assessment. After the class went to recess, I was discussing with the teacher what she was looking for in the child’s sample. She showed me class writing samples, and how much they focus on literacy. I actually learned more from her in 20 minutes as to what was being communicated in some IEPs than I had in my career in pediatrics.

It occurred to me that yes, I could teach elementary school. The focus on writing and reading was a little bit of a stretch for what my best knowledge base is. As much as I love the elementary aged student, it would be a bigger jump for me than I had anticipated.

I also observed my friend from church with her physics classes. She is able to make a lot of headway with them on a regular basis. They cover a lot of interesting concepts. For someone who has studied a lot of science, teaching junior high school permanently would be hard. Yes, you have a subject, but you don’t get into a depth with it that I really enjoy. Junior high school teachers do some awesome things in order to introduce concepts and really hook students into the subject. But for a career, I felt like I’d be more comfortable really getting to dive into a subject. It’s not easier vs. harder – it’s just a matter of preference.

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I bought this T-shirt when I committed to teaching chemistry.

It was decided. My degree from undergraduate is in chemistry. My medical training just about gives me a second major in biology (or biochemistry). I’ve had to take enough physics, that I could do that, if needed. Therefore, I enrolled in a certification program (ABCTE to be specific. And if anyone wants to teach science for a second career, it is a common and very accepted pathway). I am certifying in chemistry first, and then I’ll look to add either biology or physics (or both) after I clear this first hurdle.

A typical week for me since mid-February has been this:

-Teach or shadow (I haven’t been shadowing a teacher for over a month now) 3-4 days/week.

-Study like mad when I’m not teaching. I do have two certification exams (one for education and one for chemistry) to pass.

-Oh, and try to find a job.

My program requires that I have a certain number of hours of classroom experience in order to obtain certification. Fortunately for me, one middle school needed a long-term substitute teacher for a science class for the last 4 weeks of the school year. I applied, interviewed, and I got that job. It started April 30th, and I will more than make my hours requirement for the program. Plus, I’m getting valuable experience in classroom management and lesson planning (which is a new concept to me).

Financially, we were in good shape if I substitute taught all next school year. The money would be ok, and I could add certification throughout the year, thus making me a viable candidate for the 2019-2020 school year. Long term jobs pop up enough that I would be at the top of the heap for those as the situation arose.

But, if I’m going to do this change, it sure would be nice if could have my future solidified for 2018-2019. Seeing as I was standing on the verge of a “low-risk, high-reward” proposition, I did what Sue taught me to do. I started approaching teachers all over the place about what the “lay of the land” might be for teaching for the upcoming year, while I’m getting certified. The general consensus was that it was possible. I was told by one department chair that there is such a shortfall of teachers in general (and science teachers specifically) that many school districts (good ones) are hiring up until the week before school starts.

Great! If I hustled and had a little luck, I could be working full-time by August. If not, we have two incomes. Substitute money isn’t great, but it’s doable. The worst case would be 12 months of substitute teaching while improving my prospects with more certifications. It was a win-win scenario.

I talked to different science teachers. I talked to principals. I talked to anyone that was interested in having a conversation. I applied to multiple schools. I interviewed (and I prepped one fascinating lesson on equilibrium if I say so myself.)

And I landed a job for the upcoming school year.

It would be inappropriate for me to say where at this point. But as of August 2018, I will be teaching high school chemistry – at least for starters. Then, who knows? Maybe other subjects will be added in a year or two. Maybe a science olympiad team. Maybe some cross-country coaching duties. The possibilities are now endless.

What amazed me more than anything is that I had to work like a dog for 6-8 months. Once I decided that I wanted to teach, the doors just seemed to fly open. I’m planning a “thank you” blog, and I have to say, each teacher I talked to went way above and beyond in helping me; it was almost an attitude of “You want to teach? Sure, I’ll help.” Maybe it was me. Maybe it was luck. I don’t really know. But ever since I committed to the teaching route, it has felt like the right decision.

The educators I talked to saw my background as a plus. They didn’t have concerns about weakness in leaving medicine. They saw a knowledge base that their students could use. They saw someone with a strong scientific background and a bunch of practical experience to boot. I never had to explain why I left medical practice. Maybe it’s due to the fact there are more and more second career teachers that in some ways, I’m not unique. If you like kids and you like your subject, then we have a spot for you. Did I work hard at getting the interviews? Absolutely. Was I stressed like I had been before? Not at all.

That brings us up to the present tense. My summer will be a lot of studying and some lesson preparation. And I get to do it at home, with my family. I really couldn’t be more excited. I have a lot of work to do, and it’s a little stressful, but I’m looking forward to each day about what I can try to do to effectively teach and communicate with a bunch of high school students. I’m learning a ton on a daily basis.

That leaves one question. When did my sabbatical end? Is it mid-February, when I had my first class as a substitute teacher? Was it April 30th when I took the long-term substitute job that took me up to the end of a school year? Or, will it not end until August 2018 when I start at my first full-time school? I don’t really know. And it’s funny to me. For this sabbatical, there was such a defined start. “There. I’m. DONE.” But career #2 is coming back in stages. And I guess that makes sense.

Maybe this is the message of the entire sabbatical series. Yes, you’ll be afraid. But if you are making this change for the right reasons, it will turn out alright. Don’t overthink this. Cast aside your inhibitions and attack the new path. Get out of your own way. However, there is a lot help along the way. But you have to take the first step, and you have to be willing to work.

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Thumbs up! Allison says “It’s all good.”

This sabbatical series is almost coming to an end. I have two pieces left. One will be a “Q & A with Dr. K” and summarize what I think I learned from this process and what I would like to have known (and like to communicate if someone is entertaining making a similar move.) The other will be my “thank you” blog. I don’t think people really understand how many people I’ve leaned on and have truly helped me. Yes, it will just be a long list of thank you’s. But it needs to be done. People deserve the acknowledgment, and I think it illustrates how much good we come across in people. If we just only realized that more often, or tried to be that more often, who knows how many more people would excel?

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Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 41 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I fell out of the Ugly Tree, and hit every branch on the way down.

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