Why Do You Do Science (or Other Stuff)?

The question is inspired by a Washington Post op-ed by a former teacher who is leaving teaching. It’s a very depressing piece, and, if nothing else, reinforces my suspicion that, to the extent charter schools have demonstrated better results, those results are largely due to unsustainable demands on teachers.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. The former teacher writes (italics mine):

There is yet another factor that played a part in my choice, something that I rarely mention. It has to do with the way that some people, mostly nonteachers, talk about the profession.
“Why teach?” they ask.
Do my lawyer and consultant friends find themselves having to explain why they chose their professions? I doubt it. Everyone seems to know why they do what they do. When people ask me about teaching, however, what they really seem to mean is that it’s unfathomable that anyone with real talent would want to stay in the classroom for long. Teaching is an admirable and, well, necessary profession, they say, but it’s not for the ambitious. “It’s just so nice,” was the most recent version I heard, from a businesswoman sitting next to me on a plane.
I used to think I was being oversensitive. Not so. One of my former colleagues, now a program director for Teach for America, has to defend her goal of becoming a principal: “When I tell people I want to do it, they’re like, ‘Really? You really still want to do that?’ ” Another friend describes her struggle to make peace with the fact that a portion of the American public sees teaching as a second-rate profession. “I want to be able to do big things and be recognized for them,” she says. “In the world we live in, teaching doesn’t cut it.”

I’m curious to hear from readers, scientists and non-scientists alike, why they do what they do. My reasons are pretty mundane. Is this a bad thing? Science interests me, and the pay and working conditions don’t suck (at least if you’re in a decent setting). With the work that I do currently (and some of what I have done), there’s the added benefit of perhaps making a small difference, of improving the human condition slightly.
I disagree with the author about one thing: it’s not clear why some people choose certain professions, other than the income. That’s fine, but that shouldn’t make any teacher feel ashamed.
So why do you do what you do?

This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Why Do You Do Science (or Other Stuff)?

  1. joemac53 says:

    Wow! The first shot you get is from a math/science teacher (in the state where you are working). At the end of May in 1971, I had to pick: math major to be a teacher, or engineering. I had a free ride at either school. I chose teaching for two big reasons: I had great teachers growing up, and I liked working with young people (I coached soccer in the summers, basketball in the winter).
    I have had a great time over the years. I have worked with mostly wonderful kids. I have had a wide variety of summer jobs and I can’t wait to get back to school each year. I got to watch my kids grow up (all three were my students). My hard-working wife and I worked opposite hours so we could avoid paying for day care.
    I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if I had made the other choice. I don’t have any money, but my kids graduated from (last one still in) semi-fancy schools. I drive an old F150 with 200000 miles held together with rust, but it does what it needs to do.
    In the prestigious scientific establishments in my town I am considered an OK guy, even though I have no advanced degrees.
    I’m retiring from teaching after this year, but I will be working full time somewhere.

  2. Donna B. says:

    Perhaps this perception is akin to the one that 90% of lawyers give the rest a bad name.
    I was born in the early 50s. My experience with teachers was horrible until I was in high school and college, and even then it wasn’t great.
    As an example, I was humiliated in front of my 2nd grade class for responding that Oklahoma City was the capital of Oklahoma. This was traumatizing enough that I just googled it to make sure I’m still right. I expect the capital to be Tulsa any day now, because that’s what my 2nd grade teacher taught me, though my lying eyes had seen the capital building in Oklahoma City.
    What the teacher did not have to do, no matter the accuracy of my information was to say that I was stupid to think that just because the city had the same name as the state that it was the capital.
    I would like to think that’s an extreme example, but as a junior in high school, I was stuck with teaching the assistant band director how to read bass clef. How does one get a degree in music without knowing that???
    Those are my bookend reasons, but by far not the only reasons, I don’t view teachers as paragons of virtue.

  3. JD says:

    It is like counseling. Although it is underpaid and devalued, the grunt work is necessary so that rap stars can capitalize off middle school Weltschmerz.

  4. Janne says:

    I do science. Because it’s fun, because the pay and working conditions are decent and because so far I’ve had an easier time getting research positions than other work. If or when I can no longer get new projects, I’ll go do something else.
    What I _don’t_ do, is make my passion into a job. A job means you need to do all the things that you don’t like along with the things that you do, and that soon kills the passion. I did that twice already – first with computer programming, then research. In both cases I started out with a deep fascination for the field, but years of work pretty much stripped me of that. Both are still fun and still interesting, but I no longer jump out of bed at three in the morning because I got some idea and can’t wait to try it out. I’m not going to do that mistake a third time.
    Let your work be work, and leave your passions as a hobby.

  5. Donna B. says:

    OK… I should add examples of exemplary teachers, shouldn’t I?
    Frankly, my children had it much better in school than I did. Because of my experiences, I went out of my way to provide them with private school educations through 6th and 8th grade.
    I couldn’t do this continuously and they attended several public schools.
    But it is the high school they attended where I met teachers of astounding capability and expertise. It is a public school, but also a magnet school. One daughter had a teacher there who she simply did not get along with from the first day of class — they were oil and water, yet that teacher managed to overcome that and did not humiliate or retaliate against my daughter and won her over halfway through the year.
    A teacher that both my daughters had remains a hero to both. And to me. He was so idolized by not only my daughters, but almost all his students, that we parents got together and hired him to take us on one of famous field trips on a Saturday.
    This man could not help but teach, and at the same time he could not stop learning.
    Another man I knew should be in the classroom, but didn’t feel he was qualified. He was a geophysicist. I went to work for his firm as a bookkeeper (for which they really could not justify full-time pay). I had lots of free time on my hands and occasionally he’d notice me standing by a map of some sort and spend the next two hours teaching me about what it meant.
    Let me repeat that this man who made substantial amounts of money for oil companies and himself did not think he was qualified to teach geology. He, like the other teacher I noted, could not help but teach. Fortunately for the geology students at a local university, he hired undergrads, sometimes for credit, sometimes not. He spent a lot of money on salaries that were not necessary to the success of his business because, whether he would admit it or not, he liked having students around asking him questions… even if they were his bookkeeper.
    I have a step-sister who is a middle school science teacher. I hope there are many others like her because she too can’t help but teach. One evening we’d rented a movie to watch and the DVD was scratched and wouldn’t play. She jumped up and said I’ve got some DVDs in my car I haven’t had a chance to look at. We were all fascinated by viewing DVDs that she might or might not use in class (that was the point of the viewing — were they worthwhile?)
    We’d have all gone to bed after spending 1 1/2 hours watching the movie without much to say, but that evening we spent 4 hours watching the DVDs and discussing them.
    The point I would like to make is that teachers who inspire and don’t burn out do so because they never stop learning.

  6. Paul Merda says:

    I am a former chemist in an R&D department but am now in Kent State University’s MAT (masters of arts in teaching) program. I made the career switch partly because I see science as being mostly misunderstood for most americans and I hope to be a solution to that problem. I also want to “give back” to society in a sense too by working with children and maybe plantng a seed of fascination for science in a few young minds. Personally, I think that people go into teaching for many, many reasons and no two teachers will cite all of the same reasons for doing it.
    As the teacher in the article shows that for whatever reason people seem to be down on teaching as a profession because I still hear the old adage “those who can’t, teach” espoused from so many. First of all, I DID, and I was successful working as a scientist and secondly, most people don’t realize all of the training it takes to be an effective teacher. When I graduate next spring, I will have the training and the skills necessary to teach even the the children who don’t want to learn.
    Sure there are plenty of examples of bad and mediocre teachers everyone can remember but let’s not forget about those other teachers that you not only liked, but actually really learned something from. Another point to make about education in general is that our society expects more and more from schools yet turns around and bashes them because our test score are lower than Thailand. The fact is, no other system of public education reaches moe people than our own. Thailand only tests those who actually go to school which isn’t anywhere near where the US is. We test everyone including those with learning difficulties because Federal Law mandates that here, not so over there.
    Sorry about the rant….but I ust champion the cause of education for all and also to help keep people in perspective on what we actually accomplish with the limited resources many districts have.

  7. Jonam says:

    it is good information to me

Comments are closed.