Both my mother and stepfather were educators at the collegiate level, but I never truly considered “the family business” as an option. I don’t think I had an aversion to teaching―I just figured I wanted to try something else, take a different path. Math and science came easily to me, so I assumed that an engineering career would play to my strengths.
Looking back, I made a lot of assumptions. My reluctance to consider teaching was an aversion based on a distorted view of how one becomes an educator. I assumed that because I did not participate in science club or math league or spend spare time researching scientific theories (for which at that time I did not have the passion or drive to pursue), then I did not have the knowledge necessary to teach others. I assumed that teachers, and those who wished to teach, were gifted and driven in ways I was not.
Behind these assumptions, a bigger issue was attempting to remain hidden. I lacked self-confidence. I couldn’t fathom being able to teach someone anything, let alone math or science content. My frame of reference was one in which the criteria for becoming a teacher were created by me and self-imposed, primarily because I believed I wouldn’t be any good at teaching. Besides, every career inventory I took in high school told me that engineering was the right career choice for me because I enjoyed doing science and math, I scored above average mathematics on my SAT, and got into a great engineering program at Penn State. What was there to question?
So, off I went to Happy Valley to study Architectural Engineering. I earned good grades and especially enjoyed classes where I had a chance to present information, either to individuals or a group. It wasn’t until my senior year that I began to question if I would actually enjoy making a living as an engineer. I never verbalized my doubts to anyone, and I hoped that maybe once I started getting paid to do engineering everything would to fall into place.
Upon graduation I earned a job at an innovative design-build construction company in Atlanta. This company had a healthy working atmosphere, treated its employees very well, and believed in promoting from within, but something wasn’t right. Could I see myself there at age 40…50…60?
I did my personal career inventory—meaning I took the time to think about what drove me and what gave me satisfaction. I recognized that I valued human connections and took pleasure in helping others grow in knowledge. Only by giving myself a hard, honest gut-check was I able to reframe my thoughts about my career and teaching. Lack of confidence had blinded me to the fact that teaching is the human-to-human transmission of knowledge—not about whether I participated in math club or devoured obscure research in my spare time as a teenager.
At the age of twenty-five, I quit my comfortable job and went back to school for my teaching degree. Fast forward to August 2016, and my life is completely different from when I started my teaching journey over sixteen years ago. I am married, have three children, teach high school full-time, coach all three sports seasons, and have a more positive outlook on life because I am doing something I’m passionate about. I got my first teaching job at Upper St. Clair High School, just outside of Pittsburgh, and teach there to this day.
I’ve taught a host of different math and science classes in my career , from General Science to AP Physics, and even Calculus. Having the courage to change course and get out of my comfort zone taught me great lessons—lessons I now try to pass along to my students. Physics is about actions and reactions, and so is life. Calculus teaches us about the trajectories of objects. Life has a trajectory, too. And both of these subjects show us that it takes a force to actuate change.
Young people often see permanence in impermanent things. The idea of becoming is foreign to them. At their age, we all thought we were—end of story. But the truth is, everyone is a work in progress. How do we become better teachers, siblings, parents, partners, mentors, coaches, and spouses? We each have to learn to deal with subtle, and some not-so-subtle, outside forces that push things forward, adapt, evolve, and grow. Inertia takes hold only when we resist the forces that can change our lives. The ability to acknowledge that there are forces that continually propel us forward—and that even small modifications in our lives can yield large movements—enables us to teach our students lessons within lessons. “Solving for X” takes on a whole new meaning when we take the time to consider our journeys and guide students beginning with their own evolution.
So, that’s my story. What was your journey as an educator? Drop me a note in the comments section. I would enjoy connecting with you.
Doug Petrick holds an Architectural Engineering degree from Pennsylvania State University and a Masters of Arts in Teaching from California University of Pennsylvania. He is currently a high school Physics teacher at Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh. Doug will be regularly contributing to a series for educators on Wiley Exchanges offering practical advice and instructional strategies.
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