Transition

This page is published on December 13, 2013.

This is the explanation. The whole story. Going from teaching high school to a job in industry. It’s long, which is why it is a separate page. But if you were wondering, here it is.

I left teaching. I taught high school science (mostly physics) for 20 years, and for most of that time I could not imagine doing anything else with my life. I toyed with the idea of grad school at various times. After getting the requisite MSEd to maintain my teaching credential, that is. I thought about Physics Education Research, or possibly statistics, or (out on a limb here) food engineering. But after just a few years in the classroom and all the time and money sunk into the MSEd, I could not imagine living on a grad student stipend, or worse, paying for a PhD without support. I never went into teaching for the money, but a salary of $30K-$40K beats a stipend of $25K-$30K for sure.

I eventually found myself at a school I liked, with kids I liked and colleagues I liked and administrators I liked (mostly), and stayed there for 11 years. Before then, the longest I had stayed at any school was 5 years and there were two schools that I spent 2 years at, each. So why leave?

I am an idealist in some ways. I want to teach kids, not content. I want to help each student grow into themselves as a curious person who is excited about learning new things. I want to open new aspects of the world to students. I want to meet students where they are and bring them to a new level of understanding and awareness.

This is not what state achievement tests, school rankings, and teacher evaluations are all about. In Pennsylvania, there was a new set of tests coming out, the Keystone Exams. All students were supposed to pass Biology, Algebra, and English Keystone exams in order to graduate. I have never taught any of those subjects. I taught Physics. But many of my students were juniors, who had taken Biology as Freshmen, and who had to take the Biology exam the year I was their physics teacher. And guess what. No, never mind, I am sure you know already. Teacher evaluations were to be tied to student test scores. Even the Art teachers and Family and Consumer Science and PE teachers were going to have their evaluations tied to student test scores.

In addition to this new circumstance, my district’s union had been in stalled contract talks for years with the ultra-conservative school board. Salaries were frozen and the board’s hired negotiator would not negotiate. He simply refused all proposals made by the union negotiators and delivered ultimatums. One of the main sticking points was health care.

Then there was Governor Corbett. This guy wanted to eliminate teacher pensions entirely. This is after the state had allowed school districts to “take a break” from paying into the pension fund, and then was allowing districts (including mine) to avoid paying the deficit of funds after the break. So, I had no guarantee of the money I had already paid into the PSERS¹ ever coming back to me.

Meanwhile, there seemed to be a public backlash against teachers. Teachers have been characterized as lazy, due to our “short” workday and long vacations; greedy, due to our lush pension benefit and good health insurance plans; and incapable, since “those that can, do, and those that can’t, teach.”

So I was looking. This was a hard time in my life for changing jobs. I was near the top of the pay scale² after 20 years of teaching and other schools didn’t necessarily want to hire such an expensive prospect. My experience and skill made me feel that I was worth that high salary and also I was used to it – taking a big pay cut would be hard, though negotiable.

I didn’t set out intending to quit teaching. But in April I attended the NSTA³ meeting in San Antonio, TX. I visited the Vernier Science & Technology booth, as I always do when attending meetings, to say hi and to see what’s new. Plus, a friend had encouraged me to ask after the talking LabQuest, a device for aiding sight-impaired students. Also, I had a twitter-acquaintance who was a Vernier employee.

Well, my twitter acquaintance told me there was a job opening for a physics teacher. That night I called my husband from my hotel room and asked him what he thought of me applying. He said to go for it.

This decision had some history. We were living in Pennsylvania. Vernier is located in Beaverton, OR. My husband has an excellent job at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earns about 25% more than my salary. He’s been in that particular position for less than a year, and they love him. He had been briefly looking at possible jobs across the country, and had an excellent interview in Madison, WI the previous spring. That opportunity did not come through, however. On the other hand, my husband’s entire family is on the West Coast, with his immediate family in the Pacific Northwest. His dad lives in Eugene, OR; his sister in Vancouver, WA; and his mom in Walla Walla, WA. He was actually born in Beaverton, when his mom worked at Tektronix, which is still located there. My husband had moved from the West Coast to join me in Pennsylvania out of love, but he missed the climate and the food.

So I applied. And then I waited. And I got antsy, and started contacting people with Vernier. I wrote a letter to the founders, Dave and Christine Vernier, who I had first met when I was an undergrad and working for Priscilla Laws of Dickinson College. She and they had collaborated on  developing sensors and curricula. That was over 20 years ago! I tweeted at my twitter contact. He passed my inquiry to the head of physics at Vernier, John G., who wrote back to tell me I was under consideration, but they had a huge number of resumés to read. And then I got a job offer from an exclusive private school in Philadelphia. They were offering less in salary than I wanted, but they had good benefits and a beautiful science building with a robotics lab and machine shop next to the physics lab. Laser cutter! 3-D printer! Lathe! Drill press! Things I had only dreamed of having access to. But the next day, as I was on the verge of accepting, they withdrew the offer.

I was outraged, but philosophical also. And I kept in touch with John G. Finally, in June, I had a phone interview with the head of HR at Vernier. It went well, and the head of HR filled my head with the extensive benefits offered by the company in terms of health insurance, fitness classes, retirement plans, tickets to sporting events, company celebrations, zipcar access, public transit pass, and paid time off for volunteering in the community. But she also warned me that I would get a lot less vacation time. I thought about it, and declared that the extra time on evenings and weekends would be well worth giving up summer vacation.

Soon, I was scheduling the online interview, to be held with the physics group. We scheduled it for the last day of school for teachers, which I had “flexed out” of thanks to attending EduCon and Edcamp Philly during the school year on my own time. My plan was to drive to Buffalo after school was out, buy my parents a new computer and get them set up with it, and be back in Pennsylvania in time to head to West Virginia. My husband and I were scheduled to teach workshops at the camp where we met and then attend the 50th reunion of camp alumni. So my task on that Tuesday was to get up early, drive to Buffalo, and then use my parents’ old computer for the online interview.

I got to Buffalo in time, washed up and changed into a nice shirt, and sat down in front of the computer. And then I had to download Java, and enable it, and set up WebEx, and I was almost late to meeting the group. It seemed to go well, and my mom made a most excellent dinner to follow.

During dinner, I got a phone call from John G. that they wanted to fly me out for an in-person interview. Very exciting!

Scheduling turned into a bear. Between my trip to West Virginia and their busy schedule, we wound up scheduled a month after the online interview, a few days before the AAPT summer meeting, conveniently in Portland, OR this year. As one of three interviewees, I was scheduled on the Thursday prior to the meeting. I planned to fly out on Wednesday, stay with my sister-in-law, interview, enjoy Portland, and attend the AAPT meeting. I hoped that if I was offered the job I would have time to find an apartment.

All went smoothly. I asked when they might make a decision. Oh, by the middle of next week, they answered. I was perturbed. The middle of the next week was the day before I flew out on an early flight. I smiled, and drove back to my sister-in-law’s house, and sat on her porch, in the sunshine, drinking her beer.

Friday I moved into my hotel for the AAPT meeting, Saturday I spent all day in a workshop and all evening seeing the Portland Timbers beat the LA Galaxy. Sunday I visited Voodoo Doughnuts and hung out with my hotel roommate. The next day, I attended sessions for much of the day, but then I went back to the hotel for a nap. I awoke to a message on my phone to stop by the Vernier booth in the exhibit hall. I checked the time – half an hour since the exhibit hall had closed! I had to wait until the next morning!

On Tuesday, I dragged a long-time friend along with me, for moral support, and I was offered the job! I accepted it without negotiating for a higher salary even though I knew I had that option. The offer was not much different from what I had been earning as a teacher, with so many awesome benefits that I couldn’t really imagine asking for more. Plus, I am sure they offered me more than they had originally planned to offer for this position.

Three weeks later I was back on a plane to PDX, with a truck full of belongings on its way below me. I moved into a small apartment on Saturday, and started my new job on Monday. I’ve been with Vernier for 4 months now. I love my new job.

I love not waking up at 5 AM. I love coming home and not having any grading or planning to do. I love weekends. I love SUNDAY, after so many years of feeling antsy and irritable on Sundays, having put off planning and grading. I love being able to go out on Friday night without wishing I were in bed, and without falling asleep at 7 PM.

I have fun colleagues, but no students. I am going to start getting out of touch with what the kids are saying and wearing these days. But I might also get fewer upper-respiratory and stomach viruses. At least, that is my hope. I do miss the kids. I definitely miss my teaching colleagues. I haven’t gone looking for dance opportunities or an exercise class (outside of the classes offered at work) yet.

I have a new laptop computer for work, that I picked out myself, with a new 23-inch monitor beside it. I’ve gotten free tickets to see the Portland Timbers (they won, over Real Salt Lake) and the Trail Blazers (those tickets are for February). I had an appointment with an ergonomics consultant, and was given a budget of $300 to spend on a new desk chair. I have traveled on my first business trip, to a conference in New Jersey, where I helped set up our booth, answered customer questions, handed out my brand-new business cards, and helped run two workshops.

Now, I am using some of my vacation time to visit the coast with my mother- and sister-in-law and their dogs. Vacation time. Taking time off from work without having to make plans for a substitute. Crazy.

Next week, we’ll be closing the sale of our house in PA, closing the purchase of a new house in OR, and my husband will have his last week of work at U. Penn. He’ll be starting a new position at Portland State University in January.

2013 has been quite a journey.

————————-
¹Public School Employees’ Retirement System

²Public teacher contracts contain “salary schedules” which determine each teacher’s pay according to their years of experience and level of education. I was at the MS level, though I should have been at the MS+15 level, and step 14 or so, though I should have been at the highest step. Various salary and step freezes over several negotiation cycles prevented my scale increases several times.

³National Science Teachers Association

One Response to “Transition”

  1. Doris Says:

    Wow! It’s all happened so fast, it’s still hard to grasp…but, I’m glad the opportunity came, and that you responded as you did, and that you’re enjoying the change. You’ll always be a teacher…just not in the classroom, now.

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