There was a discussion some time ago about an article on the need for computer science knowledgable people in high school. In Internet hyperbole fashion, it was titled There are no computer science teachers in NY. The salient quote:

Getting engineers to teach full-time would be a harder sell. Some New York startups offer starting salaries of as much as $85,000 for engineers, plus equity in the company, while on average in the metro area, technologists earn $94,000, according to job board A New York City teacher starts at $46,000.

Engineers always seem to be desired, no matter the field. It was hinted at all throughout my engineering coursework. There's no need to worry, everyone will take an engineer. Which makes the salary part a sticking point. Eventually I was summoned into the discussion.

My response is tangential to the point of the discussion, which is, should EVERYONE learn to code? A big argument of its own. I'm here to discuss what's it like being in education without the traditional training.

The short answer is I have lots of answers. Students will ask me what I did in college and kind of double take when they hear I have an engineering degree. The first two things out of their mouth in some order are "why are you a teacher?" and "but don't engineers make lots of money?"

I could go on forever about the "why are you a teacher?" question. But for the seventeen year old audience, I have started to summarize. If you're going to do something for 8-10 hours a day, every day for 30 years, you better enjoy it a little bit. As indicated by the second question, in their opinion, success after high school is gauged by salary, the bigger the better. Blame that on whatever you want, but it's what they think. For someone to have the opportunity and reject it just sounds bonkers. At the same time though, they're fascinated. A real life engineer? Here? In front of me? ASK ALL THE QUESTIONS.

Longer Answers

Let's address the salary thing for a minute. Where I live, if you get an engineering degree and have a decent GPA (3.0+), you'll probably wind up in the oil industry, though it's not required. There are a thousand companies servicing every aspect of it. Those people start somewhere in the $50k range. It goes up pretty quick. If you land something at a big outfit like Chevron, you're talking $70k+ within a few years, and big time bonuses if you get an extended international assignment (which is pretty much guaranteed). Other less profitable industries have lower starting salaries but you'll be up to six figures soon enough. I worked in construction for three years, my offer letter was for $46k in 2006, that's about $54k today. It climbed to $53k by the time I quit in 2009. Had I stuck around I'd be a high level manager of some sort and possibly close to double my entry pay. Plus 10 years of stock interests and profit sharing.

If you poke around school districts in Texas, most of the urban ones have starting tiers in the mid-40s to low-50s. My district base tier for a bachelor's degree is $50k. (Come work with me, guaranteed cheaper than NYC). In 2009 I started at $45k. My salary has risen less in 7 years here than it did over the 3 years I worked in an industry. It's to be expected, even in a thin margin (3% is standard, 10% is amazing) business like construction.

From a content point of view, I'm overqualified. I'm not as rare as you'd think. If you ask around there are lots of engineering and math degree types that attend TMC and participate in the greater Teachers of The Internet thing. All of them walking into the education business for a variety of reasons. In terms of classes taken I surpassed the high school stuff after like week 2 freshman year. The funny thing is most students wouldn't consider someone with a math degree as equally overqualified. Even though they could out-math me while blindfolded.

Ok, so I left money on the table and I'm overtrained. Would I do it over again? Absolutely. I have some opinions on office work, they are mostly negative.

Qualifications Are No Guarantee

Slowly, I've gotten ok at this teaching thing. Did I pick it up in college? Maybe. The big thing I learned about myself in 4 years of college is what I can do under pressure. I could learn to be productive or I could learn how to find another field of study. Towards the end we had a nice study group and all five of  us found success in teaching one another. I'd be good at one subject, my friend would be good at another. Endless discussion about homework and exams and whatnot. Then we'd take a break and play chess. Because, nerds.

Through that experience I realized you know material the best when you can explain it to someone. But teaching is so much more than being able to deliver material. Any of my engineer colleagues could stand up and flick through a presentation and pass out a test (and think it was the pinnacle of the art form). Any of them on paper are qualified to teach whatever math and science you want to give them. The intangibles like personal skills, adaptability, and the fundamental recognition that a 16 year old has less experience with this stuff are what matters. Many people I graduated with couldn't explain the lab reports they wrote.

And I was nothing special my first year. I had to invest time learning the material. What might make me different is the engineer side always wants to know "why?" which spawned two instances of hacking a curriculum to pieces. I can rebuild it. I have the technology. Others might be content to let a textbook handle that.


Did studying engineering give me some innate advantage? Maybe. Did studying engineering enhance a pre-existing aptitude? More likely. Are engineers the solution? No.

If you started a campaign to convince engineers to enter education, you would find some gems certainly. Several times I've visited Freshman Mechanical Engineering Seminar to talk about myself and I always have a few saying they have a real desire to teach in the future. These people exist. But I don't think your degree makes you more or less likely to be successful in education. There's too many variables. You'd have better luck pushing back on pre-service programs.

AuthorJonathan Claydon