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Switch Career from Engineering to Teaching?

  1. May 25, 2014 #1
    I have an M.S. degree in electrical engineering from Univ. of Minn. and have been a practicing engineer for almost 30 years now. I've about had my fill of engineering and I'm seriously considering switching career to teaching high school physics and math. Assuming for the moment I have sufficient mastery of the material at the H.S. level, I have a few questions:
    - How common is it for engineers to switch to teaching high school physics or other science?
    - Can it be done without getting a degree in physics? (I understand I may need to get a degree in education, or some other flavor of certification.
    - Setting aside the 70% pay cut, how difficult is the transition?
    - How difficult is the job?
    - Is it expected that there will still be a shortage of H.S physics and math teachers in three or four years?
    Thanks for any insight you can offer.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 25, 2014 #2
    As the son of a high school teacher and a university professor, and as an engineer with almost as much experience as you, allow me to share some biases and observations about the education business:

    1. Most engineering firms tend to be very conservative places and politically to the right. Most education institutions tend to be very much the opposite.

    2. You will find a range of emotional behavior ranging from kindness to stark rudeness that will amaze you. You will need a very strong stomach for this.

    3. Private institutions have more latitude to hire whoever they see fit. Public institutions tend to be very strict about needing that education degree. Think of the degree as a popular psychological discussion of teaching methods. Personally, I think most of it is either common sense, or psycho-babble nonsense. In other words, if you are a sociable person, you shouldn't need this. If you aren't a sociable person, no amount of teaching this sort of methodology is going to make much difference. I know this will offend many professional teachers, but I've lived with seeing people wrestle with this garbage and I have very few nice things to say about it.

    Most of all, if you have raised children through these school years, you know full well what this job is about. If you haven't, I will warn you, it is not what you think it is. There are many wide-eyed believers who meet the ugly realities of teaching and they leave within the first couple years.

    But if you can stand the crap that comes with the job, I can't recommend it highly enough. Stay away from the idealists, monitor the lesson plans for key goals, but teach from the heart. Your students will pick up on what you're doing very quickly and they will respect you and remember you for it. Being able to tell real-world examples from real world experience in class is very under-rated in the educational institutions.

    All through high school and even through most of college, I wished with all my might for a teacher who had actually applied these math and science skills in some fashion. I never had one. You could be that ultimate mentor.
  4. Jun 12, 2014 #3
    I think JakeBrodskyPE pretty much got it right. I can speak from personal experience as I recently resigned from teaching high school math and physics. First, I've known several former engineers who went into teaching, both in middle school and in high school. Transitioning from engineering to teaching is actually fairly common from my experience in working at several different schools. The former engineers that I knew had a tremendous amount of personal experience to share with the students, which was quite relevant and enriching. However, I've personally witnessed a couple of these former engineers lose it in the classroom by screaming and swearing at the students for blatantly disobeying directives. One of the guys I knew had to drop back to part time teaching because his doctor told him he was under too much stress and was at risk of a heart attack.

    Teaching is incredibly time consuming and very stressful, especially for beginning teachers. Few professionals outside of education have little to no clue about the demand that is placed on teachers, especially full time teachers. Allow me to divulge a bit. First, the average teacher is required to teach roughly an 8 hr day (with one prep period for grading, emails, etc). By the way, to "teach" implies not only delivering a lesson plan with the intent of reaching every student in the room (regardless of learning disabilities, diagnosed or not), but also dealing with the disrespect and classroom management issues. After an average day of teaching, the teacher goes home, grades papers, prepares lesson plans for the next day, answers emails or returns phone calls to parents, etc. Its much worse if you coach. Considering everything I was responsible for as a full time teacher, I worked 60hrs a week, easy. Every weekend during the school year was devoted to tasks associated with my job as a teacher. I had very little time for friends or family. By the way, there's no such thing as overtime pay in education. To that end, the pay that teachers receive in most districts/schools is nothing short of a joke, especially at a private school. Public schools pay better, but they also require the teachers to jump through more hoops.

    There are plenty of people who love their teaching job. However, those types of people seem to love the drama that goes along with teaching. Your potential success as an educator at the high school level is completely determined by your personality type. If you're going into teaching with the idealized mental image of a class full of polite adolescent kids giving you their complete and undivided attention, you couldn't be further from reality. This is especially true for new teachers. The adolescent mind does not care how well respected you were as an engineer. Any given classroom has at least a couple of students who are always looking for the opportunity to get a laugh and/or to get the majority of the class off topic and into a different direction. As a teacher, it'll be up to you to redirect them, which is the most exhausting part of teaching.

    If you're still reading this, and you still want to go into education, you can become certified fairly easily. You'll need several documents before you're legally allowed to step foot inside a classroom. First, you'll need to get a teaching certification for your state (assuming your in the U.S.). Most states have something called an emergency certification for applicants who fit most of the criteria (aren't convicted felons), which will allow you to teach full time with full pay though its only good for a year, maybe two. In order to teach long term, you'll need to get a fully endorsed credential from your state. Do a google search for "teaching credential (your state)." You'll find your state's dept of education webpage promptly. You can then see what you need to become fully certified. If you have a masters degree in engineering, your set. Most states will issue teaching credentials without question for people who have masters degrees. You'll just need to apply (and pay). Secondly, you need a "fingerprint clearance," or background check. This is to verify you're a good bet to be around minors. Third, you need to become an official child abuse reporter. This is done through your school. As an official child abuse reporter you become lawfully obligated to report ANY suspicious observations as they MIGHT relate to child abuse. Failure to do so in an actual child abuse case can cost you your job. Lastly, you'll need to pay, and become a member, of your districts union if applicable. There might be other criteria as well relative to certain districts.

    I could go on, but I think I've reached my quota a couple pages ago.
  5. Jun 12, 2014 #4


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    Ostensibly one has some kind of retirement program, e.g., 401K/pension or IRA. I've known engineers to retire and either consult or teach at high school or university. It's doable, although I'm not sure of the frequency.

    I think there is a current shortage of qualified STEM teachers in primary education.

    Can one afford the pay cut?

    Rather than difficult, consider it a challenge. One will find a student body with a spectrum of capability and varying from motivated to disinterested. If one can teach honors and/or AP classes, it will probably be a lot easier.

    As far as I know, teachers in HS need some kind of teaching certificate, and the requirements vary from state-to-state as well as intrastate, i.e., district-to-district.
  6. Jun 12, 2014 #5


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    After working for 30 years as an engineer, I wouldn't let the last statement sway you into making such an abrupt career change. As far back as I can remember (and I have been an engineer about as long as you), there has always been a shortage of HS physics and math teachers, good ones for certain. This is due in large part because education majors are not required to take any hard science or math courses while they are undergrads, and until recently, few trained scientists, engineers, or mathematicians were willing to undergo the certification process required of all teaching candidates in the public schools.

    A lot of parochial, charter, or private schools may welcome you with open arms. Certainly, teaching at one of those types of school will be a different experience than teaching at all but a few public schools.
  7. Jun 12, 2014 #6
    I'd be careful here. As a recently minted physics phd, I was totally unable to find a highschool willing to take a chance on me. This was a few years ago, but I found the stories of shortage to be very exaggerated (much like the shortage stories about STEM workers)
  8. Jun 12, 2014 #7
    I do think the shortage is exaggerated overall, but like so many careers it depends on your geographic flexibility. Did you try Teach for America? They do take PhDs as far as I know. Many of my fellow BS and MS grads have gone into teaching and nearly all of them did so via Teach for America. I dont know the specifics, but I believe the program allows you to skirt some of the requirements temporarily and you can start teaching while working on the state certificate or other requirements. Also a masters in teaching may be earned along the way. Of course, you need to be flexible. You may end up in Detroit teaching math to 5th graders. In my area, a big city in the north west, teachers of all kinds are a dime a dozen because so many want to work in this specific area and wont move.
  9. Jun 13, 2014 #8
    Depending on the geographic area, you betcha there is and will be a shortage. I wouldn't do high school, though, unless you have the patience for it. I don't.

    Thirty years of the dysfunctional Corporate Life motivated me to consider a change. I stumbled upon a real gem of an Academic job with a 2nd-tier school in a pleasant city with lifestyle that suited my current station in life. I took my 30 years experience, Master degree, PE license, interest/talent and previous experience in teaching & corporate training, and ran for it at the urging of my lovely wife. I got ranked at "Assistant Prof" level for this Engineering Technology program instead of Instructor (lucky) and am in charge of running a Manufacturing Technology program under the Department of Engineering.

    Scared to say it, but: Loving it. I feel like I have been delivered by God from a bad previous life.

    Some insights for you about this new gig:
    1. I joked with my friends that I was going to grow a long gray ponytail, wear plaid jackets with elbow patches, and leisurely pontificate in front of eager wide-eyed students. None of that: I'm working like a rented mule. Long intense hours, but much less stress. The amount of prep time needed to do a good job with students surprised me. But it's manageable. I was told "it gets easier after a year or so." And so it has. It's enjoyable and intellectually stimulating.

    2. I am in charge of the curriculum, and can chart my course within the constraints of the University vision. There's responsibility and authority. At least for the time being, I've got a great boss. We've developed a shortage of staff through disabilities and retirements, so I am lucky enough to be urgently needed in this position. The heavy workload will decrease when we can backfill those empty positions.

    3. Curriculum involves Manufacturing, which is an urgent need in this region with high visibilty. Lots of support from University & Community. I am lucky enough to have inherited a fabulous lab/shop facility procured by other folks. I have a fertile ground in which to build a curriculum. We have strong industry outreach efforts.

    4. I've gained a reputation for bringing "real life" work ethic, experiences, and sense of urgency to the classroom. Based on Student Evaluations, they like that instead of dry subject matter.

    5. I have been very demanding of students and for the most part they have stepped up and responded extremely well. That is a pleasure to see this happen. This is also an opportunity to build a little character with young people, which is rewarding in its own way. Many desperately need some character building.

    6. There are some distasteful University politics, but it doesn't affect me much. The younger professors gripe about being too top-heavy with administrators (correct), but my Corporate experience just makes me roll my eyes about that stuff. The other poster is correct: the Uni is generally considered "liberal", but the Engineering folks are all generally considered "conservative." My first day on the job I had a eye-opening discussion with a young-ish foreign language professor about the merits and economic feasibility of alternative energy sources. I immediately learned how insulated from reality Ph.D.-types can become.

    7. In my position, I don't have to be concerned with tenure and chasing all that stuff down (thank goodness). I see the Ph.D. Professor's tenure-chasing efforts and shudder.

    8. Many students coming from high schools are woefully unprepared for University work. It's a struggle sometimes to deal with that. There are deficiencies in penmanship, report writing, work ethic & research skills (can't I just Google it, dude?). Culturally I was shocked at what students consider acceptable behavior these days. Read up on "millenials" to see the cultural challenges to be faced.

    9. Students come in all sizes, shapes, backgrounds, motivations, abilities, maturities, and emotional levels. The most challenging students are the "spoiled brats & whining crybabies." You have to be able to deal with that diplomatically and professionally. Corporate life prepared me for that very well.

    10. The curriculum is much more challenging than when I got my BS. Various policies imposed over the last few decades have decreased the available number of 4-year curriculum hours from the 130+ range to the 120+ range. At the same time, policies have increased the number of required "core" class hours. The result is less quantity of technical/engineering hours. For example, what was formerly a 3-hr per week class is compressed into 2-hr per week. Either the students must absorb material at warp-speed or less material is presented. As stated before, most students lack sufficient study skills coming out of high school to survive this.

    11. The money is less. Retirement & Health benefits are pretty good, better than most places, but also under pressure due to all the controversial stuff going on now. Other benefits are great: recreational facilities, intellectual stimulation, education opportunities, prestige, yadda yadda yadda. Things move more slowly because...well...it's a bureaucracy.

    12. A couple of disagreements with students made me develop a certain paranoia with students. They are a product of their millennial culture and current technology (smart phones etc. and constantly online 24x7). I have adopted the belief that I am being recorded at all times. It tends to limit my personality a bit. There are so many landmines out there now with so many people so easily offended, that one's actions, comments, facial expressions, words, and even posture must be above reproach or suspicion. It's distracting.
  10. Jun 13, 2014 #9
    I sure would not make such a move. The culture is radically different. Bad teachers can hardly be gotten rid of, there is a lot of left-wing political correctness, you waste a lot of time in buerocratic meetings instead of teaching, and god help you if you say anything counter to the Received Wisdom. Assume you are being filmed and recorded at all times. Assume any student is your enemy.
  11. Jun 13, 2014 #10
    Thanks for the insight, all of you. A tough decision, but I'm not jumping into anything just yet.

    Interesting thing that several of you mentioned, the engineering world tends to be conservative and the education world tends to be liberal. I'm an engineer, nonetheless I'm pretty far left of center, so not too worried about culture shock from that direction.

    I'm sure it's not an easy job, still I think it could be more meaningful and satisfying than finishing out the last ten of fifteen years of my engineering career in a cube farm.

    Still thinking about it, got some time to make a decision.
  12. Jul 20, 2014 #11
    My math professor was making 250 an hour consulting. He was an EE and worked in the industry for I believe 15 years. He has been teaching for 20 years now. He works from 7 am to 10 PM every weekday and he is extremely happy.

    It is challenging work he says. He teaches at 2 universities and also the cc I attend. I think what makes him happy is that he makes us CC work really hard and try to meet his high expectations. Although alot of students have not so nice things to say about him because of how hard he makes the subject.
  13. Jul 20, 2014 #12
    Being a professor is different from being a HS teacher, and being in the science, math, and engineering fields is different than in most others. A professor has pretty decent pay, great perks, and job security matched by none. If he likes it, great. All my math and science profs seemed happy too. A chemistry prof had his own company and got rich selling forensic products to police departments.
  14. Jul 20, 2014 #13
    Unfortunately, it is more likely they didn't want to pay you. A teacher's pay is determined by a combination of experience and education. You also have to be certified first before you will be considered. Not sure if you were.

    To OP, as a former sped and middle and high school teacher I would only consider returning to teaching if it was the only way I could feed my kids. If I were single, I would live in a cardboard box before returning to teaching. The politics, cliques, and rude parents are simply not worth it. During the school year, I would spend at least 10 hours a day teaching, grading, and lesson planning. I also spent about 5 hours each weekend on school related stuff. You have to really love teaching. Have you thought about subbing to see what it's like. You may be able to get a long-term position. Then you would have all of the duties of a teacher, including lesson plans, grading, meetings, without needing the certification. Just a sub cert, which is easy to get.
  15. Jul 20, 2014 #14


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    Usually the "cert" for substitute teaching is a 1 year "permit" that you need to reapply for each year. The public k-12 schools don't really care exactly what your subject matter concentrations are but just want anyone who is available for substitute jobs as they arise. Maybe your degree was in some science or engineering, but you can be called to substitute for political science/ history or English.
  16. Jul 20, 2014 #15
    Typically, you pick the assignments you want. Most districts use a computer system where I am. The sub logs in and sees what jobs are available and selects one, if they want. You are always free to refuse an assignment, if you are offered one directly. Teachers can also refuse to have a specific sub in their classroom. When I taught sped, I would contact subs I knew enjoyed subbing in my classroom prior to posting my absence to see if they wanted it. Some retired teachers prefer to sub in their specialty/what they taught/specific grades only. Otherwise its all by computer, unless the sub chooses to get early am calls about available assignments for that day.
  17. Jul 20, 2014 #16

    George Jones

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    Interesting. Things seem to be quite different in Canada. In Canada, there is an over-supply of teachers. For example,


    This article is for Ontario (where my brother is a high school teacher), but the situation is much the same (or worse) in New Brunswick, where we used to live, and in British Columbia, where we currently live.

    If you want to be a teacher in a remote village in Canada, you likely can find a full-time,continuing position. If not, you face stiff competition.

    Also, in my Canadian city, substitute teaching works differently. My wife, who has a Master's in Physics, a Master's in Engineering, and Bachelor of Education with specialization in high school physics and math, is a substitute teacher.
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