Matt Shields, Physics Teacher, Charlottesville High School
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Time. If I were to teach only one subject to only one student, that could easily be a full time job. I could spend forty hours each week building a relationship with that one student, getting to know their background and learning style, designing educational experiences which challenge and interest them, analyzing their assessments, and adjusting plans accordingly. On top of that, I would to go to their volleyball games, track meets, and theater performances and I would be in constant communication with their parents. I would participate fully in the professional community that is my school: I would serve on multiple committees, I would coach sports, I would help monitor the halls, and I would meet regularly with my colleagues to discuss best practices. I would engage with the broader teaching profession by reading journals of education and attending seminars where professionals shared and learned from each other. And I would stay abreast of the latest developments and controversies in physics, the course I teach. But, with over 100 students and only 168 hours in a week, I have to make concessions. And that can be challenging.
What’s the most common misconception about your job?
I believe that there is a persistent misconception in the US – and I would point to pay scales as evidence – that teaching is a low-skill job. Most Americans have spent over a dozen years in classrooms and, based on observation, it is easy to come to the conclusion that teaching consists of taking attendance, delivering lectures, assigning homework, handing out tests, and calculating grades. On the contrary, good teaching requires a great deal of knowledge, expertise, and patience. Each year, I have between 100 and 120 students on my roll, each unique in terms of learning style, background, and interests. It is a high-skill exercise for a teacher to first assess those differences and then to prepare educational experiences appropriate for the learning profiles of each student. And throughout the educational process, the teacher is assessing the progress of their students and making necessary adjustments, all while maintaining a challenging yet supportive learning environment. It’s basically brain surgery – on thirty simultaneous patients, five times per day.
Where do you see the teaching field in 5 years?
Most educators have not yet fully appreciated how the internet is changing education. If you are older than 30, you did not grow up doing research via Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia. You probably received most of your education from a relatively small number of sources like your parents, teachers, and textbooks. A student in high school today is living in a world where the floodgates are open; they are awash in information (and misinformation). The next five years – and beyond – will see the teaching field slowly coming to terms with the fact that the old models are no longer relevant. The teacher as disseminator of knowledge is an antiquated idea. The knowledge is out there and teachers must help students learn to experience, filter, process, and understand that knowledge. It is an exciting time!
What outside experience prepared you best to become a teacher?
I was trained as an engineer. I spent six and a half years in engineering school and I worked as an engineer for a large defense contractor. Those experiences trained me to analyze systems and to solve problems. So when I began teaching, my default mode was not to see students as blank slates or empty vessels. Thanks to my engineering background, I viewed my classroom more as a complex system of talents, identities, geniuses, needs, deficiencies, and emotional states. I looked at my available resources and constraints and I set about engineering a solution to the challenge in front of me. I can’t say that any educational school would fully endorse that approach, but it has worked for me.