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Published in Print: August 17, 2001, as A Binary Lifestyle

A Binary Lifestyle

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Dizzying high-tech salaries and enviable corporate perks are enough to make a grown liberal arts major cry.

In Northern California’s Silicon Valley, the dizzying high-tech salaries and enviable corporate perks are enough to make a grown liberal arts major cry. So why is Kenneth Wong dry-eyed? "I’ve enjoyed working in two different environments," says the tech-savvy elementary school teacher who’s spent the past two summers as a Web page designer for Compaq Computer Corp. in San Jose, California. "Working in the corporate world has made me appreciate what I do in the classroom," he says, and at the same time, "It’s nice to have a sense of accomplishment during the summer and not have to worry about grading papers and filling out report cards."

Wong, a liberal studies graduate who teaches 5th grade at San Jose’s DeVargas Elementary School, is one of 30 teachers who have been matched with summer jobs at Compaq in recent years through a San Francisco Bay area program called Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education.

‘I’ve enjoyed working in two different environments.’

Kenneth Wong

During his first summer at Compaq, Wong was placed in charge of renovating the Web site for the company’s quality assurance department. In return, the largely self-taught webmeister earns around $20 an hour (somewhat less than Bill Gates), plus a load of real-world computer experience that he’s encouraged to ferry back to his colleagues and students during the school year.

In some ways, summer in the high-tech fast lane can be a pleasant change of pace for teachers accustomed to tight budgets, sulking preteens, and tuna surprise in the cafeteria. Wong says the regular engineers at Compaq have been wonderfully supportive and eager to hear his opinion on their products. He also appreciates the little perks—Compaq employees enjoy catered staff get-togethers on company time, not to mention unlimited free soda in their office fridges. "It seems to me that the corporate world is a bottomless pit of money," Wong marvels. "It’s not unusual to hear somebody make a deal over the phone involving a multimillion-dollar investment." On the flip side, working at Compaq has given Wong a deeper appreciation for the stability of his chosen profession. "With the hiring freeze and the wave of layoffs that Silicon Valley companies have had in the past year, someone can be there 30 years, and then, all of a sudden, they’ll get a pink slip," he observes soberly. "At school, sure we get evaluated and have assessments and formal observations. But at least most of us know our jobs are secure."

As part of his fellowship agreement, Wong has written two "mini-theses" describing how he plans to transfer his enhanced computer skills back into the educational environment. After his first summer, he created an innovative lesson plan to teach his students about the inner workings of a computer (one of the exercises has the children run a relay race with buckets of water to understand how computers store information). This year, he’s helping his district colleagues get up to speed on Microsoft Office 2000. They may not earn the same megabucks as their high-tech friends, but with Wong’s help, at least they’re learning the terrain.


Vol. 13, Issue 1, Pages 44-45

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