Rocket Scientists and Teachers: Kindred Spirits

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The last time you grappled with a needlessly complicated problem, did you say something like, “Hey, this isn’t rocket science”? After all, rocket science does serve well as a standard against which to measure the difficulty of a problem—just look at some of those equations. But teachers work on hard problems, too, and not many can be as neatly quantified as the formula for a rocket's equivalent engine exhaust velocity. In fact, some years ago a rocket scientist I know told me that we work on harder problems than he does.

During the past year, I’ve learned that teachers and rocket scientists have much more in common than working on hard problems—so much so, that we should consider ourselves kindred spirits.

This realization began last January when Raytheon Missile Systems, a long-time supporter of public education, named elementary teacher Ashley Curtis, high school teacher Cymry DeBoucher, and me as their inaugural Leaders in Education. Since then, we’ve had a chance to dine with Raytheon vice presidents, tour a Raytheon factory, and attend the company's President’s Award Ceremony dinner. During those activities, I’ve noticed three traits that teachers and rocket scientists share in our professional DNA.

1. We're both idealistic true believers.

Teachers and rocket scientists are idealists who truly believe that our nation’s freedom, growth, and security depend on the work we do in our respective careers. Teachers believe in the Center for Teaching Quality’s Executive Director Barnett Berry’s quote that teaching is the career that makes all others possible. So the country’s success, by whatever measures you consider, ultimately depends on teachers properly developing our human resources. Beyond developing our workforce, our success depends on teachers to develop a critical mass of citizens knowledgeable enough to responsibly execute their civic duties.

“Existential threat” is no cliché to rocket scientists in the defense industry. Ever mindful of the danger that exists beyond our allies’ and our frontiers, rocket scientists know that when diplomacy breaks down and the unimaginable becomes real, the path to survival may depend on the missile systems they develop. After our lunch at Raytheon, we were walking across the property and some F-16s loudly flew overhead. Our host, quoting the well-known expression, said, “that was the sound of freedom.” Hyperbole? I don’t think it’s an exaggeration any more than Berry’s quote.

It’s easy to expect that rocket scientists in other endeavors, like communications or space exploration, also see their work as vital to the country by keeping us connected, informed, and curious.

2. We both have to face public perception.

Teachers and rocket scientists often face negative and misinformed public perceptions of what we do, in spite of the fact that most people trust teachers and support our national defense. The teacher-leader movement has spawned multiple pathways to make our work more visible. Now, more teachers run for local school boards. We also reach out directly to lawmakers to inform them of the impact policy has on our practice. In Arizona, through our Take Your Legislator to School program, we invite lawmakers to spend a day in our schools to see our expertise and needs.

One acquaintance from the defense industry told me she also tries to make her work more visible. She related that she used to shy away from discussing her job in social settings in order to avoid pushback for being in the defense industry. Now, she openly discusses the non-classified parts of what she does and why it’s important.

Raytheon’s web page illustrates it's commitment to public engagement. It features their work with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and a profile of engineer Kristy Madigo, who battled severe disabilities to become an engineer. (Raytheon is included in the Disability Equality Index of the best places to work, developed by the American Association of People with Disabilities and the U. S. Business Leadership Network.)

Raytheon works directly with schools as well. In Tucson, Ariz., for example, it collaborates with schools that sponsor a Math Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) program. MESA is an early outreach program designed to prepare members to major in technical fields. A Raytheon engineer "adopts" each school and attends meetings, serving as a mentor and role model. The capstone event each year is MESA Day, in which students compete in engineering events. Raytheon engineers volunteer to help design and judge events. The company freely admits its motive in supporting education—Raytheon knows what Barnett Barry knows: Teachers lay the foundation for their future employees. (Disclosure: I facilitated the MESA program at my school for 21 years. The rocket scientist who told me that teachers work on harder problems than he does was the engineer who mentored my students for a couple of years.)

3. We both collaborate on a day-to-day basis.

In addition to big-picture matters like public perception and contributing to the welfare of the country, teachers and rocket scientists have at least one thing in common in their daily work: They can’t function without collaboration with their peers. In the open floor design of the factory we visited, different teams worked in sight of each other on their various components, and nobody worked alone. At the President’s Awards Ceremony, my teaching colleagues and I noted it was clear that Raytheon Missiles Systems President Taylor W. Lawrence was passionate about rewarding exceptional teams.

Kindred Spirits, not Identical Twins

For all we have in common, I’d speculate that in three key areas—open positions, evaluations, and career paths—teachers and rocket scientists part ways.

Everyone knows about the teacher shortage in education, and we read that the nation’s demand for engineers is not being met by the number of graduates. Although open positions in rocket science result from the difficulty in finding qualified applicants, open positions in schools often result from qualified teachers leaving the profession because of the current attitudes toward public education.

When I’ve asked my rocket scientist friends how they’re evaluated, they’re vague in their answers. They’re not deceptive or secretive, mind you, it’s more like the concept is unfamiliar to them. I have no doubt that in some manner their job performance is periodically reviewed, but ultimately, I’d guess their evaluation is tightly linked to the team’s objective product performance, rather the imprecise and subjective means by which teachers are evaluated.

It’s clear from Raytheon’s career page that they don’t expect every employee to be a graduate of the same department at the university. Rather, over 70 “talent areas” can be searched for open jobs. (Oddly, “rocket science” doesn’t make the list, illustrating the distributed nature of the work). The site also lists 11 career paths, ranging from accounting to engineering to supply chain—only a bit of a wider range than in education.

Clearly, getting rockets to their targets takes an exceptionally diverse set of aptitudes, a lot like teaching. But unlike teaching, it doesn’t appear that there is a “one size fits all” approach to career development in the space industry.

A Lasting Impression

During the lunch with vice presidents at Raytheon, the three teacher Leaders in Education learned much about the company’s missions and operations. In turn, Raytheon staff members peppered us with thoughtful questions about education policy and problems, as well as what we considered to be paths to solutions.

They were particularly interested in our ideas about how the company could help. It left a deep impression that when one of the world’s leading companies reaches out to learn about schools, it didn’t turn to district administrators; it turned to full-time classroom teachers. This illustrates one final commonality between our professions: Rocket scientists, like teacher leaders, recognize that any discussion about teaching must include teachers themselves. It’s not rocket science.

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