From postdoc to high school physics teacher: Some things I did and did not expect

A year ago, I was still in my second postdoc, living abroad and interviewing for tenure-track positions. Now I am a physics teacher at a high school back at home.

  1. I did not know that teaching can be so immediately rewarding. I was used to the very delayed gratification that is typical in academia. It is amazing to see the effect what you in real time. I sometimes go home with a smile on my face after a morning of teaching. I never read about this effect, but it appears to me that there is some very old and basic reward that one gets from teaching the next generation. I suppose this is because transmitting knowledge to the young has been crucial for the survival of our species since the stone age. Also I am surprised by how much the delayed gratification in academia was difficult to handle, I did not notice it anymore, but now it seems clear: This is one of the main reasons that many postdocs are so cranky. Once your paper gets accepted and, once it gets a lot of citations, you have almost forgotten about it, and you cannot really feel the reward anymore.

  2. I expected to be bored and less challenged by my work. This is mostly not true. The challenge has shifted, but trying to explain things clearly is actually extremely challenging. I am still pretty intense about my work. I wake up on a free day and start thinking about it, and I have ideas and insights about it at any time of day. The job is still very creative, and it is still about physics.

  3. I mostly like the fact that I don’t have a boss anymore. People say that it is a disadvantage in teaching that you cannot really progress along a hierarchy. But I like it that I am given the same kind of responsibility like an advanced teacher. I feel like the school trusts me and sees me as an adult. As a postdoc, I often felt trapped in a role that I was too old for.

  4. Several people had warned me in advance that teenagers are very annoying and will be hard to handle for an introverted, thin-skinned person like me. But the longer I work with them, the more I find that I really like teenagers. Maybe better than average adults. They are new-born adults and they are very seriously preparing for real life. They are trying to figure out how everything works, also testing out boundaries and trying out rebellion and trying out opportunism and trying out all sorts of strategies they will have to use in their life. They are in the middle of massive changes and know that more changes will come, and thus they are very vulnerable and insecure, but most of them go forward bravely and full of natural optimism. They often cheer me up when I am not in a good mood, and when I prepare a lesson well, I get a lot back from them. I know boredom and crankiness very well, and I empathize with how locked in they must sometimes feel in school, and how annoyed they must feel that adults always tell them what to do. Maybe I just remember this phase of my life better than others, or maybe I haven’t outgrown it as fully as others.

  5. There are things that I miss. I miss trying to push the boundary of human knowledge and being one of very few experts about an area. I miss programming and data analysis, and I miss moving around in my head in a complex, beautiful world that I feel completely at home and yet still offers surprises. I miss discussions with other scientists about things we really care about. I almost never feel sad about it when I am awake, just sometimes demotivated and fed up with everything, like a cranky teenager, but at night, I dream of my old work and cry. I knew it would be painful to leave, though, and overall I am doing fine. I am relieved that I don’t have to write proposals anymore, or go to conferences or worry about having to move to another country.

Still, overall, I admit that there is some sort of emptiness in my life now that my job is less all-consuming and feels less cool and exciting and special than before. I feel that the center in my brain that was used for data analysis and logic is underused and this makes me a bit restless. It is probably clear that I have to get myself a cool hobby or a part-time programming job next to teaching in order to feel better. For now, teaching is still so challenging that this is hard to find time for, and so I do feel like something is missing and that feeling is, overall, pretty weird. Mostly, I feel like a gold fish that has been released from his aquarium and still does not dare to swim too far from the small area that he’s used to. Sometimes he’s glad that the glass walls are gone, and sometimes scared, and almost wants them back.

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6 Responses to From postdoc to high school physics teacher: Some things I did and did not expect

  1. B.S. says:

    Very interesting post… 🙂

  2. I am SOOOO glad you like teaching! I remember when you first started you were wondering if an introvert can be a great teacher, I knew you’d be awesome. You’re open and inquisitive and yet have your own opinions, things teenagers respect. I also think teenagers are magical creatures. Its hard to find teachers that really get how special that stage of life is.

    After 6 years of teaching high school I felt the same ache and hole for research and rigor. I felt I was sparking in them a desire to learn and inquire, but I wasn’t able to fully exercise my desires. I also loved not having a boss. But I missed not having science colleagues. Many teachers have only bachelor’s level science background and I was used to being surround with graduate/researcher level knowledge. Creating science is different from learning it. Many teachers are learners themselves but never get the chance to actually be a creator, to be a scientist. I started to feel alienated and that I no longer knew what was going on in the world of geology. I switched to working for a science museum hoping I could find that. But where I am the museum is still so small there’s more educators than scientists in this science museum. The museum just hired their first ever Chief Scientist (how they went decades without one before, baffles me).

    So here I am looking to go back to the university. To teach. And I would like to also do some science education research. I miss having a unique question and being able to explore it! I miss having a community of geologists. And I miss feeling the spark of energy that the academic community gave me….but it did take me 8yrs to get to this feeling.

    I hope you have found your life’s calling. But if you haven’t I am sure that what you will gain and contribute as a teacher will allow for some amazing things to happen! Keep us posted.

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you. I am going through rapid changes in my opinion whether or not teaching is the right thing for me… 🙂 I will only be able to do it if I manage to have better boundaries, I guess, and learn to limit the hours I put into preparation. And I know what you mean about missing research. Recently we discussed a researcher, Ebbinghaus, who studied long-term memory in our pedagogy class, and I was surprised how intensely envious I was of this guy who spent his days patiently learning nonsensical syllables to see how fast he would forget them. Couldn’t be more boring day-to-day work, but I miss to follow a project single-mindedly and trying to create something new…

  3. elkement says:

    I can so much relate to the ‘immediate reward’ argument. My first non-academic job was freelance computer consultant for small businesses (shocking for colleagues from academia). It was such a relief that feedback cycles can be so simple: People want something badly, you do it, they pay you.
    The downside is that work immediately rewarded by non-academics is rather mundane but that immediate reward finally more than compensated for the loss of the opportunity to do ‘leading edge research’ … research that you need to ‘sell’ to an agency administering tax payer’s money.

    Not having to beg for tax payer’s money (I hated writing of proposals, too) was another reason for me to leave – and this is still an important principle for me. Today I am working on ‘renewable energies’, among other things, and I take great pride in the fact that our small company did not use any governmental subsidies for our research project though many people advised us to do so. I only want to work on stuff that is really needed right now and ‘needed’ has to have a commercial implication – I hated writing the fluffy ‘Impact on environment and society’ part of proposals for EU grants in particular.

    • zinemin says:

      Ugh, yes I hated the impact on environment and society part too, because honestly my field has almost zero impact on either of the two, and it made me feel bad and demotivated to think about it. Except of course if you count outreach that could make children more interested in STEM fields, which would have been easily possible in my field. I would have been very happy to spend 50% of my time on outreach, but this is something that is so not rewarded in academia that it kills your career if you do it. Fantastic that you work on renewable energies. That is something that really does have a positive impact on environment and society.

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