PNAS: Cush Copeland, High School Teacher

i-d4d686a4d36a049da3e866f0474ece5b-copeland.jpg(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Cush Copeland, a high-school science teacher.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I teach high school science in a public school in Central Florida. Over twenty years, I have taught mostly earth/space science (remedial, standard and honors levels) but also environmental science, physical science and a course titled “Principles of Technology”. I am also an assistant varsity soccer coach, co-chair of the science department and active in a variety of educational activities that extend beyond the classroom.

2) What is your science background?

I have a BA in geology (Knox College) and an MA in earth science (University of Northern Colorado).

3) What led you to this job?

I went off to grad school in 1972 (University of Illinois) intending to taking the standard academic track, complete a PhD program and establish myself in a nice little liberal arts college teaching geology and doing research in structural geology. Obviously, things did not work out that way. For one thing, at the end of my first year at U. of I., I was denied certification to work toward a PhD, a shocking turn of events nobody could remember ever happening in the geology department. It was probably a combination of political machinations (my adviser was often at odds with about half of the department) and my rather casual attitude toward high level academia. In any event, I continued working towards a master’s degree. However, my TA position ran out after a couple years so I needed a new source of income.

The upshot was that I went out west to do oilfield work one summer and never returned to Champaign-Urbana. I started out as a “mud logger” (collecting and analyzing borehole cuttings while monitoring dissolved hydrocarbons in the drilling mud). Within a year, I had become experienced and competent enough that I could sell myself as a well-site geologist. I worked all through the Rocky Mountain area and was making a very decent living as a self-employed geologist.

Eventually, after getting married and having a daughter, being gone from home 250+ days per year (even at the going rate of $350/day) wasn’t very attractive any more and my wife and I decided we should each have careers with flexibility in terms of where we could live and greater job security. Strangely, we resolved this just as the oil business crashed in the early ’80s. I limped along for a couple of more years doing geology work while she got through nursing school. Then, she supported us when I went back to become a certified teacher and complete an MA program at UNC.

By the time I finished my program, teaching jobs were drying up fast in Colorado and we moved to Florida where the in-laws lived and jobs were plentiful. Twenty years later, I’m still here.

4) What’s your work environment like?

I am in my classroom most of the day. I have a ceiling-mounted LCD projector that is hooked up to my laptop and a DVD/VCR machine and make use of all this technology when it is appropriate. Depending on astronomical activity, I may take classes outside to use a solar telescope or have them meet at night or early morning (voluntarily) to use a regular telescope. I have some other activities (launching water rockets and such) that we do outside as well.

If I have a plan period (as I did last year but will not next year), I have to leave my classroom so another teacher can float in there. I have always been an eager proponent of using technology in the classroom and often make use of a digital presenter, remote responder system and any number of gizmos and gadgets that can be used to make learning a little less painful for my students

5) What do you do in a typical day?

During the school day, I might lecture, give textbook assignments, give reading assignments, show a video, do a demonstration, have the students do a lab activity, administer tests or quizzes, grade papers, monitor attendance, address discipline problems, plan future lessons, meet with parents, participate in student progression meetings with guidance, attend faculty or department chair meetings, organize and run science department meetings, allocate budget funds, order equipment and supplies, assist new teachers or any of the other things I might be called on to do.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

My background knowledge has been built on the very solid foundation of geology, meteorology, astronomy and oceanography courses I have been lucky enough to take during my college and graduate education. Many of these courses were taught by excellent professors. They gave me a great start on learning my subjects and inspired me to continue learning whether by reading journals or (more often) doing internet research. I feel very comfortable and confident in front of a classroom (or a group of colleagues) discussing the content I teach.

Also because of my background knowledge, a couple of years ago, I was asked to be one of the writers of the Next Generation Florida Sunshine State Standards in science. Being a part of an extraordinary group of people who did a wonderful job was incredibly rewarding and perhaps the professional highlight of my teaching career. I have also participated in the creation of the last two versions of the Florida Teacher Certification Examination for earth/space science. Without my credentials, neither of these opportunities would have been afforded me.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

Study what you are interested in. The science content material is what’s most important. If you don’t have a good, solid knowledge of your background content area, all the education courses in the world won’t make up for it.

Establish yourself through any networking channels that are available to you. You will do a teaching internship (a great way to get known) but you can also volunteer (I gave a talk on dinosaurs to my daughter’s kindergarten class while I was at UNC) or participate in organizations (fossil clubs, astronomy clubs, etc.) where you will be able to make contacts. If you know which district or districts you want to teach in, contact the placement people in those districts just to get your name in the mix. If you get a job teaching, it helps to volunteer for various things that come up (training, meetings, extra-curricular work) because in most states, your job isn’t secure (the equivalent of tenure) until you have been at the school some number of years (3 to 5 is typical).

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

Science has taught me several invaluable lessons. The first is that science is a process, not a thing. From day one, I try to get my students to give up the idea that all that stuff in their textbook is science. The second thing is the value of being able to say “I don’t know” and realizing that is what drives scientific endeavor, the desire to answer unknown questions. Finally, science has taught me how to use my brain, to observe and analyze in the process of learning.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Realize the value of the old saying that “life is what happens to you while you are making other plans”. You may have a plan in mind (as I did) and end up following a totally different path (as I did). Be flexible. Be content that as long as your profession keeps you in your chosen field of study, you are doing OK. Get to know people in a variety of professional positions. If you are an undergraduate or graduate student, go to conferences, attend talks, meet people. Don’t make the mistake of narrowing in on a single career path and trying to force it to happen.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

With 20 years and a master’s degree, my annual pay is $51,393 (it’s public record). That works out to $37.46 per hour. And keep in mind that Florida is pretty near the bottom of the pay scale for teachers and our district has not given ANY raises in the last two years. The hourly rate is helpful because I sometimes have the opportunity to do work for the school or district at that rate. For instance, I put in several days this summer working on creating new curriculum materials and was compensated at that rate.

I have attached a picture of myself and a picture of some of my past students with a comet nucleus they made in class one day (recipe available on request).