I never really wanted to be a teacher, and now I know why: It’s hard work.
That’s where I’ve been the past six weeks, teaching, on a long-term substitute gig at Shasta High School. I’ve been subbing in Shasta County for the past three years, but I’ve never worked more than two weeks in a row until this job, which started on the second day of school in mid-August, just as the Carr Fire was winding down and the Delta Fire was about to spark up.
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After spending the past six weeks supervising five classes of 30 students each, I’m telling you, I’m beat. I was beat after the first week, to be honest. I don’t know how real teachers do it, year-in and year-out.
The subject was computer-aided drafting, which until lately I knew next to nothing about. In order to grade their work, I had to complete the same lengthy tutorial as my students, in a powerful cloud-based CAD system called Fusion 360. I also had to learn the school’s complex grading program. Between taking roll, grading CAD drawings, recording scores and making up multiple choice quizzes on various engineering topics, I’ve been busy.
As a rule, I don’t write about individual students, but on the whole, I can say the 150 or so kids I’ve been hanging out with these past six weeks are alright. Generation Z, some people call them, boys and girls born in the 2000s who’ve grown up with the internet and smart phones as facts of life. It’s true that kids these days love their phones, but as far as I can tell, they’re not all that different from the kids I graduated with 40 years ago.
The same cliques—the brains, the jocks, the normies, the class clowns, the alienated—still exist. It was somewhat mortifying yet at the same time comforting to see students sporting the same punk rock attire I wore in the late 1970s. By and large, they were not entitled, politically correct snowflakes, as is often said of college students nowadays. Things have changed, sure, but what really struck me was how much things have stayed the same.
The ubiquitous cell phones actually came in pretty handy for controlling students, most of whom are concerned about their grades and continually check them on the school’s website using their phones. One or two missed assignments can cause your grade to drop from an “A” to a “B,” and believe me, they notice it.
From my desk, another software program I had to learn enabled me to watch and control all 30 computers in the room. It’s devilishly fun remotely shutting down the computer of a student watching music videos during class and threatening them with a 5-point deduction if you catch them again. More importantly, as a disciplinary tool, it works—instantly.
So that’s where I’ve been lately, riding herd over Generation Z. My goal from the beginning was to get as many kids up-and-running on the software as possible before my inevitable replacement (district rules limit long-term subs to 30 school days, which is six weeks). Once they got a handle on the software, they were free to create their own designs and print them on the 3-D printers in the back of the classroom.
This remarkable technology is one thing that has definitely changed since I was in high school. Fusion 360 is indeed a powerful 3-D computer-aided drafting program. If you can imagine it, you can design it in Fusion, and then manufacture it with a 3-D printer or a CNC milling machine.
When I took wood and metal shop in high school, we made wooden lamps, sheet metal toolboxes and other rudimentary items. It never occurred to me that I could design and build something really cool and intricate, for example, custom aluminum motorcycle parts. With Fusion 360 and similar programs, today’s high school students already have that creative power at their fingertips. I’m envious of them—I might have been a maker if this technology had been around back in the day!
It was encouraging to see tomorrow’s makers at Shasta High School, the students already enrolled in what’s known as the STEM pathway (science, technology, engineering, math), who are taking the prerequisite calculus and physics courses necessary to go on to college and become professional engineers. As has been widely publicized in recent years, the United States has a shortage of such engineers across all fields. We can’t make America great without them.
Similarly, there’s a shortage of STEM teachers at all levels. From my own brief immersion in the field, I can say it’s highly rewarding when a struggling student has an a-ha moment and finally solves the puzzle of their first three-dimensional drawing. As a teacher, their struggle is your struggle, and it’s a rush to see them succeed. I think that rush is why many teachers do what they do. It’s addictive.
But man! Teaching, real teaching, is hard! As a substitute, I’m usually in-and-out quickly and don’t experience the daily physical and emotional grind inherit in keeping 150 high school students on task and in check. These past six weeks, my mind has been occupied by little else. It was like my head shrunk, and only had room in it for what happened in class that day or what I was planning for the next.
When my replacement arrived, I was sad to be leaving my students, and some were even sorry to see me go. Mostly, I just felt relieved.
Like I said, teachers, I don’t know how you do it. My hat’s off to you.