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I am a junior math major in NY and will apply to PhD programs next year. I am terrified about getting rejected as I have not yet put any serious thought into a backup plan. I've tutored high school mathematics for the past two years and very much enjoyed this so I wouldn't mind becoming a (private or public) high school math teacher in the case of univesral rejection from graduate schools.

However, I only recently began considering this option. I haven't taken any education courses and do not know a single thing about the certification process for high school teachers.

Is it too late to prepare for this possibility? If not, what should I do to prepare?

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I'm not sure if this question is on topic for this site. If it isn't, please do not hesitate to migrate it to the appropriate site – user1269 Apr 27 '14 at 15:42

Undergraduate students should be aware of their academic advising offices. Essentially every school employs full-time academic advisers to answer questions precisely like this one.

If you go to a larger school, the math department (or at least the college of education) at your school will have a professional adviser just for that content area. You need to talk to this person immediately. Designing backup plans is the adviser's favorite pastime (I know, because I was one for three years). Here are some tips for interacting with your math adviser:

  • Do not send an email and assume that it will be worked out that way. As soon as you send an email about a topic, it becomes impolite to appear in their office or call them about the same thing. Telling an adviser "I emailed you a couple days ago, but it turns out I would like an appointment" sounds like an accusation that they did not answer their email fast enough. This will not be received well. Get an appointment to talk to them from the start.
  • If something they say to you does not make sense, ask a question. Do not pretend to know what is going on. When they ask "You know about applying for graduation, right?" you need to stop and think about it before answering "yes," regardless of whether you "already should know" the answer.
  • If you suspect that the adviser does not actually know anything about your question, make it easy for them to refer you to someone else. You can actually open the conversation with "I'm not sure you are the right person for this, but I am hoping you will know who is the best person for me to ask."
  • If the adviser begins to scold you for your lack of planning, respond as an adult. Advisers are used to dealing with children. A constructive response t osomething you perceive as scolding is a very calm and collected "I agree that additional prior planning would have been good, but unfortunately I am currently in this position. I'm not expecting everything to work out perfectly, but I hope you can help me make the right decisions from here on out given my current situation."

Good luck!

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A career teaching math is more like a career teaching English than like most other math majors' careers. So most education departments or teaching programs will have better advice on teaching math than the corresponding math departments. – user173 Apr 27 '14 at 23:59
I think this is rather good advice. No matter if you speak to your math advisor or a broader one, the individual should know whom to contact. +1 for the last piece of advice in particular (more people need to realize this key fact). – Zach Haney Apr 28 '14 at 0:23

1) I wouldn't ask will I get in to graduate school, but instead will a graduate school admit me which is worth my time and money to attend? In some cases the answer will be yes and in some no.

To figure this out, you can ask graduate schools that admit you for statistics: how many of their entering students graduate, how long recent graduates spent at the school, what recent graduates have done.

These statistics are especially important because plenty of people encounter the graduate-school version of your situation: I am terrified about getting rejected from academic jobs as I have not yet put any serious thought into a backup plan.

2) Private schools will be an easier option than public schools for long-term employment without teaching credentials. However, the public schools have usually offered better salaries and benefits. Also, Teach For America and similar programs do not require teaching credentials.

3) You have many options outside of teaching! You have spent the past twenty years of life in educational institutions, but that may not be a reason to spend the next twenty doing the same. Look at finance (accounting, banking, insurance, trading), data science (in marketing or politics or journalism), security (military or cryptographic), statistics, consulting....

Good luck!

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On the website for schools in NY state (if you're hoping to stay there), there are many options suggested for alternate routes to certification that you may be able to pursue. However, these do have deadlines so you should certainly look at these sooner rather than later.

The website is here:

I have to make an honest statement too that programs such as Teach for America are... less than spectacular for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the disturbingly high rate of those having gone through leaving teaching rapidly. There are more math-focused programs as you can see.

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How often does someone go into "Teach for America" planning to only teach for a year or two? – Ian Apr 28 '14 at 9:16
@Ian, I think it's pretty common, especially for students who say "I want to make a difference in the world but I don't know how" or "I don't want to attend graduate school but I don't want to work hard just to pay off my student loans yet." – user173 Apr 28 '14 at 13:37

First, unless your credentials are very poor, getting accepted shouldn't be the issue. Instead, it's getting financial support and making sure that you apply to at least one or two nearly "sure bets" for you. There are a lot of Masters only schools that you should have no problem getting money for, and many (most?) of these cater mainly for those intending to teach than to research or to work in industry. There are also Ph.D. granting schools of this type, which you can find by googling: "Ph.D. in college teaching" {AND} "math". For your backup plan, I very strongly suggest you go this route and then try high school teaching, rather than having your backup plan be teaching high school right away.

This way, with at least a Masters in hand, you will be a much better candidate for schools such as the better private schools and those belonging to the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science, and Technology (NCSSSMST). Community college teaching can also be very rewarding (but don't plan on doing much research), especially if you can find a good fit for you. However, you will probably never come across really talented mathematics students while teaching community college, so if this is an important consideration for you, then you will want to focus on the kinds of high schools where such students can be found.

If it is of any interest, I've done (part of) the alternative certification route at a very low performing school (school was taken over by the state board of education) and I have also taught several years at an NCSSSMST school.

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"However, you will probably never come across really talented mathematics students while teaching community college" -- I don't blame you for thinking this, since I suspected this too before arriving to teach at a community college. However, you are incorrect! – Chris Cunningham Apr 28 '14 at 20:31
@Chris Cunningham: I've only taught one CC class, back in 1988, but even with this lack of experience I agree that my comment was more strongly worded than it should have been. In many places strong high school students take CC classes (sometimes in the summers, to get ahead) and some older non-traditional students can be especially strong in the classroom. Also, if you're in a large metropolitan area (several hundred thousand people or more), you're especially likely to encounter such students. – Dave L Renfro Apr 29 '14 at 14:59
I don't want to scare user1269 too much, but I would imagine a lot of posters here have been in tight situations before (and some may be in one at the present time). Some of my own experiences are discussed in this 14 May 2012 math-teach post at Math Forum. – Dave L Renfro Apr 29 '14 at 15:04
I read your post, and if I may say so, I think scaring user1269 (and his later compatriots who find this page via google) a little bit might be a really nice thing to do? I think an additional answer of this type would be a really good public service. – Chris Cunningham Apr 29 '14 at 15:53
I just have so many friends and family who have gone through the story you posted, in some form or another... I'm not sure what is the right way to tell those stories... – Chris Cunningham Apr 29 '14 at 16:00

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