This is the second installment in a continuing series exploring paths to becoming a science teacher. For the first part, including an introduction to the series, see On Becoming a Science Teacher
The answers to this Q&A come courtesy of Dr. Thomas Artiss. Thomas obtained an undergrad and masters degree in zoology, a bachelor of education degree in secondary science and a doctorate degree in molecular evolution. He has taught secondary science in private and public schools, and he currently teaches middle school biology at a middle school in California.
When did you realize you wanted to teach? Was there a particular experience that led you to pursue this path?
I come from a family of teachers, and I tended to push back on the idea of pursuing it as a vocation for a long time. But throughout grad school, I was a teaching assistant, and I loved the teaching as much as I loved the research. When I was finishing my doctorate, I was deciding whether to pursue a career in education or research; I loved them both, but did not feel I did either well enough to do them together (i.e. a career in academia). I was offered a job at a private school in Seattle, and accepted it. And honestly, I can say that I fell in love with teaching – and knew I wanted to do it for a living – within a week (maybe a day!) of being in the classroom.
How did you prepare for the transition from science research to science teaching?
There was not much of a transition to be made. I was teaching right up until I defended my PhD thesis, and so I was intellectually in the teaching mindset for years. For me, it was more about letting go of research, and accepting that I would not be active in research if I pursued a career in teaching.
What was the greatest challenge you faced as a new teacher?
Although I cut my teeth in a robust college prep school where most students were fairly motivated and quite bright, there was still a range in student aptitude, abilities and learning styles. I started by teaching the way I had always been taught; lecture, lecture, lab, repeat. But I soon found that I was not reaching many students both in terms of how I covered material as well as how I assessed their understanding of it. I became more acutely aware of learning differences when I was teaching in a public school, and each year I am constantly trying to hone my methods, my assessments tools and philosophy of teaching to reach a broader range of students
What do you find most fulfilling about teaching science?
It sounds glib every time I say it, but the biggest joy I get from teaching is seeing students get excited about science. Whether I inspire students to pursue science as a career or not is not terribly relevant, and is certainly not what sustains me as a teacher. The most personally rewarding aspect of my job – the thing that gets me out of bed, excited to come to work each day – is seeing students excited, engaged and enthused with a topic, idea or concept. And at the end of the day, that’s where the grist hits the mill. Ask just about any teacher, and they will likely tell you the love of learning you see in students, and the many “ah-ha” moments that happen every day are the most rewarding aspects of the job.
As a science teacher at the middle or high school level, how much of your role is devoted to teaching science, and how much to dealing with behavior issues? How do you balance teaching content with teaching life skills (work ethic, integrity, teamwork, etc.)?
How much time is spent dealing with behavior issues and classroom management really varies from school to school, and even class to class and day to day. I try to set a casual tone in my class, while emphasizing mutual respect. Sometimes, a class can take advantage of this, and I need to reel them back in. But for the most part, keeping students engaged, focused and interested minimizes behavior issues. As for the latter question, it really varies. I try to model behaviors (like lifelong learning or academic integrity) for students. I design activities that require group work and cooperation. I maintain fair and equitable standards among students with respect to discipline, work deadlines and academic honesty. And I try to take advantage of teachable moments (unrelated to my discipline, but directly related to ethos, ethics and integrity) whenever possible.
What advice would you give to a current science graduate student interested in teaching science at the middle or high school level?
You will generally make more money in industry and applied research; there is no skirting that inconvenient truth. But if you are looking for a career that will sustain you – one that will keep you interested, and happy, and consistently challenged – you would be hard pressed to look much further than a career in education. My father always said “do what you love, and love what you do”.
See the Links page for more resources on transitioning from academic research to science teaching