Many of us can likely point to a teacher, or perhaps several teachers, whose influence shaped our trajectory toward graduate school. This is especially true in science, where in the wrong hands, high school chemistry can be a mind-numbing collection of symbols and charts, but through a good teacher is transformed into a kind of lens through which we can understand our physical world. Physics can be a horrifying set of equations to memorize, or it can be a framework used to address fascinating questions. Particularly at the middle and high school level, science teaching that engages students can make all the difference.

Unlike technology transfer or grantmaking, teaching is a profession we’ve all been exposed to. Yet much about teaching as a career remains a mystery: How do people decide to become teachers? How can a graduate student transition from research to teaching? What are the greatest challenges faced by new teachers, and what are the joys that keep them returning to the classroom year after year?

I have recruited the participation of a few of my former middle and high school science teachers to answer these questions and more. From personal experience I can attest that these are great teachers, and I’m excited to share their stories here.

First up is Hans de Grys. Hans has a BS and MS in Chemistry, and a Master’s in Teaching.  He’s been teaching chemistry and physics for 15 years in both public and independent high schools in the Seattle area.

*Liza’s note: Hans is taking a year off to travel the country in search of both cool birds and great teachers. Read his blog about the experience, Really Big Year

When did you realize you wanted to teach? Was there a particular experience that led you to pursue this path?

I did a combined BS/MS in Chemistry at Yale, and in my final year I was supposed to be working on a research project (using EPR to study membrane-bound proteins).  I also helped to TA for the freshman organic chemistry class, and led a review session once a week.  I found that I was spending a lot of time prepping for my review session and tutoring students on the side.  I loved the interaction with the students and the thrill of trying to teach something challenging.  I spent less and less time in the lab, which I found intellectually interesting but not very meaningful or rewarding.  My initial plan was to continue on in a PhD program in chemistry, and I was starting to dread the prospect of devoting the next several years of my life to laboratory research.  One morning I woke up with this epiphany that I wasn’t locked into grad school, and that I would be much happier as a high school teacher.  I haven’t looked back since.

How did you prepare for the transition from science research to science teaching?

I started out by talking to some of the faculty at the Yale Teacher Preparation Program, especially Edith MacMullen, who became a great mentor and inspiration to me.  I even got to take a teaching course with her before I graduated.  I also read as many books on teaching as I could get my hands on.  The one I started with was Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Postman and Weingartner – which is still a favorite.  I tried to get a teaching job right out of Yale, but I didn’t have much luck.  So I enrolled in the University of Washington’s Teacher Education Program, and spent five quarters getting a Master’s degree in teaching and also getting my state certification.  It was easy to get a job after that.

What was the greatest challenge you faced as a new teacher?

For me it was realizing that there was a huge gulf that lay between being the teacher I wanted to be, and the teacher I physically and mentally could be in my first years of teaching.  At my first school, I was the only chemistry teacher, and I had between 150 and 170 students at a time.  I also had a budget of about 1.5 cents per student per day.  I wanted to really engage the students with labs and activities, assign them full lab reports, and give them essay style tests.  These were the kinds of “best practices” that I was taught in teacher college.  Of course prepping lab for 150 kids a week, and grading 300 essay tests and lab reports was a crushing workload.  I started with nothing – no curriculum, no activities, no labs, no assessments – nothing.  I had to make everything myself from scratch.  I was actually proud of some of the things I managed to accomplish in those early years, but the sheer magnitude of the workload meant that I was also pretty disappointed in some of my plans and lessons.  Over time, that gulf closed a great deal.  I’m still not perfect (obviously), but experience has taught me a lot, and I feel that I’m a better teacher every year.

What do you find most fulfilling about teaching science?

I love sharing the mysteries of the universe with young people: why are diamonds so hard?  Why do so many things dissolve in water, but certain substances (like oil) won’t?  What’s in a battery and how does it make electricity?  I also enjoy the process of helping students learn how to think and learn how to learn.  The cognitive skills that they develop early on will serve them for the rest of their lives, in all of their personal and professional endeavors.

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.)?

This has varied depending on what kind of school I’m in.  I try to meet the students where they are, and help them get where they want to go.  I would say even in the more challenging schools, no more than 10% of my job was dealing with behavior or discipline.

While some basic information is important in and of itself, I mostly use content as a vehicle for teaching skills and habits of mind.  Yes, I want my students to remember a few fundamental things about chemistry: everything is made of atoms, atoms are touching in liquids and solids but separated in gases, temperature is an expression of the average kinetic energy of the particles, etc.  But I could condense the content of the course that I really want kids to remember into about 10 sentences.  I know that 98% of them won’t remember that HF is a weak acid, or what effective nuclear charge is.  And that’s okay.  I hope that they learn and remember how to attack a tough problem or how to be comfortable with ambiguity.  I hope they learn how to plan an investigation, how to analyze data, and how to check and see if an answer makes sense.  I hope that they become both thoughtful and skeptical, in the best senses of those words.  I hope that they learn to collaborate effectively with their peers, deal productively with setbacks, and gain confidence in themselves.  I hope that they understand that things happen for a reason – not due to luck or fate, but because physical and natural laws are at work.  And I hope they never forget that the universe is an amazing place.

What advice would you give to a current science graduate student interested in teaching science at the middle or high school level?

I would encourage them to volunteer in a school.  Spend time observing classes, tutoring, coaching, helping with extra curricular activities, or just talking to kids.  Explore university teacher training programs; they’re not a must for all teaching jobs, but they can make it much easier to get hired, and provide some training and support to new teachers.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Anyone who is considering a career in teaching and would like to talk to me more about it can email me at [email protected]