Oh, the places you'll go
after grad school!
Teaching

On Becoming a Science Teacher, Part 3

Jun 21, 2013

When considering career options, it helps to hear more than one perspective. And since science teaching is a popular career choice for science PhDs, this post offers a third voice in the series On Becoming a Science Teacher.

Catch up first with the story of Hans de Grys, a high school chemistry teacher: “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.” In the second installment of the series, we heard from high school biology teacher Thomas Artiss: “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.”

Now, a Q&A from Stephen Fisher, a longtime high school chemistry and math teacher (who endured much grief from my high school self – sorry Dr. Fisher!). First, a note on Stephen’s background, in his own words:

I obtained BS & MS degrees in chemical engineering and then a Ph.D. in Physiology. None of these was really a rationale career choice, since I didn’t actually know what doing engineering or physiology entailed.  When my post-doc ran out, there was a hiatus of about a year, after which I began teaching.  I then taught (mostly) chemistry & math at the high school level for 28 years.

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

What I first realized was that I did not want to do research.  There followed a period of uncertainty and questioning.  I then realized that I’d been happiest when teaching as a graduate student.  Not exactly a revelatory moment, but close enough.

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

I didn’t really.  I got lucky and got hired with no real teaching experience.

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

Not really having been in a high school classroom since I’d been in high school and not really having had any particular ‘teaching training.’

What do you find most fulfilling about teaching science? 

What’s fulfilling is spending my days teaching adolescents.  The science part is certainly enjoyable, (it’s what I know), and I think it’s important that science is understood by citizens in a democracy.  But that’s a small piece of the picture—I’m not really a science missionary.

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On Becoming a Science Teacher, Part 2

May 30, 2013

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?

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On Becoming a Science Teacher

May 9, 2013

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?

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