Issue Date: January 19, 2009
Head of the Class
IT'S 6:45 AM on a blustery Tuesday morning. Inside her cheerful classroom at Springbrook High School, in Silver Spring, Md., Melanie Rock is preparing for her Advanced Placement (AP) chemistry class. On this winter morning, her students will be taking a quiz on chemical equilibrium. At 7:30 AM, the bell rings and the last few students shuffle in. It’s still dark outside.
Rock, who earned a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Maryland, hadn’t planned on becoming a high school teacher. After receiving her doctorate, she applied for various postdoctoral fellowships, “but ultimately, I just felt that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in,” she says.
Rock took a teaching position at a small private high school and eventually got her teaching certificate. After 10 years as a high school teacher, Rock is certain she is doing what she was meant to do.
A Ph.D. chemist who wants to pursue a career as a high school teacher will be in good company. A quick search by C&EN turned up more than a dozen Ph.D. chemists at public and private high schools around the country.
At the Charter School of Wilmington, in Delaware, for example, there are three chemistry teachers. Two have Ph.D.s in chemistry and the other has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Montgomery High School, in Skillman, N.J., employs six chemistry teachers. Half of them have doctorates in either chemistry or chemical engineering.
Like Rock, many Ph.D. chemists who are teaching high school didn’t start out thinking they would be teachers. Janice Gepner, a chemistry teacher at St. Paul Academy & Summit School, in Minnesota, says she pursued an advanced degree because she loved chemistry and loved being in school. During a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, Gepner remembers seeing how excited her colleagues were about their research and wondering why she didn’t feel the same way. Instead, she found satisfaction in explaining ideas to her peers, and she was really good at it. “I realized I liked teaching more than doing the research,” she says.
Although Gepner felt a twinge of guilt for leaving academia, she feels she has made a difference as a high school teacher. “I’ve been able to influence students probably more than if I’d stayed in academics,” she says.
THE EXPERIENCE of teaching at a high school is very different from teaching at a small college. At a high school, the focus is on teaching only, whereas at a small college, the teachers are still expected to run a research program and compete for grants, Gepner says. One-on-one interaction with the students is also less frequent at a small college. There was no question which environment Gepner preferred.
Teachers who have a Ph.D. and work experience can add new dimensions to the classroom experience. Gepner, for one, says her connections to the University of Minnesota, where she did a second postdoc, have helped her place some of her students in research labs over the summer. Jean Mihelcic, a teacher at Conestoga High School, in Pennsylvania, adds that her experience working at DuPont has made her a stickler for safety in the lab. Mihelcic has a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Yale University.
Eric Oblinger, who has eight years of experience in the chemical industry, says he continually draws on his experiences at BASF and DSM Pharma Chemicals. During a recent discussion of thermochemistry with his AP chemistry students at Concordia Lutheran High School, in Tomball, Texas, Oblinger was able to describe his experience working in a processing plant and explain the importance of controlling the amount of heat generated in a reactor. “It doesn’t make me a better teacher than anybody else, but it makes it easier for me to make it real,” he says.
Having a Ph.D. does not automatically make someone a good teacher. “It’s one thing to know the subject matter, but it’s another to be able to communicate it to a wide variety of students with a wide variety of learning styles and backgrounds,” Oblinger says. “Your first inclination is to teach how you were taught, and what you find out is that you lose a lot of kids that way.”
There’s a lot of trial and error, says Pamela Rush, one of the chemistry teachers at the Charter School of Wilmington. She says she learned very quickly that she couldn’t do a complicated lab experiment in the class time she had available. Rush earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and worked at Hercules for seven years before becoming a high school teacher.
Having a Ph.D. also does not guarantee someone a teaching position. During the job interview, the hiring committee may question why a Ph.D. chemist wants to be a high school teacher. “Be sincere about it,” says Bill Smith, chair of the science department at Bristol High School, in Pennsylvania. “What they need to hear is that you view this as a profession, you have a love of your subject, and you want to bring it to those young people.”
To work at a public school, teachers need to be certified. One route is to return to school full-time to get a teaching certificate. Some programs, like the Graduate Level Teacher Certification Program at Rider University, in Lawrenceville, N.J., are geared specifically for professionals pursuing a second career as a high school teacher. Another option is to start teaching right away and enroll in an alternative-route certification program. Private schools encourage their teachers to be certified but don’t require it.
THE FIRST YEAR of teaching is by far the toughest, and although it does get easier over time, there will always be an enormous amount of work to take home. “There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything that a teacher is asked to do and that can be frustrating,” Rock says. “There are times when it feels like a really noble profession, and there are other times when it’s just overwhelming.”
Another consideration is that a teacher’s salary may be considerably lower than the salary of an industrial chemist. On the plus side, the benefits seem to be as good if not better than in industry, according to the teachers C&EN talked with. And you get summers off.
Good chemistry teachers are in high demand, Mihelcic says. But because turnover is generally low, it might take a while to get that first job. In the meantime, you can get some exposure to the school environment by tutoring, becoming a substitute teacher, or shadowing a teacher in your area.
One of the things some of the teachers say they miss about working in industry is the feeling of collaboration. “When you do research in the corporate world, you have a research team and you work together on a deadline,” says Donghong Sun, who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Columbia University and worked at Rohm and Haas for several years before becoming a teacher at Montgomery High School. “In teaching, yes, you have colleagues to discuss things with, but when you’re standing in front of the students, you’re alone and every day is a deadline.”
Still, teaching can bring a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction. “Every day, I learn something new about my students, and I can reflect on what works and what didn’t work,” Sun says. “I’m always learning, that’s the exciting part of it.”
- Chemical & Engineering News
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