It's Worth It
High School Chemistry Teacher
I never in a million years, when I was in college, would have predicted that I would be a science teacher — which is hilarious when I talk to my students about it. They think that I am some sort of science nerd, and I am just not. I don't have any formal science education — my degree is in religious studies — but as far as teaching goes, I think science is such a wonderful context for whole teaching.
I started teaching science basically through teaching. I have always loved math. For a long time I taught at an adolescent Montessori school, teaching algebra and middle school math. I took math in college and have always been more into the pure math, the theoretical math, and I just gravitated toward the science teaching. The natural world is such a great context for inquiry and asking questions. You can practice reading, writing, and that discipline of asking questions and looking for answers that I think science lends itself so naturally to. When I went to go interview for my position at my current school, I was actually applying for a different position, something more suited to my experience, but they needed a chemistry teacher so they asked me if I would take on that challenge. I was nervous about it but excited too because I liked the school community and I kind of had to learn chemistry again that first year, and now I just love teaching it.
Now, I am starting my fifth year as a high school chemistry teacher at a school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I teach general chemistry and also a special section of chemistry that focuses on the role of chemists and chemistry in environmental science, using environmental science as a context in exploring chemistry. I also teach a course that focuses specifically on nuclear chemistry. Once we've learned the background information about the physics and chemistry behind the nuclear processes, we can then explore the facts and myths behind nuclear weapons and energy and the impacts it has on our community here in Santa Fe, the tribal communities, and again back to the environment.
When you start out teaching, every day is hard. It's a hard job. After my fourth year of teaching I had such a terrible year, I gave up. And then I missed it and I came back. Now, I love it. You have to really love it to do it, and it takes a while to love it. You really have to persist through it and stay motivated. It's not one of those careers that rewards you the minute you get there; it actually sort of does the opposite. All of those things that you think are so amazing about teaching, like interacting with kids or that "It's going to be so rewarding; I'll be changing lives." It doesn't happen like that. It can grind you down pretty efficiently, but it doesn’t stay that way and you get good at it and it becomes all those things that teachers who have been teaching forever talk about. I think that's important to remember as a teacher.
My favorite lesson to teach is this sort of silly chemistry concept that takes about two weeks to teach — the concept of the mole. It involves this painfully large number called Avogadro's number. The kids think they can't do the math because the numbers are so big and unnecessarily complex, but then they can do it. They look at me like I'm crazy when I show them how to balance a chemical equation, and literally in 90 minutes, they can balance a chemical equation. They go from thinking, "There is no way in hell I can do that," to doing it and being completely empowered by doing it — and it's so much fun to watch. They are so pleased with themselves. That is the fun of being a math and science teacher: showing kids how powerful they are, especially when they say, "I can't," and you say, "You can," and they say, "I can't," and you say, "No, seriously, trust me; you can." It's really thrilling to see.
I can't talk about chemistry and science teaching without talking about climate change and how important I think the role of science teachers is going to be in pushing that issue into the forefront of the minds of our students. It's huge. Like anything else, that is going to have to come from so many ways of knowing, and I am fortunate enough to teach in a population of students that culturally have traditional knowledge that doesn't necessarily incorporate Western ways of knowing and Western ways of thinking. I think that will be important as we globally face this problem. It's not just going to be the Western scientists who figure this out. It's going to have to take some really divergent thinking and some will from educated people to be willing to say, this has to change. I think science teachers have a big role to play in that.
A challenge I have found on this path is that the way teachers have to be accountable to our state and federal funding actually feels like it inhibits the true inquiry that makes science instruction joyful. I think that when you work in the public district where you're receiving public funds and you have to take certain accountability measures, there are certain ways that you can't do that pure scientific exploration. Science is a process. When you teach something is a process. You don't always get the right answer as a result. So with really traditional-thinking administrators — which I am fortunate that mine are not traditional thinking — it's hard to manage that. You have to know this, this, and this, where I would rather teacher science as, you have to be able to do this, this, and this. It doesn't really matter what answer you get. I want to be able to see you ask questions. I want to see you be able to identify problems in your experiment. I want to see you be able to subvert traditional ways of thinking on this problem. There are actually really cool new national standards that have come out specifically honoring this new way of thinking about science instruction called the Next Generation Science Standards. For example, one might think that in chemistry, they have to know the proton goes here, the electron goes here, the neutron goes here, and they do. But, that is not as important as understanding that there are patterns that exist in the way that matter is composed and the specifics of those patterns aren't as important as recognizing the pattern and recognizing how it relates to interacting with other matter. So all of a sudden it's not about proton and neutron; it's about this process of understanding a bigger picture, which I think creates a really radical shift in science teaching.
It's all about this concept of inquiry. Where traditionally you may have taught combustion by telling students that when you have a combustion reaction you need oxygen, you need a hydrocarbon, you need some form of heat to make it happen, and then you would demonstrate this. It was a sort of "learn this and look at this" model. Now, the way I would teach that is a simple thing: I give them a candle, a beaker, and 30 minutes to play. To figure it out. To observe. To ask questions. To come up with a hypothesis. And then you use their observations, their questions, their hypotheses to build the knowledge. It's a subtle but really different way of doing it. It's not perfect. It is nice to have it backed up by research and standards and expert knowledge to have the ability to teach in that way. I feel really fortunate about it. A lot of teachers love to complain about standards. I feel the opposite. I feel like now I get to say: Can you do this? Can you think about it this way? Can you show me this rather than do you know, do you know, do you know? It's new, and I feel really fortunate to be a part of it.
I like to say this to my students at the beginning of the year: You are going to get on in your life fine not knowing any chemistry, but what you cannot succeed without is that ability to think critically, to ask questions, to solve problems. I think that the national way that teachers are thinking about this is changing in a pretty good way to honor that. I feel like it's a good time to be a high school science teacher. Those obstacles are breaking away.
I am now working on my master's in ED Leadership. It can mean all sorts of things but the track that I am on is to be in administration, to be a principal. I don't particularly want to leave teaching, but I feel like I have a certain ability that would lend itself well to school leadership, and school reform is something I am really passionate about.
I think that my gift will be to do local school reform in a school, and the best way to do that would be to be a principal and a principal that has classroom experience. I'm going slow, though, because I'm not really interested in getting out of the classroom yet.
One thing that motivates me is that I have these two super amazing sisters. One is a lawyer who is just a boss and taking names and doing amazing direct service, and the other is a pretty awesome radical doctor — and they both are these incredible social justice workers and in their own ways have become very important in their fields in ways that I see as a bit subversive to the status quo. I'm very envious of them and their ability to do their work so well and help so many people so well. Teaching is also social justice work, but it doesn't always feel that way on a daily basis and it doesn't always look that way. Nobody high fives you, nobody congratulates you, but it is that. That's something to remind both myself and other teachers, that behind the sort of grind of being a teacher on a day-to-day basis, it is important social justice work. If you can get through the grind and be a really good teacher, it's worth it.
Bridget Love is a high school teacher/prom planner in Santa Fe, NM, and a graduate student at University of New Mexico. She is the wife of a teacher, a sister to radical women, a mom to two small boys, and has the best friends in the world. When not teaching she can be found mostly sitting around her kitchen table with friends and family and picking up legos.
Words: Bridget Love