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Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Teacher

I don't know if its true or not, but I feel like everyone has "that teacher." The teacher that inspired them and challenged them and changed their life. I was lucky that my high school, despite being in a decidedly unglamorous district surrounded by better funded much sparklier schools, had many amazing teachers. I would estimate that each year, I had at least 3 impressively high quality teachers. These teachers were organized, enthusiastic, hard-working, and persistent. They made me feel like their classes were extremely important and that my performance mattered. I honestly did not want to let them down, and while I was a perfectionist back then, and would not be happy with a grade less than 98 in a class, part of my motivation was pleasing teachers that I looked up to. I will not forget these teachers, but there is one teacher that stands out among the rest. Mr. Jester, or just "Mr. J." is one of the most amazing human beings I have met.

Mr. J was my ninth grade biology teacher. As a middle schooler, my overall GPA was literally 99.9 while taking all honors classes and two high school courses in 8th grade. When I started high school, I got a bit distracted by the older students and bigger school. I would ask to go to the bathroom and go to the cafeteria instead. I snuck out to lunch a couple times. I had crushes on senior boys and would walk through the senior hall way between every class, even if it made me late to my next class. My dedication to having a perfect GPA slipped. Freshman year was also the year I had the least fabulous teachers. My history teacher was nice enough, but not tough, my English teacher was flighty and not very organized, and my Math instructor was bullied mercilessly for her weight. Mr. J really shone in that cast of characters, but he would shine in any group of people. He demanded our full attention in a playful and serious way. He kept me aware that I cared about school and wanted to be a good student despite all the distractions in high school and he showed me that science is and always will be the most important class.

In Mr. J's class, we could not be late and we could not slack off in class. If we were caught yawning, we would be shot in the face with a water gun. If we did something truly unintelligent, we would be chastised as "smooth-brained cretins" or we would hear Mr. J mutter under his breath, "strong like bear, smart like tractor." He kept us on our toes by requiring us to call back phrases whenever he brought up certain topics. For example, when we were learning about photosynthesis he would flip off the lights when he wanted us to exclaim emphatically, "the dark reaction!"

Back when I was in high school, teachers still used overhead projectors instead of power points. He would write out notes on the overhead projector and then take down the notes and put up a Far Side comic with the names of the school administrators written in as the butt of the joke. He taught us that school administrators were essentially worthless, and at our school I think he might have been right. He would pull the comic down quickly with a little chuckle and then keep teaching about whatever it was that we were learning about.

We had massive amounts of homework, or at least it felt like it. Regardless, I spent all my time working on my biology homework. I wanted to be perfect for Mr. J. I particularly remember a winter break in which my classmates and I spent two full days in the town library sketching anatomical renditions of different organ systems in earthworms. I suspect that he assigned such a large project over break specifically so that we would spend the break in the library working together. When I finished that assignment, I was really proud of what I had accomplished and it felt really good to hand it in. Mr. J kept a tradition of "the frog test tube award," which was given to the student with the highest grade on each test. The award was really just an old test-tube with a dried up dead frog in it and frog stickers on the tube. The tube was inside a wooden box with tissue paper and other padding to protect the test tube. The award created fierce competition to score highest on each test. The winner kept the award until the next test and brought her class and herself so much glory! Because Mr. J had taught at the school for so long (even when I went there), students in my class had parents and aunts and uncles who had also been students of his and they would always ask us how Mr. Jester was and if he was still giving the frog test tube award or if he was still telling a particular joke. Mr. J created a tradition of dedication to learning biology that spanned across generations!

I wish that I could say that Mr. Jester inspired me to become a biology teacher, but he did not. What he did do, however, was convince me that science is the most important and most interesting subject to study, and when I went to college I majored in Biology. I knew that I wanted to study science, but I wasn't sure what kind of job I would train for. I figured that doctors use a lot of biology, so I should be pre-med. It never occurred to me that there were other career fields that were available and worthwhile. And, it certainly never occurred to me that I could be a science teacher! As an undergrad, I took a field ecology course and discovered that research science could be really fun and interesting and applied to graduate school instead of medical school. In graduate school (studying marine science), I had my first real teaching opportunities; I taught a microbiology lab and two general chemistry labs and then went on to volunteer to teach a marine science course for the WISE program at Stony Brook. These experiences opened my eyes to the joys of teaching. It was actually fun and rewarding! And it is a good thing that I liked it, because shortly after graduating, I moved to Albuquerque where there is no marine science to be done. I found a teaching job in a private school, teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade science and have since learned much more about what it means to be a teacher.

I would love to think that I am as inspiring as Mr. Jester, but I know I have a long way to go. Mr. Jester  has been teaching for decades and I am only in my second year. I suspect that he was not quite as dynamic and charismatic his first year teaching. I also know that middle school teachers are not as influential in a students life. I barely remember the names of my middle school science teachers let alone what I learned from them. I honestly cannot remember a single thing I learned in 7th grade science. But, I do hope that I bring the same enthusiasm towards science that Mr. Jester brought and I hope that, if I stay in teaching, that someday I am as influential and inspirational as Mr. Jester. I would like to be "That Teacher" for at least a couple students.

What concerns me, is that teaching is not seen as a particularly respectable career field in the US. Teachers make rather pathetic salaries and are not revered the way pedagogues in history were. There is of course the saying "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Even Mr. Jester joked about this and poked fun at himself as a teacher. I often feel like I have not reached my full potential because I am teaching instead of pursuing a PhD. I absolutely know that this is not true for all teachers, but I think it is at least common among science teachers. My 10th grade chemistry teacher, for example, was a chiropractor who broke his hand in a car accident and had to leave his practice. He hated teaching and he took it out on us.

I think that it is important that intelligent and capable people feel like teaching is a worthwhile career choice rather than a fall-back option. In order for this to happen though, our attitude towards teachers must shift and people and the government must be willing to compensate teachers more fairly. If we want to have good teachers, we must make good teachers want to teach.  And, I think this may start with the teachers that are teaching now. Even if we don't feel appreciated, we should have an attitude that what we are doing matters so that our students consider teaching as a career as they move forward, and we should encourage that choice. If a student excels in science class, why not be hope to be a science teacher when they grow up? While I look up to Mr. J in every way, I hope to be different only in that I would like to inspire the next generation of teachers as well as scientists.