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AACT Middle School Ambassador, Laura Celik, teaches her 8th grade students about covalent bonding.

I have always enjoyed going to school, learning new things, and sharing my knowledge with others. Beginning in middle school, I began to practice teaching on my younger brother and sister. I would imitate lessons from my teachers at home. Throughout middle school, I enjoyed science, but was more drawn to math. In my experience, science classes at that time were often a presentation of disconnected facts, while my math classes were constantly building on previous concepts; they seemed logical, clear, and satisfying.

Math crept into science class in high school, and I fell in love with chemistry in 10th grade, aided by a fantastic teacher. My school did not offer AP Chemistry, but did allow me to take Independent Study Chemistry my senior year. I studied from a textbook some of the time, but my most memorable and enjoyable experiences were assisting my chemistry teacher with her other classes. I would also prepare for labs, clean up afterwards, and grade papers. In addition, I gave some lectures to the 10th and 11th grade classes, organized the chemical storage closet, and updated the inventory. I left high school feeling very positive about chemistry, and planned to major in chemistry or chemical engineering.

I completed a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and master’s in environmental engineering. During my college years, I did not consider being a teacher, but assumed I would pursue a Ph.D. or work in one of those fields. After earning my master’s, I took a year off from studying to consider what I wanted to do next. I thought it would be fun to work in a school for that year, ideally teaching chemistry. I was hired at a small K-8 charter school as an assistant teacher for 8th grade science and as the after-school program coordinator. I loved working with the students and realized how passionate I was about teaching, and that I would like to pursue it as a career someday.

I would have happily stayed at the school, but family reasons offered the opportunity to move to California. After living 24 years in New Jersey, I felt a strong desire to explore a different part of the country. I arrived in California with no teaching certification, contacts, or ideas of how to find a teaching job.

Trying my hand in industry

I decided that perhaps this was a good opportunity to try an engineering job. I was hired at an environmental consulting company. The job was interesting and I enjoyed working with my colleagues. But I really missed the energy I got from working with students, the predictable yet frantic pace of a school year, and the satisfaction of helping people face-to-face, all day long. I found that sitting in a cubicle working on reports was unsatisfying.

The turning point came during my one-year review. The written review was positive, and I discussed it with my boss, a talented and very thoughtful engineer. At the end of the meeting, he said something that shocked me. He asked if this was what I wanted to do with my life. He said that I did good work, and that I could certainly keep doing what I was doing, but that I should think about what I really wanted. While commuting home on the train that evening, I decided I would find a way to be a teacher, even if it was not the easy or convenient decision.

Eight months later, I made my move to the classroom and I have never regretted the decision. I found my first head teaching job at an all-girls independent school, teaching 7th grade life science. Independent schools often do not require teacher certification. I was lucky, an excellent position opened in August and the head of school thought I had promise.

Given my limited background, I began the job uncertain about how to be a “good teacher.” I had questions about everything, from classroom management to lesson planning. My supportive colleagues were invaluable, and always available to give advice. The assistant head of school recommended I observe other teachers and sit in on some of their classes. This was an excellent idea, and I continue to do it today, after 10 years of teaching. Every teacher has their own style and tricks. Observing different classes has allowed me to adopt some of the most effective techniques, as well as observe how my students behave in different settings. I have learned some of the best strategies while observing non-science classes, like physical education or other specials.

Gaining perspective

In the summer after my second year of teaching, I attended Klingenstein Center’s Summer Institute for Early Career Teachers. Teachers with two to five years of teaching experience working in independent and international schools may apply for this program, which includes a merit-based fellowship covering the cost of tuition and room and board. The Institute allowed me to explore educational philosophies and issues, and my two years of experience helped me put it perspective. I left with countless plans on how to improve my teaching and the scientific understanding and academic experience of my students.

I worked at the independent school in California for four years before family reasons took me back across the country, eventually returning to New Jersey. By fortuitous coincidence, the charter school I had worked at after college was looking for an 8th grade science teacher. This was the class I had assisted, and the school I had been so sad to leave, eight years before. I was thrilled to return.

Now having served as a teacher at Princeton Charter School for the past six years, I teach two sections of 7th grade science, and two of 8th grade science. I am also the co-coach of our Science Bowl team which, in February 2018, earned first place at the Department of Energy National Science Bowl New Jersey Regional Competition, and also competed at Nationals.

Additionally, every spring I run an after-school Chemistry Club for 7th and 8th grade students. Students break into small groups and plan their own experiments and demonstrations. I created a monthly Science Buddies program with all kindergarten and 8th grade students. Students meet monthly and do projects together. I plan activities that allow my 8th grade students to explain chemistry concepts they learn in class to their kindergarten buddies, while exploring the ideas through hands-on activities.

Finding my passion

I am often asked why I chose to teach middle school science. With engineering degrees, teaching high school chemistry or physics seems a more obvious choice. At first, I made the decision to teach middle school based on opportunity. Once working in a K-8 school, however, I quickly realized how much I loved working with 7th and 8th graders. Since then I have actively sought out middle school positions.

Middle school students are energetic and clever. They have less experience than high school students, but are hungry to understand complex ideas. They do not yet have the algebra skills of high school students, so our focus is often on conceptual understanding and how to recognize and represent patterns and trends, rather than solving more complicated quantitative problems. That said, I have found that middle school students enjoy being pushed to the edge of their mathematical comfort zone, and discovering how math helps explain the natural world.

The students are under less pressure in middle school. They are not driven by a fear of the college application process and how their transcripts will look. They are freer to explore the material and grow, with fewer concerns about grades. Middle school teachers work with students when they are transitioning from children to young adults, and can play an important supportive role during this challenging time. They also have the chance to instill a passion for science and confidence in scientific skills during this formative period.

Middle school science has changed dramatically since I was a student. The latest science standards emphasize engaging students in scientific content and practices in a coherent pathway. This allows students to recognize that the topics are progressive, the skills they learn are universal to all fields of science, and that they are investigating a connected, relevant body of knowledge. I can think of no better job than being a middle school science teacher, where I can be a chemistry teacher, physics teacher, biology teacher, and earth science teacher all in one.

Laura CelikLaura Celik
Middle School Ambassador, AACT Governing Board

Photo credit:
(article cover) iqoncept/Bigstock.com