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Out of my element

First day teaching high school chemistry. Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2004. There are no lesson plans, no syllabus, no sequence, no curriculum. Just a textbook. I’ve had no teacher training. My teaching experience consists of substitute teaching 8th grade humanities for one quarter at an international school in Bangkok. My master’s degree is in music composition.

How in the world did I end up here? How in the world will I make it work?
Let’s back up.

What IS my element?

Linda Cummings performing a solo recital at Colorado College, with pianist, Dan Brink.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Isn’t that the question we always ask children? I could never answer that question. I loved learning and I loved music — I loved it all. But by my junior year in high school, I felt the pressure to choose a direction. Chemistry was the only subject that I found challenging, so on that dubious basis, I rather arrogantly decided to major in chemistry! I imagined getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor, picturing myself walking through the hallowed halls of a university.

In college, I took all the math and music classes I could fit in, almost changing majors at one point, but finished all but one class for the chemistry major by the end of my junior year. Off I went on a fellowship to do research that summer; I thought the lab was my element.

But it turned out that I didn’t like sitting around in the lab all day. That summer I also sang in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Minnesota Chorale, and I loved every minute. I was in my element! My plans to go on for a Ph.D. in chemistry went swirling out the window as I reeled, my head and heart conflicted. My head told me that a chemistry degree would get me jobs; my heart cried out for more music. My senior year, I took the one chemistry class I had left — every other class was music. I followed my heart, turning my back on ever becoming a chemistry professor.

My element … or the Air Force’s?

Young and idealistic, I married an Air Force lieutenant right after college, embarking on 20 years of life as an Air Force spouse. Along the way, I completed first a B.A., then an M.M. in music composition, working along the way as an organist, choir director, praise team leader, copyist, arranger, and transcriptionist. Happily married, working in music, raising a child — I felt like I was in my element. The part-time nature of these jobs lent themselves to the constant moving and the need to be home with our son. But every time I’d get established in a job, we’d move. From Okinawa, Japan, we moved to Washington, DC, then to Bangkok, Thailand. While in Japan, I began to face some personal struggles.

Transition elements

By the time we arrived in Bangkok, those personal struggles were really making me question my identity and my choices. I poured myself into musical endeavors with the Bangkok Opera (now Opera Siam), which kept me centered and sane. I also started substitute teaching at the international school where my son was in middle school. To my surprise, I loved working with 7th graders! I had never even considered teaching as a place where I would be in my element.

Just as my personal issues were coming to a head, the international school asked me to take over an 8th grade humanities class for a couple of weeks, which turned into a month, and eventually the rest of the semester. Although the subject matter was completely outside the area of my expertise, I still enjoyed interacting with the energetic 8th graders. As I faced an uncertain future, I thought: perhaps I should become a teacher.

Unfamiliar elements

My identity was evolving in several aspects of my life at the same time — I was now a single mom, and decided to move back to the US with my son. I chose a familiar city, Colorado Springs, where I’d attended Colorado College, and where we’d lived for a few years previously. My parents and sisters also lived nearby in Denver. But I had no friends there; I was starting my life over. My son and my dog were the only constants. I applied for teaching jobs. But without a teaching certificate, I could only teach at a charter school. Luckily, a charter school hired me to teach — of all things — chemistry.

So that’s where I started. I was handed a thin manila folder of the “curriculum.” The “syllabus” was a list of all of the chapters in the textbook. No lesson plans. No demos. No activities. One usable lab: a tie-dye activity. Every day, I literally taught out of the textbook. I didn’t know how much material I should cover each day, or how to handle homework. It turned out that at the charter school, I couldn’t assign as much homework as they had at the international school. Students were bored. I was exhausted, and lonely. I’d get home and literally fall down on the floor, spent, with no energy to even cook supper. But I had to. I had to take care of my teenage son, grade papers, and hang on. My one oasis in the midst of all this was the Colorado Springs Chorale, where I could just go and sing and not be in charge of anything.

Discovering new elements

I’m a fighter. I was determined to make my second year of teaching better than the first. So in the summer of 2005, I attended a Flinn Chemistry Workshop, and later flew off to Vancouver to participate in ChemEd. I even managed to get a grant. I not only gathered great demos and labs, but lots of teaching techniques — actual pedagogy! These two experiences jumpstarted my career as a chemical educator.

My second year of teaching, I was a completely different teacher. We were doing fun labs and demos, I had a much better understanding of how to run a classroom, and I started typing up lesson plans. I learned how to present difficult topics, how much content students could handle at one time, and how to really relate with my students.

In my element

Linda leading the workshop, Colorful Chemistry Demos, at the Colorado Science Conference. ©Carol MacKay Photography

I’ve never looked back. In the following years, I attended a couple more ChemEd conferences, and a Biennial Conference on Chemical Education (BCCE). I also presented at conferences, started teaching AP Chemistry, and even finished my master’s in natural sciences online through the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) while teaching full-time. At UNC, I finally took some education classes! I also stayed active as a musician, singing in various choirs and operas and as a soloist, and playing the piano, organ, and harpsichord around town. In short, I was in my element in both the chemical education and music worlds.

After a few years, I became an AP Chemistry Reader, then a writer of exam items. I wrote articles for AACT, and even became a National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) consultant. As the years passed, my focus shifted from learning how to be a chemistry teacher to, quite frankly, beefing up my résumé.

I LOVED teaching high school chemistry. I loved the subject, the students, my colleagues. But I was still tired. Exhausted. Often sick. There were two Lindas: the summer Linda, and the school-year Linda. I also had a scare one summer with unexplained liver damage. So, I started searching for jobs that might be less stressful.

One day, as I rested at my desk during finals week, I randomly searched online for the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (UCCS), and clicked on Employment. To my surprise, there was a job opening for a chemistry instructor, and it only required a master’s degree. I couldn’t believe it! I interviewed for the job, made it to the final two, but was not chosen.

So back I went to the high school chemistry classroom. I figured, maybe in a few years, another position might open. Meanwhile, I still loved my job. I had another great year, did more chemistry-related things outside of the classroom, continued with my music, and tried to reduce stress where I could.

The element of surprise

Five days before I was to go back to work for the following school year, I received an email from UCCS asking if I was interested in being an instructor. I was stunned, and accepted the offer! I was given four sections of general chemistry lab to teach, and I couldn’t believe that was “full-time.” The salary was comparable to what I was making at the charter school (which was much less than if I’d been at a regular public school), but now I was working much fewer hours. The hours spent grading are considered part of the job! Plus, all I had to do was prepare my pre-lab lecture; someone else prepare the chemicals and set up the labs each week. Paradise! But I was concerned; would I lose the connection with students? Once I began teaching, it became clear that I still had a rapport with students. Now, I’m in my second year at UCCS, and I have students who come by regularly to chat, talk about books, and let me know how they are doing. I miss the daily connection I’d had when teaching high school, but I am still bonding with students, building relationships — and making a difference in their lives.

Exploring the elements of my life

Photo credit: UCCS

I never planned on becoming a high school teacher. Yet circumstances threw me into that job. The transition was very difficult and painful, but I persevered and learned, and grew to love that job. And by a very circuitous route, I later landed a university job, where I still get to share my love of chemistry with students. The transition to university life has been much easier than the transition to high school teaching was, as I now feel confident in the content, and my classroom management skills are solid. As I walk down the “hallowed halls” as a faculty member, I marvel that I ended up teaching at a university, despite all the detours. And I love it.

Do I wish my transition to teaching had been easier? Of course! After having been a high school teacher for 14 years, I look back with disbelief at the lack of guidance and support I was given in my first year. However, I learned so much from having to create every word of the curriculum for chemistry, then AP Chemistry, then Honors chemistry. I earned my chemistry curriculum and lab knowledge through sweat and tears, through failures and successes, and by collaboration with other amazing chemical educators, mostly at ChemEd and BCCE. Meanwhile, music continues to be a place of fulfillment and joy. These successes embolden me to continue to look for ways to improve as a chemistry instructor and to give back to the chemical education community.

Photo credit:
(article cover) PixelsAway/Bigstockphoto.com