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© Wendell Powell Studio

My journey through education has been interesting. From an early age, I always loved science. When I went to high school, my two favorite subjects were biology and chemistry. But it was my engaging chemistry teacher, and the cool experiments that we did in class, that inspired me to become a chemist.

Following high school, I went on to study chemistry at Rutgers University. After graduation I landed my first job as a quality control chemist. In this role, I performed tests of the raw materials that were used to make our company’s pharmaceutical products. This opportunity eventually led me to work in the research section of our company, which in turn opened the door to what, as I think about it, was my favorite job: Technical Specialist. In this position, I answered colleagues’ questions about our products and helped researchers use them, and also trained our sales force regarding the products. I was an educator, but not in the traditional sense. I went on lecture tours around the US, teaching researchers how to use our products. My career in this field continued to blossom as my knowledge of the product line gave me an opportunity to transition to a larger company that was focused on a life-saving biotech product.

A sudden transition

Unexpectedly, after years in the industry, a family relocation brought me to an area of the country that did not have any pharmaceutical companies close enough for me to pursue employment. So I decided to take some time off and volunteer in my daughter’s school. At first, I helped in the media center, where I would read to the students. Shortly thereafter, I began substitute teaching in the school, and working part-time in the media center rather than volunteering. Although I did not have my certificate in education, a bachelor’s degree in chemistry allowed me to serve as a substitute teacher.

When the teachers discovered my science background, they encouraged me to pursue a critical needs (CN) certification, an alternate route to teaching in which subject areas are based on criteria established by the United States Department of Education. CN programs focus on subject areas in which there is a shortage of teachers — and at the time, science was one. In order to get my teaching license through this alternate route, I was required to complete 30 credit hours in education coursework by participating in a two-week summer program. One great thing about the program was that I was able to teach while in the program, so it was very affordable. As part of the program, I quickly found my passion, and realized why I had so much enjoyed teaching and educating adults about pharmaceutical products during my time as a technical specialist.

Figure 1. The author teaching students outside the classroom — one of her passions as an educator. Here, she and two students are planting underwater grasses as volunteers to restore the water quality of a local river. (Photo credit Bruce Taylor)

Teaching is rewarding and challenging

My first teaching position was as a middle school science teacher in South Carolina. In this position, I had special needs students in my classroom, and also taught English Language Learners (ELL) students, many of whom could not speak English at all because they had just moved to our country. The nature of science, and the importance of teaching it through a hands-on approach, made it very amenable to students with learning differences — and in my opinion, it is the only way to teach science! Additionally, helping the students see how what they were learning was applicable to their everyday life was also important.

Another relocation — this time to be closer to family — brought me to a wonderful school, The New Community School (TNCS), in Richmond, Virginia, where I currently teach chemistry. It is a school for children with dyslexia and other learning differences. I am challenged to diversify my instructional strategies to meet the needs of each student. Looking back, my first teaching experience paved the way to where I am today.

The power to influence

I love being a high school chemistry teacher. I am empowering bright minds who have faced many challenges in their education journey, and I find it very rewarding. I learn as much from my students as they learn from me, and the students renew me each and every day. The strong relationships I have with my students make them know that I truly care — and also make them care about learning!

My strong relationships with students became even more essential most recently. Our school building was closed due to Covid-19. We were not able to physically be at school for the students, but we were still teaching virtually. I started each class with a check-in to see how my students were doing. I wanted to ensure that the students wouldn’t disengage in this new, virtual environment, which was no longer as hands-on as they were used to. From these check-ins, I learned that the ability to make the material relevant to the students and their world in this virtual setting was even more important.

The many rewards of teaching

Teaching is unlike many other professions. You truly have the opportunity to impact lives. It is so rewarding and gratifying when a student who could not speak English when you first met, returns to visit your classroom many years later to share that they graduated from a university with honors. Some students even return to share with me that they majored in science, or engineering — and told me that I made a big difference in their life. I influenced their love for science and their success.

Years ago, as a chemist, I was responsible for helping to save lives through my work with a biotech product. My task was to ensure the product never went on backorder. This was a tremendously important job. But, I never got to meet or see the face of any person whose life was saved with our product.

Since I became a teacher, however, I have been influencing lives each day through education. The best part for me is that I am able to see my students’ faces as I help them to succeed. I feel like my educational journey has gone full circle, because I now can inspire my students to love science and pursue it as a career, just as my own chemistry teacher had inspired me. Education is a journey, not a destination: it is a life-long process of learning. There are so many different types of science, and you never know which interesting but rewarding turns your own path will take.


Photo credit:
(article cover) April C. Eddleton