May 2017 | In My Element
A Serendipitous Teaching Career
By Thomas Williams
I lost my sister when I was in 3rd grade and, because of the long hours I spent in hospitals, had wanted to be a doctor ever since.
But when I was in 8th grade, my science teacher did a short unit about chemistry, and I found myself mesmerized! I well remember using most of a day, sick and absent from school, memorizing the names of the first 40 elements on the periodic table. I was torn between my sense of obligation to become a doctor and my new fascination — a dilemma that now seems not only silly, but unnecessarily sad as well. When I returned to school, my science teacher settled my mind, and ultimately directed my life’s path, with a 30-second conversation. He suggested I combine the two potential careers and study something called “biochemistry.”
From that moment on, I was determined to be a biochemist. I had no early understanding of the parameters of such a career and I'm sure my parents believed the notion would eventually subside. Throughout school, my grades were not great. In fact, twice a week for a few years in elementary school I was required to take part in a program for students who had fallen behind in reading. Periodically, my dad would bring home toys or models that suggested to me his unspoken wish that I pursue some type of trade. One particularly unused kit related to electronics.
But I was not distracted. A neighbor had given me his used chemistry set and I was busy many afternoons in the basement mixing compounds or setting them on fire. One of my more memorable experiments involved checking out the effect of heat on a stoppered test tube containing water.
My learning issues and associated poor grades continued through college. Not the case with my senior research project, though. I worked on it independently, developing a process to chromatographically isolate an enzyme in wheat germ. I spent hours each day for several months with columns, UV spectroscopes, and assays.
After five years of perseverance, I attained my goal. I did not realize how important the “A” on the senior project would be.
Following graduation, I was diagnosed with a “strange little bump.” One biopsy and three surgeries later, I was cured. In the interim I was unable to pursue permanent employment, so I began substitute teaching at some local high schools. The experience was AMAZING! How could someone who had himself struggled to learn be competent at explaining concepts to others? Teaching was fun, but it was temporary. Although it might be a path to return to later, for now, my research mission remained paramount!
Life as a young research scientist
Four months later, I finally found a job as a research scientist. At the interview, we made it past my less-than-stellar grade point average and started discussing my project. The position involved extracting proteins, doing chromatography to isolate active fractions, and using spectroscopy. Upon passing an impromptu oral quiz regarding the preparation of solutions and optimum absorbance range for detecting proteins, I was hired.
Doing research was great! The company had developed a drug that was in clinical trials, and I was responsible for its preparation. As I gave my first batch to the company’s co-owner, I felt both pride and fear, knowing that patients were actually going to inject the material into their bodies!
Over the years, I actively took part in experimenting to improve product purity, and also developed high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) protocols to analyze and isolate various fractions.
All good things must end, however. It was difficult for a small Maine research company to complete the studies necessary for FDA approval. It was a huge disappointment, but the six years of passion for my work was not wasted.
Within the same small town existed a company that sold science educational materials. They had recently purchased a line of kits, and many of the experiments were not working as promised. They required someone to troubleshoot each experiment and to edit background and procedures. I was their person. Each day during this process, I found myself wondering: “How would I teach this”? A notion that had spawned during my time substitute teaching was making its way forward from the back of my mind.
Not your typical freshman
I went back to school at the age of 31, moving into a dorm for the first time. The University of Maine had a teacher certification program whereby those with a four-year science degree could take core education classes to become state-certified teachers. I spent two semesters plus a summer term taking classes, then a third semester performing full-time student teaching of biology. Estabrook Hall housed the nontraditional students and also served as the international dormitory. One evening we had 17 people from 11 different countries around a restaurant table. This was the most fun time of my life!
I now looked at studying, writing papers, and doing projects more seriously compared with my earlier education. Grades were no longer an issue, although some beliefs were! A professor insisted: “In order for you to be a successful teacher, you need to love your students and have strong and caring relationships.” I remember debating him in class. “No,” I argued, “you simply need to know your stuff and present it well.” I believed him to mean that we had to force ourselves somehow to love. I had misunderstood, discovering soon after beginning my teaching career that compelling myself to love was not necessary. Love either happens naturally, or it doesn’t; you become a successful teacher, or you don’t!
After attaining certification, I could not find a job teaching within my home state of Maine. One day, I received a phone call from a friend informing me that her husband’s cousin was visiting from Massachusetts. He was a high school principal searching for a science teacher, and she had told him about me. I interviewed and was hired.
Despite my desires and previous student teaching experience, I was to teach not Biology, but rather Chemistry and Anatomy & Physiology. It had been 12 years since I had taken Chem 101 and I had never studied anatomy. I remember these words: “Here is the textbook and here are the cats. You are now the anatomy teacher.”
My first year as a teacher was very interesting, studying concepts in the evenings while learning to teach them effectively the following day. Often my notes regarding material to be taught appeared different from what I had seen in the textbook. I had learned to break down and reword complicated information in order to assimilate and make sense of it. So I decided to teach the material in my own way. Often, students with learning issues understood. More capable students were able to choose between my explanation and that offered by the textbook. Complementary, yet different, worked well!
I taught for 20 years. Many of my former students have gone on to pursue careers in science. This makes me proud. However, those students don’t comprise the whole story. Others might remember being motivated by me to take on “objectionable” challenges, such as the dissection of a disgusting specimen. One year, it took me six months to convince a chemistry student, deathly afraid of fire, to light a Bunsen burner. These are not trivial aspects of a hidden curriculum. Observing a student achieve something they found difficult always made me smile, whether it was doing an objectionable task or passing a difficult test. Our responsibilities include the growth of all our students — not simply those who show an aptitude for our subjects.
As teachers, our positive nature, passion for our work, and personal perseverance are as important to students as the information and course-related skills we teach them. A 30-second conversation with my 8th grade teacher changed the course of my life. How many random interactions do we have that ultimately influence a student to examine their own path?
(top) Northstar Photography
(bottom) Samantha Caffin