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The author’s view on typical morning as a chemistry pre-service teacher.

Often, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about chemistry is, of course, the periodic table of elements.

As a pre-service chemistry teacher, I have been teaching about the properties of the periodic table throughout the whole school year, and its image shows up everywhere. For example, on their way into class, my students catch glimpses of the table on my nerdy coffee mug. They also see the table hung with pride on the walls of our classroom. They even see it on my nerdy T-shirt from time to time, or stored in their handy periodic table app (iOS app store version and Google Play version), which ishopefully in the same important folder as their Snapchat and TikTok apps.

I am a pre-service teacher currently enrolled in a teaching credential program out of Michigan State University. As I reflect on my time as a pre-service teacher, I find my experiences to be more and more similar to the very tool I taught all year round: the periodic table of elements.

Whether you are considering teaching, currently a pre-service intern or teacher, or just someone who loves chemistry education, consider this a journey through the teaching world from the perspective of a pre-service teacher, as told through the periodic table.

The most electronegative element

What better place to start than fluorine, the most electronegative element on the periodic table? Very electronegative elements have a high tendency to attract electron pairs in a bond, so why not begin with the very things that attracted me to teaching chemistry?

When I share that I am pursuing teaching chemistry as a career path, I often get bewildered expressions from people who ask, “You want to teach high schoolers? In today’s age of technology? Isn’t chemistry hard?” and “Why high school? Won’t they be around the same age as you? Or at least taller than you?”

Although these are excellent points, they are also the types of challenges that make teaching interesting, unique, and exciting — in the best way. Despite these questions, teaching chemistry offers the unique advantage to connect with students of today’s generation and provides the opportunity to ignite things (safely!) in the name of science.

I can’t think of a better career choice for myself! With a handful of tech teaching tools and a love for chemistry, my 22-year-old, 5-foot-2 self was placed in a chemistry class in Grand Ledge, Michigan for my year-long teaching internship in the fall of 2019.

Teaching around life’s essential elements

With her “Oh Chemistree” message, the author celebrates ugly sweater day with some chemistry cheer.

Just like oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and hydrogen are essential elements for life, I quickly learned that there are certain “elements” that were essential to my new life as a pre-service teacher.

For me, the first of these essential elements were my colleagues at my placement school, who were all incredible resources. Many teachers can remember their own pre-service experience and have so much knowledge of what it’s like to enter the first year of teaching. Teachers in my network have offered me plenty of classroom management tips, pointed me to online resources, and shared lesson plan ideas. The most valuable experience for me was the chance to observe their classrooms and do what scientists do best: ask a lot of questions!

Another element essential to my pre-service teaching year is actually something many of us already use and check daily: social media. I’ve found Twitter to be a great resource for me because it is an easy way to connect with so many kind, innovative, and creative chemistry teachers who are all passionate about their careers. From sharing resources and funny classroom stories, to celebrating “Nerd Shirt Fridays,” Twitter is definitely an essential element that introduced me to a community of educators. Communities like these were so important to have during my time as a pre-service teacher. Such communities even include comforting teaching stories to share when life as a pre-service teacher gets difficult.

Working in a highly reactive environment

Alkali metals, such as lithium, sodium, potassium, and cesium, have a reputation for being very explosive in water. One small chunk of sodium placed in water immediately reacts and sometimes even catches fire. During the pre-service teaching year (or any year as a teacher, I can imagine), there are lots of surprise elements that are tossed into our classroom pools, resulting in figurative explosions that make even the well-planned lessons challenging!

Being a pre-service teacher is difficult. We are constantly observed by our mentor teachers, evaluated by field instructors, viewed by other faculty, and scrutinized by our students. Perhaps hardest of all, we are constantly questioning ourselves: “Was that lesson good enough?” “Were my students engaged?” “Would my mentor have taught this differently?”

The processes of observing, evaluating, and questioning will probably be with me as long as I’m a teacher. Such pressures can have a effect on a teacher similar to an explosion, distracting their attention. I’ve found one effective way to manage such “reactions” is to reduce the size of the sample.

For example, one busy day in November, my field instructor came to observe my lesson on ionic nomenclature. Right before starting the lesson, two of my students informed me that they were hungry and had ordered pizza, which was scheduled to arrive during my lesson. My first thought was, “Oh perfect! Right when I have to get observed on classroom management, my students have their lunch delivered in the middle of class!” In order to take control and minimize this “alkali metal,” my students and I compromised: they would get their pizza at the end of class, during work time. In the end, I taught my lesson was taught as planned, and got some breadsticks out of the situation as well! It turns out that minimizing an explosive sample through compromise can go a long way.

The allure of the shiny and lustrous

Robin celebrates graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in Chemistry in spring of 2019. © 2019 Jee Castillo Photography

The periodic table is filled with elements, including ones that are reactive, coarse, gaseous, and unstable. Hidden among these, however, lie copper, gold, aluminum, bismuth, and silver — elements that shine and shimmer against the rest.

A pre-service teacher’s journey can be unpredictable, like lanthanides or actinides, but the best moments shimmer and shine like these lustrous transition metals. These are the golden moments that stand out and motivate me to become the best teacher that I can be. Moments like when my students ask if they can use their phone to record an exciting demonstration. Or watching smiles light up the room as I announce that we would be making s'mores as a fun way to practice balancing chemical equations. Or witnessing the wonder while tackling scientific questions like, “Why do orange peels pop balloons?,” “Where do fireworks get their colors?,” or “Why should you drink milk instead of water after eating a ghost pepper?” From watching students’ “aha!” moments, to sharing science memes, to helping students create chemistry-inspired Halloween costumes, teaching chemistry as a pre-service teacher has its shining moments. Those moments make me most excited to become a certified chemistry teacher next year.

Just as each element has unique properties, the journey of a pre-service teacher has so many fun and unique situations that prepare us for the teaching world. Next up in my journey: the job search!

Editor’s note: At the time of publication, Robin anticipates that she will be awarded her teaching certificate in May 2020.

Photo credit (article cover): © 2019 Jee Castillo Photography