November 2018 | In My Element
The Grass Really Is Greener
By Sean Fisk
My first love has always been science. Soon after I earned my B.S. in Marine Biology from a small liberal arts college in St. Petersburg, Florida, I started working as a biological scientist for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. I spent my days collecting samples all over the state and processing data on habitats and juvenile fisheries. For almost 10 years, I lived and breathed science on a daily basis, but it was never really enough for me. My dream was always to teach science, to transfer what I had learned about the process of doing science to others.
|© Olivier Le Moal/Bigstock.com
I started teaching in 2011, after my wife and I moved across the state to Brevard County. We had recently gotten married, and decided that Brevard County had some of the best schools in Florida, and that it would be a great place to start our family. We also had some teacher friends there and my wife, who was already a science teacher, had a few job prospects. With a new home and new career path, I decided to walk my résumé to all of the local schools. It didn’t take long for me to be hired at a local middle school, teaching 8th grade science as a long-term substitute.
It was a foot in the door, so I was happy… and terrified. I started my certification process, while cutting my teeth in a local public school. The county had some great resources for new teachers, but that year was still one of the hardest of my life. I was almost relieved when I was told that the teacher I was subbing for was returning the next year.
Searching for a better fit
I started looking for a high school position. My original certification was in biology, but as a marine scientist, I had extensive training and experience in all of the “big three” — biology, chemistry, and physics. I loved biology, but I wanted something a bit more quantitative, and I really was fed up with it at the time, I think. I was a bit homesick for Tampa Bay, and I didn’t want anything that reminded me too much of what I had left behind. My wife, also a biologist by education and a chemistry teacher by trade, convinced me that chemistry was where it was at. High demand, small talent pool, just the right mix of content … so I took and passed the certification exam and added chemistry to my roster.
I was hired at a local high school for the following school year as an integrated science teacher and science fair advisor. I was teaching 9th grade physical science and 12th grade biology for non-majors. In Florida, all students must take and pass an end-of-course exam in biology, so the seniors I was teaching had taken, and failed, that test at least twice. While this was a step in the right direction, I was NOT made for middle school, and I still didn’t feel like I belonged in my own classroom.
In January 2012, three days after my first daughter was born, there was an opening for a chemistry teacher at my school. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, talking with my department head as the principal walked in to discuss hiring a long-term substitute to cover a teacher who had left to teach at Florida Institute of Technology. I raised my hand, cleared my throat, and said, “I’m certified in chemistry. I can do it.” It didn’t take much to convince my principal that I was the man for the job, and that it would be easier to find a replacement for integrated science than for chemistry. He agreed, and I began teaching chemistry that week.
Head spinning, I moved across campus into a gorgeous science lab, and started teaching chemistry. Becoming a chemistry teacher saved my job because, in the summer of 2012, Brevard Schools had to downsize.
One era ends, another begins
For those who don’t know, Brevard County is the “Space Coast” of Florida. The final space shuttle launch was in July 2011. My wife and I went to Satellite Beach to watch the launch as that beautiful bird headed for orbit. The shuttle program, a massive source of income and employment for the county, was shuttered soon after. With the end of the program, many of the engineering and aerospace interests in the area also left. The accompanying decrease in the tax base meant massive budget cuts for the school district. I was one of the lucky ones who kept their job. Many more, including my wife and my integrated science replacement, all lost their jobs.
We had moved across the state for reasons other than teaching opportunities — to start a family and have some security — and this turn of events shook us to our core. My wife was hired to teach middle school science at a new school that fall, and both of us took on more and more responsibility at our respective schools in an effort to make ends meet. I took on the department head position, became a director of the science fair, and started creating curriculum for the county. My wife also got involved but worked at a Title 1 school and came home daily with heartbreaking stories about her students’ home situations. With these new responsibilities and time commitments, we were quickly burning out, so we were looking for a solution.
Out of necessity, we were ready to leave the classroom and begin new phases of our careers — but neither of us really wanted to. Seeing the flashes of wonder in students’ eyes as they see something for the first time in a new and exciting way was the reason I got out of bed each and every morning. But we couldn’t continue as we were, martyrs to the cause.
Seeing new horizons
It was at a holiday party in 2014 that my wife was talking to a friend about her time teaching in Santiago, Chile. She had taught abroad for two years and couldn’t say enough positive things about it. We invited her over for dinner that week to tell us more. At dinner, she explained the whole process to us: what it was like, how she got hired, and the lifestyle of living and teaching in Chile.
We were inspired. That same night, we started building our profiles with an international teaching placement firm. What did we have to lose? January was a whirlwind of filling out applications, researching schools, researching countries, 3 a.m. interviews (due to time zone differences), and attending a job fair in Boston. Turns out international schools are always looking for qualified science teachers, especially those with AP and/or IBDP experience. Conveniently, both my wife and I had taught AP as well as IB classes. After dozens of interviews and offers, we settled on a school in South Korea on a small island called Jeju-do.
I was hired to teach AP Chemistry and my wife would be teaching AP Biology. The next six months were filled with preparation for the move, and getting both excited and nervous about all of it. We were packing up our lives, including our almost three-year-old daughter, and moving across the globe to a place neither of us had heard about until six months ago. It was... terrifying. Some of our friends helped, echoing our hopes and excitement. Others did not, giving voice to our trepidation. Everyone said we were “brave” or “adventurous.” I never felt brave, or particularly adventurous. I just wanted to teach.
Late July approached, and so did our new life. New teacher orientation was a week of settling in and learning the ropes with the rest of the new folks, assisted by the school’s Korean staff. The following week, we met our new colleagues for the first time and got familiar with the school procedures and campus, just like you would at any new school.
When the school year began, I was pleasantly surprised to find out all that I had heard about Korean students was true. They were hard working, driven, and extremely polite. I was able to focus on teaching my content rather than managing a rowdy bunch of teens who didn’t want to be there, which I had experienced before, unfortunately. I finally had time to refine my craft and come into my own as a teacher of chemistry.
My classes got less and less lecture-centered and more and more hands-on and inquiry-based. My role switched from a deliverer of content to a facilitator of learning. The students pushed me to push them, and I was able to allow my class to be more student-led while I explored different methodologies to find what worked best for me and my students.
No longer newbies
|Sean Fisk instructing his chemistry class.
I’m now starting my fourth year overseas. No longer in South Korea, we’ve recently moved to Thailand. The Jeju weather didn’t agree with my oldest daughter, so we had to switch to a warmer climate. Our school was also a boarding school, and with boarding students come many added expectations and responsibilities. My wife and I wanted a healthier environment for our girls and more time to be with them while they were young. We had visited Thailand, and really loved the culture and the people, so this is a good place for us.
A new culture to experience, new colleagues to learn from and collaborate with, and new students in which to stoke the fires of wonder. When we left the US, we expected to return in a few years. Now, I don’t know if that’s going to happen. We have so many opportunities both professionally and personally as international teachers that didn’t exist for us as teachers in the US.
It is amazing to network with teachers from around the world. We’ve attended conferences all around the region, from Seoul, Korea to Bangkok, Thailand to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, learning from the masters of the most cutting-edge teaching practices like NGSS and Inquiry. The schools are very technology-focused, with each student having a laptop at all times and the science labs being very well outfitted. My teaching has become very technology-centered, using the Google suite of education tools along with analysis software and digital probeware on an almost daily basis.
Well worth the journey
We have traveled to places we never in a million years thought we could afford, simply because we had a long weekend holiday to fill. Meanwhile, our daughters will attend amazing private schools for next to nothing in out-of-pocket costs. They’ll grow up having experienced and lived with other cultures, giving them a truly global perspective on life.
We left the States in search of better opportunities both for ourselves and our young family. We never imagined the wonderful things we would be able to accomplish or experience when we got here. If you are feeling like we were, it’s okay! There are opportunities out there, beyond your own shores. Go find them!
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