November 2019 | In My Element
Life Lessons: Becoming a Teacher
By Kellie McMullan Riccio
I fell into chemistry. In 1991, I was studying at a community college in Los Angeles and looking for a part-time job. I saw an ad for a laboratory position that indicated “no experience necessary.” I went to an interview and was hired right away. The laboratory was owned by a woman, Pat, who took all of her employees under her wing and taught us much more than the mechanics of chemistry.
Even though I was just a flighty 20-year-old, Pat showed me how to distill for cyanide and develop analytical skills — two lessons that I had no idea would be useful someday. This was the first time in my life that I felt valued for my mind, and I was hooked on becoming a chemist one day.
I bounced around for the next decade and eventually earned a chemistry degree. Afterward, I left the country and to support myself taught English as a second language in a few countries, including Spain and Italy. While teaching in Italy, I received a degree in Italian, and to this day I speak the language at home with my Italian-born husband.
My husband and I decided to move to the United States — specifically, to Northern California. I quickly found a job in a laboratory and returned to college to continue my education in chemistry.
Finding my bliss
Twelve years passed before I began to feel I needed a change. One day, I was watching my young son when I realized that he was my bliss — and that my future needed to include children. After speaking with friends who taught K-12, I began volunteering at my son’s school and subbing in the local school district. Then I decided to make a career change to teaching high school chemistry, and began taking night classes for my credential and looking for a job as an intern teacher.
On the last day of my pre-service credentialing program, I received a call from Lisa Quinn, the Co-Science Department Chair at Cardinal Newman High School, in Santa Rosa, CA, and we set up an interview. Coincidentally, during my interview, the school had a lockdown (which luckily turned out to be a false alarm), but it allowed me to see how the students reacted to a stressful situation.
Afterward, I was hired as a teacher, to begin in the fall. During the summer leading up to my first year in the classroom, my colleagues, Lisa and another teacher, Mike Healy, helped me set up my classroom and answered all my questions. Both were seasoned science teachers and legends at the school, and I was fortunate to learn from the best!
The night I’ll never forget
The school year started with all the typical ups and downs that a new teacher might experience — until October 8, 2017. That night, Santa Rosa started to burn due to wildfires. I remember waking up at 2 am and going outside, only to see a line of fires on the hills above my house. I could hear transformers and gas tanks exploding as the fires entered densely inhabited areas of the city. Soon, my neighbors and I all realized that something large was happening.
The active fires in the city continued for most of the week, while fires outside the city continued for almost a month. People throughout the area had to evacuate and find other places to stay, including members of my own family. In addition, many of my students fled the fires and watched from their families’ cars as their neighborhoods and homes burnt.
Late on October 10, one of my students emailed me, and I vividly recall several lines: “I’m fighting front lines with the fire. Winds picking up tonight so wish us luck. My shoes caught on fire while stomping flames out but not seriously injured. We could use all the help we can get but priority is saving lives. On another note — please if you get time send me what we should be working on school wise. I would like to still learn outside of school as much as possible.”
On that same day, rumors were spreading that our high school had burnt down, and it was later confirmed that half the school was indeed gone, including half of our classrooms along with our library, counselling offices and administration buildings. (We would be unable to return to the campus until late January 2018, and today we still hold half of our classes in portable classrooms while we are working to rebuild.)
Normalcy begins to return
About two weeks later, four local churches donated space to allow our school to resume classes. This meant that teachers and students were placed at different church sites, depending on their grade level, for the following three-and-a-half months. As classes resumed, everything was uncharted territory for teachers, and we all did the best we could in navigating this new situation together.
At some sites, classes were held in large open spaces, combining as many as 95 students, with multiple teachers helping the primary teacher. At other sites, lone teachers instructed up to 50 students, with only small portable dividers between the “classrooms.” It was clearly less than ideal, but it was important that the students were able to stay with their friends. Many of them had lost everything to the fires — homes, animals, schools, and belongings — so the last thing they needed was to lose contact with friends.
During this difficult time, entire faculty groups, like the science department, travelled from site to site to teach the students. We didn’t always know the best strategy in this challenging situation, but we all knew that the students’ need for stability was our primary goal. I will always remember hearing a fellow teacher say at the time, “I will teach any kid, anything they want to learn, anytime, anywhere, under any conditions.” I continue to carry that mentality through to my chemistry classroom today, and will follow my kids’ curiosity down almost any path, just to watch them learn and grow.
No one took a single day off during our time teaching at the church sites. I actually broke my ankle, but still found myself showing up each and every day. I think few, if any, kids took time off during this period either; some because they were living in their cars and had nowhere else to go, but many simply because they needed each other. We witnessed students and teachers do incredible things for each other. Early on, teachers bought shoes for students who had lost everything in the fires, which was amazing — but there was also a group of students who bought shoes for a teacher who had lost everything himself.
I recall one particularly hard day, when my internet connection kept dropping. When a student heard me express my frustration, he asked for my computer and then attached it to his cell phone’s data plan. That act of kindness from a child to an adult meant the world to me. Throughout this difficult time, the biggest lessons I learned were about human interactions, acceptance of ourselves and our frailties, and above all, kindness.
Somehow, during the time at the sites I found the energy to apply for the ACS-Hach Second Career Teacher Scholarship … and I was accepted! This opportunity allowed me to connect with ACS, where I found a new community to support me.
During my second year of teaching, as I’ve worked on recovering from the impact of the fires, I’ve found that the reality of individual students’ circumstances has impacted my consciousness.
For example, it was very hard for me to see children going hungry due to their precarious living situations, so I started incorporating a lot of food-based labs and explorations into my curriculum. I also started keeping a few frozen meals in my classroom refrigerator for students whose parents were still struggling with access to food. I treated students to frozen treats when the weather warmed up and, as we got closer to Halloween, would toss candy to them for correct answers. My recovery has involved seeing children act once again like children — laughing, playing, and exploring in the lab.
As the environment continued to become more positive, I began including a lot more lab time in my lessons and opportunities for students to think outside the box through investigation. I enjoyed watching them put ideas together so they could experiment in the lab. For instance, when I realized how much my students enjoyed the Gas Laws, I set up activities that would let them have fun while exploring the concept. In one memorable activity, my students dressed in full safety gear and huddled in the baseball dugout, while launching Gatorade bottles filled with varying concentrations of baking soda and vinegar, taking videos with their cell phones, analyzing their observations, and chattering excitedly as they tried to refine their concentrations. Stoichiometry is hard for the kids — so I worked to find new ways to help them understand it.
I find that my classroom now has many visitors, both current and former students, who come by to hang out in the classroom so they can have a break from their stress. These students are still working through the trauma of 2017, so I feel good that they are comfortable in my classroom. The student who helped me with my internet problem often sits in on lectures, or just stops by to decompress. I feel a sense of pride watching him and the other students grow as human beings.
Although I’ve experienced much more than I bargained for during my first two years in the classroom, I am happy with my choice to become a teacher. I’ve felt at times like a veteran and a first-year teacher, all rolled into one — and there were times during that first year when I truly didn’t know if I would make it. But I did, and learned so much. I want to continue to experience the personal development that comes with teaching, and I’m researching ways to be a more effective communicator and meet my students’ needs in a more comprehensive way each year.
(article cover) Joeshmo/Bigstock.com