November 2020 | In My Element
I Was Always Meant to be a Teacher
By Jonté Lee
|Figure 1. The author, teaching chemistry virtually from his kitchen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photograph used with expressed permission. © WJLA-TV
I am a chemistry and physics teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School in the Washington, DC Public Schools System. During the COVID-19 pandemic, my school district switched to virtual learning. To keep my students engaged, I transformed my kitchen into a chemistry lab and taught virtually. To my surprise, I was featured on Good Morning America and several news outlets.
Teachers who have learned about me have asked me where my creativity comes from, and why I choose to teach as a career. I have never told my story, including how chemistry changed my life — until now.
Growing up, I watched other children play with action figures, toy cars, dolls, footballs, and basketballs. In contrast, I enjoyed playing with textbooks. I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher … but never considered becoming a chemistry teacher. I secretly hid my passion for teaching, because it seemed like a thankless job. When you tell someone that you are a teacher, they often give you this look that seems to say, “bless your heart,” or “you poor thing.” Or they ask, “Aren’t you too smart to be a teacher?” I laugh at that question, because who wants to be taught by a less-than-competent teacher? Those statements, along with the rumors of low pay, lack of respect and support, and the “those who can’t do, teach” mentality, prevented me from immediately going into the career of teaching. I am happy I didn’t listen to my self-doubt for too long.
My journey to teaching started when someone called me smart. What does it mean to be smart? I never thought of myself as smart. I had the self-taught skill of taking complex information and making it simple. It wasn’t a gift.
Certain subjects gave me a tremendous headache — for example, English and history. The grammar rules always came with exceptions, and the ability to write with feeling boggled my mind. I didn’t understand it, and when I would ask for help, people would just read the rule back to me, and I had to learn it on my own.
For example, I remember getting frustrated at the definition of an adverb: “word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc.” How can something modify itself? And there were no examples in the textbook. I said to myself that, if I wrote this textbook, this is how I would do it. Little did I know at the time that I was teaching!
Zeroing in on science
The only subject I was good at was science. As I write this, I ask myself, what does it mean to be good at a topic? To better encourage students, we should change the phrases, “good at,” “bad at,” “average at,” and “excel at.” These phrases tie in too many emotions to learning. As humans, we may not remember everything we learn, but we remember how we feel. If students have a negative feeling about a subject, they may be turned off from it.
Science made me think, and allowed me to ask why. Science came with rules and laws. It wasn’t based on feelings (although there are exceptions), but rather on facts that are backed by evidence. I loved science, and biology was my favorite science subject. I wouldn’t say I liked chemistry or physics. Chemistry was taught by using the classical method of memorization, through which it was assumed that understanding was happening.
Physics required me to apply the math skills that I memorized. I quickly realized that I was never trained on how to use the math, but only on how to do the math. This was a gap in our educational system. Again, I thought if I were a teacher, I would teach my students to apply the knowledge, and not just memorize it. At the time, I did not know that I was building my educational philosophy.
Undecided on a future
After graduating from Archbishop Shaw High School in Marrero, Louisiana (a town nine miles from New Orleans), I went to college at Southeastern Louisiana University (SLU). I knew that the only way I was going to escape some of the traumas I endured as a child was to get a good education and move away. Even though SLU was only one hour away from Marrero, it was far enough.
My first major was psychology. I chose this major because I wanted to help children (a desire teachers must have), and wanted them to have a better childhood than I had. After taking Psychology 101, I changed my major. Psychology is a social science that has many exceptions to the rules. My second major was pre-medicine. I was going to be a cardiologist. That major lasted a year.
I knew in my sophomore year that I wanted to be a working, stay-at-home dad. What does that mean, you ask? I wanted to have a career and be home when my children are home. In my eyes, that is not the life of a doctor, so I changed my major again. My third major was education. My mother threatened to stop paying my tuition if I remained an education major. I didn’t care; this is what I wanted, and I was going to do it.
But then I learned that SLU’s College of Science offered a major in biological science with a concentration in molecular and microbiology. Molecular biology was the first time I truly understood science. I was able to see how things worked on the atomic level. Still, I wouldn’t say I liked chemistry, but did love organic and biochemistry for some strange reason. I changed my major for the fourth and final time.
With two years of college remaining, I was going to be armed with a bachelor’s in biological sciences with a minor in chemistry. I was lost as ever on what to do next … but serendipity was right around the corner.
Looking for options
I was randomly filling out and sending in cards from graduate school posters hanging in the science building, and had no idea of what I was doing. I didn’t think past that part. I cannot tell you what all I applied for, or to which schools. Within two weeks, I received an acceptance letter from the Texas A&M University summer science laboratory internship.
The program’s purpose was to allow students to work in a laboratory setting, almost like a summer bridge program to graduate school. It came with a stipend, paid travel, meals, and housing. It sounded perfect, and I was in. Halfway through that summer, however, I realized that benchwork was not what I wanted to do. On the other hand, I enjoyed reading the research articles and presenting my findings (activities that had similarities to teaching).
I decided to change my major one more time. I was going to become a lawyer and apply to law school. My mother threatened to cut me off completely if I applied to law school because, during the summer internship, I was accepted into their Ph.D. program for microbial genetics and genomics. This came with a salary and free tuition. My mother did not want me to pass that up. I capitulated, and off to graduate school I went.
It should be noted that even with four changes in major, I still graduated in four years. I made up time by taking 21 hours per semester. I thought I could always come back to teaching, and as a Black male with a science background, I would always have a job in education. I was starting to believe in the myths of education.
In my first year of graduate school, I realized that I was not happy in the Ph.D. program. I wanted out, but where was I going to go? I had a theoretical bachelor’s degree, a car note, credit card debt, and a lease. What was I going to do? I wanted to pursue teaching at that moment. After a few days of research, I realized that the notion that it was easy to become a teacher was just a myth. Instead, I opted to get my master’s in marketing. I chose this major because I enjoyed working in retail over the summers. In 2006, I graduated with my master’s in marketing and went to work in corporate America.
Finding my way
I was good, but not great, in the private sector. I would volunteer on educational/training projects that had nothing to do with the duties of my job. I volunteered to work with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program, and I would read to my little brother over my lunch break. His reading scores showed significant growth. I was happy.
After five years of surviving corporate America, I had a choice. Either I was going to get fired or quit. So, I quit and started working for the non-profit, INROADS. The organization provides job training skills to college students of color so they can get paid internships with Fortune 500 companies. The internship would lead to full-time employment upon graduation.
It was the perfect job; I had the opportunity to teach and work with both students as well as companies. I was finally happy. I even started working part-time at night for the University of Phoenix, teaching in-person biology and marketing courses. I LOVED IT!!! Life was putting me back on track.
I realized, however, that I wanted a change from Topeka, Kansas, so I put in for a transfer to Washington, D.C. Luckily, I was able to transfer both of my jobs. The more I taught at the University of Phoenix, the more my passion for teaching grew. However, I was still scared to go into teaching. All the negative myths of low pay, bad student behavior, and low administration support were paralyzing. I was becoming disenchanted with my job at INROADS, and again I felt that either I was going to get fired or quit. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Then serendipity showed up again.
Pursuing my calling
In May 2012, I heard a radio advertisement for an alternative teaching certification program at Howard University’s School of Education, called Ready to Teach. This program recruited potential career-changers who wanted to teach math and science in high-needs schools. I thought, why not go to the information session and learn more? I left excited and was ready to make a career change.
Unfortunately, it was the busy season at INROADS, and I did not have time to complete the Ready to Teach admission packet. I remember calling the director and saying that I was busy at work and would apply next year. The director told me that this was the last year for the program, and that it was now or never. I threw all caution to the wind, stayed up for 24 hours, and submitted my packet.
I was accepted! Ready to Teach was an accelerated program, and after taking classes over the summer, by August I was teaching full time. I finally had my classroom. Then, for eight years, I taught biological sciences. I loved interacting with the students, and was happy.
During my eighth year of teaching, I decided to change schools. I wanted to teach a different student population. But I was thrown a curveball when I was told that I was going to teach A.P. Biology and Physics. I was thinking, once again, here comes the physics! I hadn’t liked it in high school or college, and still didn’t understand how I made As in the subject. But after I agreed to the course schedule and signed my contract, I was told that my schedule had changed again, and I was now going to teach Chemistry and Physics. I felt duped. The two subjects that I did not like, I was teaching. I thought these subjects were all math and no creativity; I could not have been more wrong!
I love teaching physics and chemistry now, because I am able to take a subject that I found difficult and make it accessible for my students. I get to show students how chemistry and physics are used in their everyday lives. During the transitions between classes, students tell me how they have applied a physics or chemistry concept in their daily routine. I smile.
|Figure 2. The author’s kitchen, transformed to a chemistry lab for distance learning.|
Teaching chemistry from my kitchen
My creativity and teaching skills were challenged when our school district went to distance learning during the last semester of the 2019-20 academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How was I going to make chemistry fun virtually? The idea of turning my kitchen into a chemistry lab came to me while cooking. What better way to show the properties of chemistry than teaching from a kitchen? The kitchen is where we can apply our knowledge of chemistry that will result (hopefully) in a satisfying, edible creation.
When I was teaching the three phases of matter from my kitchen, I demonstrated that dry ice vapors could extinguish a candle. While watching, a student commented, “Mr. Lee, the CO2 did not extinguish the flame. It was the cold temperature that put it out.” I asked, “How would you test your hypothesis?” The student thought for a minute and answered, “Put it in the freezer! You are in a kitchen, Mr. Lee!” (as if I forgot where I was.) I laughed and placed a burning candle in the freezer.
|Figure 3. The author, teaching chemistry virtually from his kitchen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photograph used with expressed permission. © WJLA-TV
While we waited, I completed another demonstration. I forgot all about the candle, but the students did not. When we checked the candle, it was still burning. (It must be noted that I cautioned students not to try that demonstration at home.)
Working in the kitchen gave us the ability to test things quickly, and the students enjoy watching me work. The kitchen is my lab, bowls are my beakers, glasses are my graduated cylinders, the refrigerator is my whiteboard (I use a dry erase marker), and the table is my lab bench. Meanwhile, the walls are used for hanging posters, and anything else I can find during the demonstration is fair game.
I draw my creativity from my experiences of struggling in school and feeling that no one cared. I don't want my students to experience school the way that I did. Education is never to impress, but to make better. Students and teachers from all over the world tune into my kitchen chemistry lessons. Chemistry has allowed me to become a community teacher, not bound by the four walls of my classroom. If anyone needs a thought partner to help generate ideas, find me on Instagram at @JonteRLee, and Twitter @JonteRLee.
(article cover) Photograph used with expressed permission. © WJLA-TV