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"I never lose, I either win or learn."

-- Nelson Mandela

Having a “Plan B” has the potential to propel you forward … or hinder your progress. However, is it logical to pursue a plan that is entirely divergent from your dream? Will it rekindle your passion once more? Certainly, I believe that it will. Here’s my story.

Figure 1. The author teaching chemistry at the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Education.

I was a student who dreamt of becoming a doctor. But, because of a sudden medical crisis, I wasn’t able to earn a high enough grade to join the faculty of medicine, since the threshold for admission was 97%, and I only scored 95%.

In many cases, changing to plan B is a more appropriate way to achieve your goals, though perhaps more arduous. My plan B was to study chemistry, which I was fond of and curious about. In fact, I was inspired by my high school chemistry teacher, who was passionate about the subject. So, this decision was a no-brainer for me.

However, as is customary for me, I sought counsel from my mother prior to making the decision. I solicited her viewpoint and explained my rationale. However, she posed a query that had never crossed my mind, which was:

“Which school are you interested in? The school of science or the education?”
“What is the difference between them?” I responded, without thinking.
“Are you interested in just learning science, or learning and teaching science?” was her reply.

At that moment, I realized that I was on the threshold of a new plan — perhaps plan C.

Driven to help people learn chemistry

As I am a daughter of an educational media teacher, it might seem that my inclination toward the school of education was influenced by my family. However, my personal motivation for choosing the education school was driven by a specific goal, which was facilitating chemistry education around the world.

When I was in high school, I encountered numerous challenges in particular topics in chemistry, which fueled my aspiration to implement innovative solutions. Consequently, I embarked on a journey to develop alternative methods of studying chemistry independently, which I later shared with my classmates. Witnessing the positive impact and the joy I experienced in helping others comprehend complex information in a simplified manner solidified my passion for education.

The process

In the academic year 2014-2015, I enrolled in the Chemistry Department at Mansoura University’s School of Education. Initially, my knowledge of this school was somewhat limited, thinking that it predominantly graduated educators.

My intention was to pursue studies in chemistry and complement them with courses in the Arabic language. However, my plan took an unexpected turn when I came across an advertisement for a new program that aimed to prepare science and mathematics teachers in the English language, incorporating chemistry.

I am a native Arabic speaker as my home country is Egypt. However, I was and am fond of the English language and English-speaking countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. Partly because my 9th grade English language teacher exhibited a profound passion for his subject, I was inspired to read English literature. This experience motivated me to pursue my education and training to teach in English.

The experience also continues to influence me in my career today, as I currently use of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) strategy in teaching chemistry. I help students develop academic writing, reading, listening, and speaking during the lesson. For example, I ask students write a report about an experiment, discuss the results with classmates, to summarize the main ideas from a paragraph in the textbook, and listen to an audio or video about the lesson.

Encountering challenges as a pre-service teacher

During my third year of study, I took part in hands-on training at diverse public schools across the city, where I was exposed to a variety of educational environments. Initially, I had the misconception that the teaching process was straightforward, believing it to merely involve creating exceptional activities and strategies.

I came to quickly realize, however, that because I am not a robot, simply receiving and implementing given information, I couldn’t disregard the fundamental element of the educational process: the student. I also realized that one of the biggest challenges is the fact that what you have learned about teaching wasn’t always applicable to actually teaching in the real classroom.

Lessons learned during my pre-service teaching experience:

Figure 2. Nourhan using an AACT quiz about Radioactive Decay to teach the Aviation Maintenance Academy class.

  • Do not assume that your lesson plan will perfectly succeed and be liked by students just because you like it! Instead, think ahead, and plan for individual differences between students.
  • Ask the students before they ask you! Predict the questions that can be asked by students and be ready to answer.
  • Think outside of the box — after all, you’re not a textbook. Find your own way to explain concepts and provide solutions suitable for your students.
  • Illustrating and explaining abstract ideas in chemistry requires effort. Initiate the explanatory process by employing simulations. I utilized multimedia resources from AACT, including simulations and interactive quizzes. Additionally, I incorporated animations with the narration muted, and instead facilitated explanations in my own voice, which I found to be more effective in helping students understand.
  • If a student asks you to repeat any point, try to explain it in another way.
  • Do not tell students that a lesson is easy. Instead, allow them to evaluate it on their own. Feedback from students is valuable for your personal growth and improvement as an educator.
  • Using a lot of activities is not a guarantee that students will understand a lesson perfectly. Implementing meaningful activities that have a purposeful learning outcome is the most valuable approach.

The opportunity to teach in UAE

In 2019, my university collaborated with the Ministry of Education in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to advertise job vacancies at UAE schools. I applied for this opportunity with few expectations, since I was a recent graduate. As part of the application process, I was required to pass a chemistry exam, followed by an interview. As part of my interview, I had to prepare a creative chemistry lesson about the atom. To do this, I related the lesson to the new year celebration, which was timely, since the interview occurred in December.

I am very proud of the chemistry lesson that I created as part of my interview process. I started by introducing myself and showing the panel of interviewers an envelope adorned with new year’s celebration stickers, representing a New Year’s gift box. I proceeded to open the envelope and read aloud the enclosed message: “Regrettably, I remain invisible to all. Therefore, I implore you to assist me this year in making my presence known. I am not distant; I am a basic part of everything, even you!”

I noticed that this stimulated their curiosity, so I told them: “I am going to help you to know who the sender is.” Next, I instructed them to shut their eyes. Utilizing my phone, I played the sound of water droplets and continued: “Now imagine that you are shrinking to a minuscule size, small enough to enter a single droplet of water. Inside this droplet, myriad particles are interconnected by bonds. As you traverse one of these particles, you’ll encounter even smaller particles around you. Move toward the center, where you’ll find yourself encircled by particles known as protons and neutrons. Venture away from the center, and you’ll notice countless exceedingly tiny, rapidly-moving particles — these are electrons. They may collide with you, so hasten your escape from the droplet of water.”

After a brief pause, I instructed them to reopen their eyes, at which point I revealed a model of atom using a dartboard. As many know, the game of darts has a central bullseye with concentric rings around it, each having a different score. I asked my observers to try to draw a connection between what they just imagined and this game. They answered: “There is a center that has protons and neutrons, and around the center there are electrons moving very fast.” They had successfully visualized a model of the atom through this short demonstration.

To my surprise, two weeks later I was offered a teaching position, and a short two months later I arrived in UAE to being teaching.

New challenges as an early career teacher

During my initial year of instructing online, which was necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, I steered clear of the errors I had encountered during my pre-service training. While the act of teaching did become more manageable and easier, it posed different challenges that were notably centered on individual differences among students. This is precisely why I recommend that novice educators allocate additional time during planning to focus on diverse approaches for delivering content with increasing levels of difficulty.

After three years of teaching, I can confidently express that I have no regrets about choosing the path of a teacher over that of a doctor. My initial aspiration was to become a doctor with the intention of aiding individuals and sparing them from illness. However, I have discovered that in the realm of teaching, I experience profound fulfillment when I assist students in grasping intricate ideas.

Engaging in the teaching process has been highly worthwhile, as I have found that it draws upon your intellectual, social, and emotional intelligence. It transcends mere adherence to rules or dissemination of knowledge and extends far beyond those boundaries.