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Everyone has heard the saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If that is true, then both scientists and teachers may fit the bill.

In September 2018, I found myself in a high school chemistry classroom as a first-year teacher. Every day during my first year of teaching, I went in believing that my lessons would go well. The students in my afternoon block wouldn’t throw bottles across the room into the recycling can. I would keep my cool under the onslaught of teenage cynicism and cell phones.

Some days were great! On many days, however, I cried at my desk once the door closed at the end of the day. Even though it felt like a constant uphill battle to gain the respect and control of my classes, I went back each day. Surprisingly, by the end of my first year, I never felt saner.

In this article, I want to share a bit about my rather circuitous route to earning my teaching certification, and also some of the insights I picked up during my first year in the classroom.

A long and winding road

Back in the mid-2000’s, I attended a local teaching university for my undergraduate studies as a chemistry education major, but ultimately dropped the idea of teaching completely and instead decided to graduate with a chemistry degree and go into industry.

I left school with my degree and a boatload of optimism that I would change the world as I entered the environmental field and started on my journey as a career chemist. My work brought me out to New Mexico for a time and then off to graduate school at the University of New Mexico, where I performed research with an amazing professor affiliated with Sandia National Laboratories.

One of my duties as a grad student was to teach a one-hour section each week for a physical chemistry course for biochemistry majors (i.e., geared toward the physical chemistry of biological macromolecules). It was during this time that I caught the bug, and knew that I wanted to teach. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the research. But the day I found myself singing to the glove box and having a conversation with the glassware was the day I realized that the solitude of the lab was not really my style. Six years after graduating with my chemistry degree, I decided to pursue a career change and move into the realm of education full time.

It was a tough road earning my teacher certification. While my professional aspirations were changing, life was happening, too. Over the course of planning my return to school, I had moved back across the country to Pennsylvania and welcomed two children to my family. I was working full time, once again in the environmental field, and trying to make it work financially. I had found a post-baccalaureate teacher certification program at my undergraduate alma mater, West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and was trying to figure out how to make my career change happen in the most economical way.

Rebooting my career

A major change happened when a wonderful friend and former colleague from my graduate school days told me about the ACS-Hach program for second career chemistry teachers. I applied to the program and was selected as a grant recipient to start in the summer of 2016. The program provided funding for my teacher certification coursework and took two-and-a-half years, but the true benefits came in the fall of 2018, when I was assigned my first classroom!

I consider myself extremely fortunate. I had a wonderful student teaching mentor and a great support system while looking for chemistry teaching jobs. I was nervous about my “moment of truth,” to see if my hard work had paid off and I would be accepted at a local school district. When I saw the number of candidates for each position in my area, panic set in. To cover more bases, I did a dual certification in chemistry and general science, then followed that up with a biology certification in order to make my résumé more desirable.

Fortunately, I need not have worried. Quite quickly, I was able to find a contract position teaching chemistry and physical science, and was offered the job while still student teaching. I joined the vibrant and tight-knit community of Ridley School District, located in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The district is diverse, racially and socioeconomically, and the students I serve have varying behavioral and individualized education needs. I was ecstatic that I would be able to work with students with such varied backgrounds. As I prepared for my first year, I read Harry Wong’s The First Days of School cover to cover, and sought out any and all advice from colleagues and friends. None of that prepared me for the actuality of teaching.

“Don’t smile until Christmas.” “You have to really hammer them!” “Show them who’s boss.” “Have you tried yelling?” “Never explain yourself to children.” “Have them removed!” Those were some of the most frequent pieces of advice I heard leading up to and during my first year of teaching. I had three preps, an integrated special education physical science course, physical science, and chemistry. The high school implements a physics-first program, and the physical science courses follow the physics curriculum.

At the time, I had never taught physics and, while certified to teach physical science, I knew absolutely nothing about the physics curriculum I was about to teach. I was a little disappointed that I was only teaching one section of chemistry (my love!). My school embraces the modeling approach to science, which was also brand new to me, so the already steep learning curve of first year teaching was dauntingly perilous.

Some of the students I welcomed into my classroom were notorious for bad behavior, and I was warned in advance it would be a tough situation. This made me mad — not because I would have “problem” students, but because I felt deep down that the advice I was getting was not right for me. My own children giggle and smirk if I yell and play the big disciplinarian. My demands for students’ respect were too inauthentic and seemed like an act — and indeed they were. I had to be myself, yet I was terrible at classroom management! I found this to be my biggest struggle during my first year in the classroom.

To make the situation worse, all of this advice also felt like it was a serious judgement about my teaching abilities. One of my classes was so terribly behaved that I started avoiding my colleagues because I didn’t want to hear any more of their “advice.” The truth is that I tried their suggestions — really tried them — and not just for a day.

From day one, I had procedures in place. I had the students develop the rules with me and we created our classroom culture together. I felt like I was doing everything I was told, but it continually backfired. The level of second-guessing and anxiety I felt every day leaving the school was overwhelming. The amount of planning time I was spending trying to make things absolutely perfect was preventing me from doing anything else. Most days I was miserable, but I continued to move forward.

Being open to smart advice

Thankfully, I had support from some amazing people, such as my fellow science teachers and mentor at Ridley, my sisters who also teach locally, my mentors from student teaching, and the ACS-Hach program that had my back and brought me back to sanity.

As part of my participation in the ACS-Hach program, I agreed to be a part of their mentorship program for three years after I earned my certificate. This is a fantastic community of other brand-new science teachers, and as part of it I was matched with a mentor who would help me along the way. Three weeks into the school year, my mentor was there for me as I cried…and three months into the school year when I cried again … however, she took a far different approach to my need for reassurance. Instead of telling me to ‘suck it up’ and assert my authority, she helped me think of ways to embrace my personality and love of science to draw kids in and engage them.

I slowly learned to ignore the naysayers and accept that in order to run my classroom the way I wanted it, I needed to understand that it was MY classroom. It doesn’t matter how the teachers down the hall run their own classrooms, or what they think of me. My mentor’s perspective was exactly what I needed as I learned to embrace my own teaching and classroom management styles.

What ultimately worked for me was to be myself and get to know my students. I tried to remember what it was like to be in high school 20 years ago. How did I want my teachers to treat me? How do I want my students to treat each other? I changed my management focus. I spent some time and talked to my classes. I apologized to them for times I lost my temper. I explained how their behavior made me feel. I asked them how they felt and how they wanted to be treated. What advice could they give me? I also tried to rely on empathy to deescalate situations in the classroom. Are they hungry? Angry? Tired? Just plain antsy? Then I did what I could to change the situation.

Soon, I began to see my student’s need to throw a bottle into the can as a challenge or a reward. Likewise, I decided that my student who needed to move could be allowed to walk around in the back of the classroom — as long as they didn’t approach the other students. Occasionally, I used “the only reason you are out of your seat is to challenge me to a dance-off” tactic, which was a surprisingly effective way to get students on board and focused (after they were done laughing at my sweet dance moves).

Now, some people reading this will be thinking, “Wow, you should never, ever let the students know that they got to you or that you have feelings” (and yes, that was actual advice I was given.) Granted, this approach certainly won’t work for everyone, and may have even made a few students worse. Fortunately, however, the majority of my students understood that we all had to respect each other and ourselves — and it saved our year.

Looking forward to the new school year

In hindsight, I realize that before I changed my philosophical approach, I had been trying to meet unrealistic expectations and demanding perfection on a daily basis — and it was making me miserable.

But once I was able to remember why I got into teaching in the first place (because I love it!) and embrace the craziness of the classroom, I regained my sanity. Very soon, I begin my second year of teaching and, while there occasionally are still butterflies in my stomach, I can’t wait to greet my new students and start fresh with a new attitude toward my same old self.