In my 15 years plus year of teaching, I’ve taught art, theatre, English, ESL, writing and a few other related subjects administrators threw my way. But now this ol’ grammar gal is teaching science. And while it has required pulling up some knowledge from the deepest recesses of my frontal lobe that I have not accessed since college in the early 90’s and provided my hippocampus with some marathon-caliber workouts (not to mention teaching me all these fancy new words) I absolutely love it. Somewhere between explaining cellular respiration to a room of stinky, middle schoolers and prepping microscope slides on my kitchen table, I realized I should’ve been a science teacher all along.
In my classes we grow things, we build things and we take things apart and make them into something new. We make huge messes, shoot things from catapults and blow things up. We have class in the woods and stomp through streams. We form questions, sometimes strange and ridiculous questions, and then we test for the answer. It’s freakin’ awesome! All those years I sat perched on a desk discussing character motivations and surmising the story after the story, I had no idea there was so much fun happening in science class. Had I known there was a job that condoned using warning labels as mere suggestion, I’d have been on it from day one.
So why did it take me 15 years in the ed biz to figure this out? Do I really have that little self-awareness? Perhaps. But I think the real blame goes to the teachers that shaped me back in the day.
27 years ago, my high school in rural Iowa boasted a whopping 99 in its graduating class, (That total is not inclusive of those classmates who were knocked up at graduation and there was more than one…). I’m quite certain the majority of the school’s educators thought pedagogy was a either dessert from Poland or a something from page 432 of the Kama Sutra. If you didn’t stand out as a stellar scholar bound for one of the three state schools by 8th grade, you were lumped into Category 2 – a direct ticket to community college or trade school at best. Even though I was a kid with learning issues, I loved science and had big dreams of life in a lab until I met Algebra. After repeatedly coming up empty-handed in my search for X, I was awarded the Category 2 badge. While being a card-carrying member of Category 2 kept the academic expectations low resulting in far more time for my excessive extra-circulars, it took a lot more fight to get out.
Though I had the label, I didn’t see myself as a Category 2er, so even though it wasn’t sanctioned, I started the college process on my own. When I proclaimed my ardent desire to get the hell out of Iowa and head to the East Coast where I would fulfill my destiny of greatness, the school’s lone guidance counselor replied, “Oh honey, you’re not smart enough for college.”
That guidance counselor had also provided guidance for my parents 20 years prior where they too had been put into Category 2 along with numerous aunts and uncles as well as my older brother. We were a long line of Category 2s. When she regained her composure and stopped laughing, she provided me with a brochure from the nearby community college and suggested I look into their Ag Management program. “You’ve a perfect candidate for the 6 week program in Hog Confinement Management.”
From beneath my sky-high bangs and through a foggy haze of residual Aqua-net my mouth dropped open. I fancied myself to be a Midwestern Molly Ringwald, and hoped to meet up with the rest of the Brat Pack as soon as I got to the East Coast for college.
“Hog Confinement Management? Are you kidding? Do I look like I do hogs?” I probably brushed back a strand of crispy, permed hair to punctuate my point.
“Oh dear, you’ve got so much to learn.”
On that point she was right. I did have a lot to learn and once I started learning, I never wanted to stop. I did get into college and I went on to get more than a couple degrees. However, none of them were in science because though I’d proven myself to be above a Category 2, the label was still there reminding me I wasn’t smart enough for a career in science.
But with time and especially with old age, things change and sometimes people see something in you you never saw in yourself- like a science teacher where an English teacher had always been. When I started refreshing my brain and revisiting ideas like phototropism and cell division, my passion for science was reignited and by the time I had a classroom of kids searching for cell walls under microscopes and using my nerdy rhymes to differentiate the xylem from the phloem, I realized I was more than capable. Who knew I had the potential to be a chubbier, cooler Bill Nye for the modern age?
Ironically, I teach science to kids that would easily be labeled Category 2. Many of my students are on the Autism spectrum and others are figuring out how to learn with executive function issues, dyslexia and ADHD. Some struggle to understand the material while others understand perfectly but struggle to get their thoughts out of their brain. Regardless of their diagnoses, I think they are all amazing. Never in a million years would I label one of these awesome kids and let them think they were not smart enough to follow their passions. That’s not my job. That is not any teacher’s job. My job is to give them a love of learning, ignite in them a passion for science and most of all, help them believe in themselves.
Coming back into the scientific realm I’ve seen a lot of changes. Unlike 30 years ago, while science knows more, society trusts less and it’s a dangerous combination. Science education has never been more important that it is right now and I’m so crazy jazzed to be a part of this. The world we’re living in right now needs more scientists and science needs more people that see the world differently. (And man, I’ve got classes full of those!)
Maybe one of my hyper focused autistic kids holds the key to stopping climate change or perhaps I’m turning a kid on to plants that will become a botanist on the first Martian colony (seriously, I think I have that guy in 3rd period). What if the kid that struggles with writing sentences has the potential to master gene splicing to end a deadly disease? But instead of someone helping him, they labeled him as Category 2 and he gave up. Not on my watch. I’m pretty sure that in this era Category 2s will be the ones who will save the day. Watch out world, here we come. (Just as soon as we figure out where in the hell to find X in an algebraic equation….)
*In the next episode I’ll tell you all about trying to look cool at the Science Teacher’s Convention and rallying the troops for the upcoming March For Science. I’m all in baby!