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November 24, 2003
Volume 81, Number 47
CENEAR 81 47 pp. 47-49
ISSN 0009-2347


High school teaching attracts both younger and midcareer chemists with advanced degrees


In graduate school, Kerry L. McIntyre loved both teaching and research. She knew that she wanted to go into teaching, but she wasn't certain at what level. As she got deeper into the research, she saw more and more what research entailed, especially for her adviser.


HEAD OF THE CLASS Khalili, a chemistry teacher at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md., has loved teaching since she was a child. PHOTO BY PETER CUTTS

"My adviser would sit at her desk all day and review grants and write manuscripts," McIntyre says. "She never got to do science anymore."

McIntyre enjoyed teaching undergraduates while in grad school at Dartmouth College, but she didn't want to deal with the hassles of grant writing that would be necessary if she decided to teach at a college, even a liberal arts college. McIntyre decided such a life wasn't for her.

"Even now, if you want to teach at just a small liberal arts college, you're still expected to do a postdoc for several years before you go there and maintain a small level of research, even if it's just for undergraduates," McIntyre says. "I just didn't want to have anything to do with grant writing." He decided to become a high school chemistry teacher and accepted a position at the Middlesex School, an independent school in Concord, Mass.

Becoming a high school chemistry teacher may be an unusual career choice for a chemist with an advanced degree, but McIntyre is not alone in taking that option. McIntyre made the choice relatively early in her career. Other scientists turn to teaching in their 40s and 50s as a second career. Such professionals can help fill the need for qualified science teachers that is expected to skyrocket with impending retirements.

Lois K. Ongley could be described as in her third career. She currently teaches chemistry at Oak Hill High School, a public high school in Oak Hill, Maine.

Ongley's undergraduate degree is in geology. She worked as a shipboard oceanographic technician and oil and gas exploration geologist in the petroleum industry before returning to graduate school for a Ph.D. in environmental science and engineering. Her graduate research dealt with contaminant fate and transport in aquifers.

After receiving her Ph.D., she taught for eight years at a liberal arts college in Maine. She was denied tenure, despite winning the college's teaching award and having significant amounts of grant money.

"My colleagues didn't like the research I was doing," Ongley says. "They said they wanted to switch the focus in the department."

Ongley's family wanted to stay in Maine, but there weren't many jobs for college professors. When high school positions became available, she started applying for those jobs.

Whereas McIntyre doesn't need a state license to teach at an independent school, Ongley does need certification to teach at a public school. Ongley currently has conditional certification, which means that she's qualified in terms of the subject matter but still needs the education and psychology courses that the state requires.

"I've been going back to school again," Ongley says. "By my calculations, I still have about nine hours of teaching courses to take before I'm fully certified as a high school chemistry teacher."

Robert Saar also made a midcareer transition to teaching chemistry. He is in his fifth year of teaching and his second year at Briarcliff High School, a public school in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. Before becoming a teacher, Saar worked in the environmental consulting field, which was shrinking in the mid to late 1990s.

"MUCH OF THE TIME that I spent with my company I had been giving seminars, training, and working at other kinds of educationally related activities. I knew I had an interest in the education aspect," Saar says. He thought that moving into the college environment would be difficult at his age (he's 52).

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Although he is now certified, Saar taught in two school districts before he received his certification. In New York, school districts can petition the state to be able to hire uncertified teachers, as long as they can document the lack of available, certified teachers. He taught at one school district for six months, took a break, then went to a second school district. He finished the course requirements for certification in the summer following his first full year of teaching.

"I think it's fair to say that most scientists would feel that they could just step into the classroom. I would disagree with that," says Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va. "I believe that it's imperative that the scientist-turned-teacher have a very good handle on the learning characteristics of the students that they're going to be interacting with."

ALTHOUGH MANY states and school districts have programs that allow emergency certification for teachers making the transition from other careers, Wheeler says that "learning how to be a teacher by teaching is using kids as guinea pigs. Everybody is better served if they address their deficiencies before they go into the classroom."

However, he believes that scientists-turned-teachers may be well equipped to use inquiry-based methods in the classroom. "I think the Ph.D. scientist has a deeper handle on inquiry and also a deeper handle on the content that's being taught," Wheeler says. "The chances are very good that that person is going to be able to take a child into an authentic inquiry exercise."

The key characteristic of a scientist turning to teaching may be surprising, Wheeler says. "The most important characteristic is that they like children of that age group," he says. "The second one is to be able to shed all the ways that they've been taught, which are probably the most inappropriate for real learning to take place."

"Someone who loves children, who has been well prepared in content, who is fully certified according to current standards, and who is diligently and competently supervised in the classroom will be successful. But all of the above must happen," says Melinda Anderson, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association. "Teaching is incredibly hard work. It is rocket science. People who think they can walk in off the street and do it well just don't appreciate how complex it is."

A report published last summer by the National Research Council advocates a demonstration program to attract new and recent Ph.D.-level scientists to elementary and secondary education. The program is viewed as one within a broad range of approaches to improve the quality of science and math education. The proposed two-year fellowship program would be national in scope but would allow flexibility in the implementation. The report recommends that local programs minimally include the course work required for teacher certification within the particular state. In addition, the report recommends that the program be structured as a postdoctoral fellowship to provide financial support for the selected individuals.

Some universities are putting programs in place to help the midcareer professional make the transition to teaching. Such programs include the Mid-Career Math & Science Program at Harvard University. In the intensive 11-month program, the candidates combine course work with practical experience. The program focuses on the needs of urban schools. Harvard offers financial incentives in the form of stipends to qualifying midcareer candidates. These "Transition to Teaching Math and Science" funds come from a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Harvard hopes to extend that grant for at least one more year.

Vicki A. Jacobs, the associate director of Harvard's Teacher Education Program, believes that scientists making a midcareer transition to teaching have a better sense of the real-world applications of their field. "We have a fellow in our midcareer program right now who has spent most of his time in labs studying plasma physics," she says. "He's got to understand how that translates into school practice, but he has a tremendous amount of knowledge about physics to draw upon."

Many people in the midcareer science program find laboratory research "more isolating than they wish their work context would have to be," Jacobs says. "There's a sense of wanting more social interaction around their content."

Sotiris Pentidis, a chemistry teacher at Boston Community Leadership Academy, part of the Boston public school system, echoes that sentiment.

As a graduate student in theoretical chemistry at Cornell University, Pentidis had spent a large portion of his time programming computers. He also discovered that he wasn't particularly interested in research. He spent time as a lecturer at Wells College, a women's liberal arts college in Aurora, N.Y., but he didn't have the interaction with the students that he would have liked.

When he finished graduate school, his disappointment with both research and teaching led him to take a job as a computer programmer. He spent two years in a company but hated that as well.

"I didn't like the interaction with the corporate world, and I didn't feel I was doing anything," Pentidis says. "I didn't offer anything to anybody. I wanted to go back to teaching because I felt that this way I can help people."

Pentidis became a chemistry teacher through Massachusetts Institute for New Teachers (MINT). A major component of this program is an intensive summer introduction to teaching for midcareer professionals. The mornings are spent observing and student teaching in a summer school program. The afternoons are spent in seminars with other program participants.

"Teaching is incredibly hard work. It is rocket science. People who think they can walk in off the street and do it well just don't appreciate how complex it is."

THE ADVANCED DEGREE brings a number of advantages to the high school teachers and their students. On the most basic level for the teachers, it puts them on a higher rung of a school system's salary grid, which is based on a combination of education level and years of experience.

There are other advantages, however, that manifest themselves in the classroom. The Ph.D. degree inspires respect from the students. "When they have to call you 'Doctor' every day, they really do respect you and they believe you know your stuff," McIntyre says. "I think it really makes an impression on them, especially since two of us in the science department [at Middlesex School] who have Ph.D.s are women. I think it's really important for the girls to see that. It's okay to be a scientist and go far in your education, even if you're a girl. Don't let anybody tell you that you can't do it."

However, the increased respect engendered by the advanced degree only yields "one day of grace," Saar points out. "After that, you have to show that, Ph.D. or no, you know how to deal with kids and behaviors, have the course properly organized, and provide the kids with proper notice about exams--all the things you have to do regardless of the degree you have." He also notes that in the long run the Ph.D. may matter more to the parents than the students.

Nevertheless, Saar believes that scientists who have been trained in their field bring "depth" and "sparkle" to the classroom. "I think about some of the things I know from 20 years in business and a Ph.D.," he says. "How could somebody who's 23 years old and took a couple of chemistry courses have that same kind of depth? Some school districts like to hire people like me even though it costs more because they know they're bringing richness into the school district and into the classroom."

McIntyre's doctorate helped prepare her to create a course in molecular biology for seniors. "If I didn't have my Ph.D. and my background, I don't think I would have been able to even design such a course," she says.

Ongley hopes to get high school students involved with research. "While I was at the college level, I was involved in what's called service learning, where I incorporated community service into the courses I was doing," she says. "I hope to get that going again in this area, looking at the water quality in the lakes. We're worried in Maine about eutrophication in our lake systems. That's something I think I can involve the students in quite readily."

Last year, Ongley supervised five students who entered projects in the state science fair. She thinks that her scientific background improved the experience for her students. "I was trying to hold students pretty closely to a scientific method in approaching their project and in constructing their poster for it," she says. "I was trying to get the students to essentially replicate some of the poster sessions I've seen at professional meetings."


UNDER CONTROL Saar, a chemistry teacher at Briarcliff High School in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., has turned to teaching as a second career. PHOTO BY JONATHAN DOYLE

However, Ongley acknowledges that it's difficult to unravel the effects of having a Ph.D. from those of just being a starting teacher who's had another career "Any time you can bring some real-life information into the school, that helps your students."

Maintaining discipline in the classroom can be one of the hardest aspects of the job.

"Your typical high school classroom has a tendency to be very entropic. You need a great deal of patience, and there's no such thing as being too organized," Saar says. He believes that he was just thrown into the job in the beginning. "I wasn't ready for teenage behavior, even though I have kids of my own," he recalls. "I was really overwhelmed. You need a lot of support and a lot of understanding of what you're getting into. If the transition is done properly, it can work out fine."

These teachers offer advice to other people who might be considering making a midcareer switch to teaching.

Saiedeh Khalili, a chemistry teacher at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md., cautions people against teaching unless they really love it. "Either you love teaching or you don't," she says. "If you don't love it, don't become a teacher." Khalili has a master's degree in chemistry, but even as a child she loved teaching. She would dress up in her mother's high-heeled shoes, arrange her dolls as students, and pretend to be a teacher. She left graduate school in 1985 to become a teacher with the Catholic school system, starting with the elementary grades and eventually moving to middle school and high school.

McIntyre and Pentidis both warn new teachers not to rush to judgment during their first year on the job. "The first year is hard," McIntyre says. "Don't make any decisions or don't even develop any true opinions much before Thanksgiving."

Pentidis echoes the thought. "Don't get disappointed from the first year," he says. "It's very disappointing, especially the beginning. After that, the fulfillment is great."

Pentidis also advises people to look beyond the obstacles and to approach teaching without overidealism. "If you come to school and you think you're going to solve all the problems, you're done. You get very disappointed," he says. "Approach it student by student and with small steps. A lot of problems need to be overcome to make a change. This can take a lot of time."

People considering a career move to teaching should thoroughly research their choice. "You should go into it with your eyes open, as far as how different the setting is, how demanding it is," Saar says. He suggests that people may want to visit schools and talk to teachers. "If you go into it with your eyes open, I think that increases the chance of it being a successful transition or even increases the chance that it becomes the right decision to make the change in the first place."

McIntyre believes that potential teachers should thoroughly research the school when considering teaching at an independent school. "Every school has its quirks and little nuances and ways of doing things," she says.

SHE COMPARES working at an independent school with graduate school. "When you're in grad school, it's not so much a job as a way of life. Here, this is very much a way of life," McIntyre says. "I live at work. I'm always here. Right now, my dorm is literally 300 feet away from my classroom. You have to realize that your time is really not your own here, and you have to be flexible with that."

Saar says reorienting your thinking is important to ensure a successful transition. "You've got to get past the idea that in some parts of society there is not as much respect for high school teachers as one would like, considering their importance," he says. "It took me a couple of years to fully retool my brain away from the fact that going to a business setting is what adults do."

Perhaps the most satisfying part of the job is the human interaction.

"The human aspects of the endeavor--inspiring kids, helping hold some of them together, providing recommendations for them--are what's really satisfying," Saar says. "I just happen to know chemistry more than I know other subject areas. That's my excuse for being in front of a bunch of kids."

With the slow economy persisting yet another year, unemployment for chemical scientists is high and demand is soft. New graduates can expect a long job search and fewer offers, but some companies are hiring.

Unemployment among American Chemical Society members in the domestic workforce is 3.5%. This is a record high since the society started measuring the employment status of its members annually more than 30 years ago. Salaries continue to make steady gains.

Becoming a high school chemistry teacher is a great choice for a chemist with an advanced degree, and a few are taking that option, sometimes as a second career. These workers can help fill a need for qualified science teachers that is expected to skyrocket with impending retirements.

Graduate students, freshly minted Ph.D.s, and postdoctoral fellows are all vying for the few open positions in industry. Find out what industrial employers are looking for and how applicants can get noticed.

A guide to sources of job and career information designed for those in chemical and related sciences who are seeking industrial, academic, or government positions or looking to change careers. Online resources for scientists are highlighted, as are American Chemical Society career services.


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