how i became a science teacher

I’ve been reflecting on my teaching career lately, partly because I have to write a teaching portfolio. It occurred to me that talking about how I came to be where I am now might perhaps be interesting to some of you who are thinking about your future. In my experience, at least, things don’t always go according to plan 🙂 & it pays to be flexible.

With both parents working in science-related fields (mum a biology teacher, dad a technical officer for a government department) I suppose at least one of we four children was always going to be a scientist. By the time I was 7 or 8, I’d decided to be a doctor. I read mum’s biology books (well, OK, I looked at the pictures) & thought, as probably most kids who contemplate a career in medicine do, how neat it would be having a job helping people get well. A bit later on, though – maybe after mum showed me a dissection – it struck me that while it while it was probably fairly straightforward to open somebody up, putting everything back together so that it was still all in working order was a big ask. I crossed medicine off the list.

I studied the the sciences at school (and maths, & languages & geography up till the end of 5th form [year 11]), but didn’t really focus on a career until – I think – the beginning of year 13. With mum as my example, I decided on teaching (she’d moved into a teaching career relatively late in life). Way back then the government provided studentships to aspiring teachers: you got a rather decent monthly allowance for the duration of your studies, & in return you were expected to take up a teaching job at the end of your time at university. After an interview, I was awarded a studentship & trotted off to Massey to study biology.

Things began to unravel at the edges when I was invited to study for Honours, at the end of my 2nd year at Massey. This meant a further 2 years of study, which the Ministry of Education (who held my purse-strings) was quite happy with. But part of the final Hons year is your dissertation, where you spend a reasonable amount of time on a research study. I chose to look at mallard ducks – their behaviour was pretty well-described, but I wanted to know if there were any differences between the behaviour of mallards on the local lake (Centennial Lagoon) and a smaller population on a country pond. (There were.) I quite liked doing the research, & towards the end of that year I was asked if I’d like to work towards a PhD. Hmmm, teaching or study, study or teaching?

Study won out, & I went on to spend a further 3 years or so looking at the behaviour of black swans on a Manawatu dune lake. Mind you, I was also ‘teaching’ in the sense of demonstrating in undergraduate lab classes, but teaching as a career seemed a bit more distant. However, when I graduated I wasn’t immediately able to get into any research positions, and without that happening we weren’t going to leave Palmerston North as my husband had a secure & stimulating job there. So I applied for – and won! – a position as ‘assistant biology teacher’ at Palmerston North Girls’ High, & that was it. I was totally hooked on teaching. (I still am.) I loved, & love, the interactions with students, & also I get a real buzz from those times when you see something ‘click’ with a student.

(At this point I have to say that I really do think that good teachers are born as well as made. I took 4 extramural papers at ‘TColl’ while I was teaching, and after passing them & putting in another couple of years in the classroom I received my Trained Teachers Certificate. But still, a lot of what ‘worked’ for me in the classroom still seems to me to be instinctive.)

Anyway, after 8 years in secondary classrooms (& with our family expanded to include our 2 children), I ended up going back to Massey as a senior tutor. And I’ve remained in tertiary classrooms ever since. I have to say, I think I’m really lucky to have that secondary teacher training & experience – it’s given me an insight into the prior learning experiences of new students coming into my first-year lectures & lab classes. At the same time, the things I do with & for secondary teachers helps me to understand the classroom practices & processes that work for them & with which ‘my’ students will be familiar with when they join me at Waikato. And it’s also what got me into writing this blog – it’s a way of giving something back to those teachers, maybe encouraging their students to think more critically & read more deeply in the scientific literature, and hopefully helping to inspire their own journeys in science.

Because it is an ongoing journey, & I think that’s something you shouldn’t lose sight of – that you may end up in unexpected places in your passage through life 🙂

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