I have been looking for ways to deepen my practice as a science communicator when I came across a startling figure: California’s demand for new Math and Science teachers in the next 10 years is expected to be over 33,000, according to CTA.org.
Let’s face it, people reading my work in The New York Times or Nature are already literate in science. It makes sense to focus my efforts where I might have more impact. So I have decided to become a high school biology teacher in addition to my work as a science journalist. Not exactly the typical path of progression for a reporter. But then again, my life has rarely gone to plan.
Support from NSTA
Several months into guest teaching and tutoring at a high school in the San Diego area, I needed help. I spent 20+ hours preparing a single lesson and groped to find activities to help students who speak English as a second language learn daunting biology vocabulary. The odds are grim: assuming I become a credential science teacher, my chances of remaining a teacher after five years are less than 50%.
I applied to The National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA) and won a pre-service scholarship to attend the 2013 national conference in San Antonio, Texas. Without the funding, I wouldn’t have gone. I had two concerns: (1) the meeting seemed utterly overwhelming at the pre-service stage of my career, and (2) it was prohibitively expensive. Neither proved true, thanks to NSTA’s support.
Road to the NSTA National Conference
Two years ago I was rear-ended in a car accident, which caused a serious and difficult-to-diagnose hip injury. I spent a year in agony that worsened daily and the last six months of that year in a wheelchair, unable to walk. The day of the accident I was at a new height in my journalism career: I had just signed with a literary agent and was preparing to write my first book. Unable to work or think clearly from pain, I spiraled into pre-suicidal depression—a terrifying first in my life.
But I refused to accept “live with it” for an answer and eventually found an amazing surgeon, who fixed the joint and erased the pain in less than an hour. A few months into my year of recovery, marked by intense physical therapy, I woke up one day and heard a call to become a teacher.
Society looks different in a wheelchair, and I made many startling observations when confined that were deeply upsetting. My path of thinking went something like this:
Our society is so rich that we waste precious natural resources, such as peeing into drinking water while millions die from dehydration.
Further, our society wastes human resources. For example, most of the high-paying jobs of the future require math and science training beyond high school, but low-income people and minorities are least likely to get this training.
I already possess most of the skills needed to make a positive difference in young people’s lives. Social justice is an issue that I can address personally by becoming a science teacher.
Many doors opened at the conference, and the main outcomes fall into two categories: networking and professional development.
- Connected with a veteran, award-winning A.P. Biology teacher, and he has generously taken me under his wing as a mentee. His support has helped me reduce lesson planning time from 20 to 2.
- Met the publishers of SciJourn, and we are exploring a new collaboration for students to publish health-related stories. They inspired me to start mentoring an 11th grader to prepare an article for publication.
- Met the editor of Science News for Kids, and we are exploring a story series on the coming Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). This represents a shift to a new reporting beat of education. (Did I mention that I’m not giving up journalism? Expansion is the main benefit of working freelance.)
- Met with teachers from Howard, U Miss and other universities about starting an NSTA student chapter at UC San Diego, where I am a candidate in the M.Ed. program.
- Deepened my connection with a teacher in whose biology class I currently tutor. She and I are now collaborating on the unit plans for the rest of the year.
- Made several new pre-service teacher friends, and we are actively swapping resources. One teacher-pal I met at the conference visited the area where I live when she was interviewing for jobs. We met for lunch and exchanged ideas, resources and contacts. She showed me her teaching portfolio, which inspires me to create one of my own.
- Connected with other teachers in the San Diego area, which will help when it comes time to find a job. I’ve already heard about one non-published opening.
- Science notebooks will figure more prominently in my lesson planning.
- Picked up some new ideas for science writing exercises.
- Developed a better understanding of the coming NGSS standards.
- Discovered some excellent teaching resources and tools.
- Closed some conceptual gaps around the inquiry teaching method.
- Came away with reference materials to reinforce what I learned.
I want to sincerely thank you NSTA for sponsoring my registration and supporting me in the pre-service stage of my teaching career. I returned from the national conference greatly expanded and look forward to a deepening my practice as science communicator through the work of secondary science teacher.