Careers in Teaching: Neurobiology in High School?

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When I entered graduate school in the fall of 1992 in the department of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, I had every intention of pursuing a research career in basic science. Now I am a high school teacher, and I love it.

During my 5 years in grad school, I realized that, following graduation, I wanted to pursue a job teaching rather than immediately doing a postdoctoral fellowship. In college I considered getting my education certificate, and in grad school I had been a teaching assistant for the medical student Neuroscience course for 3 years. I found I enjoyed teaching, and decided to make it my career. To be sure, I took a 1-day course entitled "How to Be an Outstanding Science Teacher," and I taught several high school classes.

I chose high school over college teaching because I wanted a job with a high level of student contact, very low level of research, and small classes. Once I had made the decision to teach in private high schools, I went through a placement agency called Carney, Sandoe, and Associates. Eventually, after all-day interviews where I had to teach a full class, I got offered two jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area, where my husband was to start a pediatric residency. I chose to accept a position at the Head-Royce School, an academically outstanding K-12 independent school where I currently teach 9th-grade Conceptual Physics, 11th-grade Advanced Placement Biology, and two 12th-grade semester electives: Neurobiology (a lecture-based course) and Molecular Genetics (a lab-based course).

I am emotionally satisfied, intellectually stimulated (I learned more while teaching one semester of neurobiology than in my entire graduate school career), and over-worked and underpaid.

When I first received my schedule that first summer in 1997, I couldn't believe my luck. I was scheduled to teach less than 4 hours a day. What could be easier!? I was very wrong. It's true, I'm only standing in front of people talking for less than 4 hours per day, but I spend approximately 5 to 10 more hours each day

  • preparing for my lectures,

  • grading homework, labs, or papers,

  • researching what it is I'm supposed to teach the next day or period ("I don't remember anything about photosynthesis!" and "What is the Nernst equation, again?"),

  • advising "my" group of 12 seniors,

  • meeting with students who want extra help,

  • attending upper school, whole faculty, and science department meetings,

  • photocopying,

  • and talking to Mary with the eating disorder, Nate with the borderline obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Caroline who couldn't believe that Princeton let her in, but not Yale, where she really wanted to go.

I also chaperone dances. (I got to shop for a prom dress again!) And I coach the swim team, which involves yet another level of organization, but provides a way for me to bring my competitive swimming past into the present. Plus I advise the women's lacrosse club, Latin dance club, and science club. The summer after my first year, when I wasn't visiting friends around the country, I was spending hours preparing for my new classes, which I revamped from the first year, and enjoying my nonstressed life. It was the first time I had felt relaxed since the week after I defended my thesis a year earlier.

In sum, I love my job. I feel I am being challenged on a much more varied level than if I were doing a postdoc. Yes, I still don't know what I really want to do when I grow up (researcher? high school teacher? college professor?), but I am very happy where I am right now. I'm looking forward to working part time whenever my husband and I have kids, and the 2-month summer vacation is nice. Now if I could only come home at night and not have homework during the school year. I hear that the third year is the charm.

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