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Primary Education News
News Why I became a science teacher: to share lessons from industry
For US high school teacher John McAlpin, teaching has gone from a job to a calling. He talks to Emily Drabble about his background in geology and passion for environmental science
I really enjoyed my own education, especially my science teachers, Bill Pearson and Doc Walker, at Elyria High School in Ohio. These two guys made learning so fun and interesting. Once I was at college, I went back and taught at my old high school in their classrooms as part of a volunteer programme. It was unnerving, exhilarating and challenging. It certainly didn't turn me off teaching but I guess it didn't propel me straight to it either.
I went to Oberlin college, which is just 11 miles from where I was brought up but a whole world away. This was in the mid 1970s when northern Ohio was a pretty conservative place but Oberlin was left field. We had experimental college courses which were above and beyond the regular curriculum and some of these were student-taught. A group of us created our own course on marine mammals and took it to local schools so that was another taste of teaching for me.
I majored in geology and became an exploration geologist in the oil and natural gas industry. The big attraction for me was using my science background and understanding in my job and applying what I'd learnt at college to industry. I also got to explore the natural world and work closely with geophysicists. But the ultimate goal was to find oil and gas reservoirs and make money.
After seven years I had a rethink. I'd got married and we wanted to relocate away from the mid-west. My wife and I travelled round the world for a year and when we came back I sent my resume to eight different schools where teaching certificates were not requirements. Five of them called me in and I got job offers from all of them. I think the fact I was coming from industry was attractive.
I decided to take the job teaching science at Belmont Hill School in Massachusetts. From the start I was able to use my real-world experience to help students get a professional insight beyond more esoteric information and to apply that understanding to the natural world.
I won't say it wasn't pretty daunting to come straight into a teaching job like this when I'd never really taught before. Luckily, I inherited a curriculum and syllabus and my aim at the beginning was to stay a few days ahead of the kids I was teaching. My son was born a few days before I started the job and we had to relocate. So it was a very busy time. At that point I didn't consider it a new career really, I was just dipping my toe in. I certainly wasn't committed to teaching aged 30, but as time went on teaching has gone from a job, to a career to what is now a calling. That was an evolution, it didn't happen overnight.
What do I love most about teaching? The kids. I'm not exactly the fountain of youth aged 57 but there is something about working with young people that keeps me energised, compassionate and optimistic.
As a teacher you have no exact evidence of the impact you are having on people's lives but as time goes on you begin to realise that your teaching can make a difference. You don't know the legacy you have but I do feel I am contributing something to the future.
Belmont Hill school is a special place. I've stayed because of the independence and autonomy I'm given. I have incredible colleagues – maybe in a more petty or jealous environment the well would have been poisoned but it is still pure for me.
I have maintained close links to industry and my brother is an exploration geologist so it's great to be able to offer this perspective in my teaching. I'm certainly not a cheerleader for industry but I am in awe of the technology that has evolved.
My major focus now is environmental science. It's my passion. I'm ambitious for a future that is fossil fuel free and hope that my teaching might even have an impact on how we get there. One of my students from way back, a guy called Jim Poss, has created the Big Belly solar powered trash compactor which prevents trash cans in busy city centres needing to be emptied by big trucks five times a day. It's a huge achievement and I'm so proud of him.
My Colleague Tyson Trautz and I created a compulsory environmental science course for our ninth graders (equivalent to year 10 in the UK) more than 10 years ago. It became so popular that some kids approached me to expand the course for older students as part of their advanced progression (AP) tests. This has been really successful and a lot of my students are pursuing environmental science at Harvard, Stanford and other top universities in the US.
The course has really resonated with students and this is what I suppose has shifted teaching into a calling for me. It's getting my students into positions where they can become change agents themselves and I guess that's what teachers really hope for.
John McAlpin teaches science at Belmont High School in Massaschesets, US.