I graduated from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry and education at the age of twenty-one. My first job, however, was in Texas, over 1,200 miles away from home. I was in a new state, with a new culture, working under a new title: teacher. I had been declared a professional, and yet, walking into my classroom for the first time, I felt like anything but a professional. My classroom was stocked with obsolete or useless glassware and equipment that had been donated from a local company that was probably looking to unload in order to benefit from a tax write-off. The chemicals in the stockroom were arranged alphabetically, with no attention paid to safety or reactivity. In fact, the stockroom looked like a picture in a chemical catalog with a caption that might read, “If your stockroom looks like this, fix it immediately!”
I was so afraid! I had so much work to do and few resources available. I was far away from everyone I knew in chemistry, and I was completely responsible for everything that happened. If there was a spill, I was the one to turn to. If the beakers broke because they were not made to withstand the heat of the hot plates, I had to be the one to protect my students from broken glass. If acid cabinets needed to be ordered for proper storage, I had to order them. And, amidst all of this, I needed to get to know the chemistry book and figure out what to teach and when. I was all on my own. I needed help.
One avenue I explored was turning to ACS. After all, I was a professional, and ACS is the organization for professional chemists. I signed up, and became a member. I got Chemical and Engineering News magazine and was invited to attend local meetings. However, I was so incredibly busy that first year trying to figure out new curricula and learning how to run a laboratory that it was difficult for me to take time to go to a meeting or to read the magazine. My top students did enjoy some of the articles; I think they benefited from the subscription more than I did. When I finally was able to attend a meeting, I was disheartened that when I introduced myself as a chemistry teacher, I was treated as more of a guest than a colleague. I was not considered, to them, a real chemist.
In my third year of teaching, I got a new job and returned to Michigan. I had learned from my previous mistakes but was still the only chemistry teacher in the building, and having only two years under my belt did not make it much easier. That year, I attended a statewide science teacher’s conference and a chemistry teacher’s conference the following summer. Those conferences introduced me to life outside my classroom. I met other teachers who were more experienced than I was and who could give me practical advice and guidance. Within this network of chemistry teachers, we had meetings to share lab activities, ideas for teaching various concepts, resources for materials, and general help and support.
At these conferences, my colleagues introduced me to the Journal of Chemical Education. I soon became a JCE subscriber and enjoyed reading (as time permitted) the articles highlighting various classroom labs and activities as well as the research articles introducing new teaching strategies to better convey difficult chemical concepts. A few years later, ACS began co-publishing JCE, and instead of receiving Chemical and Engineering News as part of my ACS membership, I could now choose JCE.
This year, ACS is taking an even bigger step in reaching out to educators by announcing the formation of the American Association of Chemistry Teachers (AACT). Recognizing teachers as part of the ACS community—as has been done for our colleagues in industry—helps set the tone that all chemists are equal. This gesture may further break down the walls between chemists in various fields and instead help us build one another up.
AACT will provide a place for new teachers to go with questions about topics ranging from the logistics of how to arrange, manage, and operate a stockroom to the methods of inquiry learning and how much homework to assign. Teachers can bring in colleagues from the field to connect with students. These students can then observe concrete examples of how concepts are applied and see how their classroom work relates to chemistry outside their everyday sphere of learning. Chemists can dialogue with each other about how chemistry is taught and done both in and outside the classroom. Students will begin to perceive chemistry from a new angle and identify new career possibilities to explore. I look forward to watching these professional networks take shape as we come together to help the next generation learn, grow, and further contribute to the wonderful world we work in called chemistry.
Use this link for more information about how to become a part of AACT: www.acs.org/aact