As the March for Science has drawn near, scientists and science-lovers across the country have pontificated at length on why they are—or aren’t—marching. But while today’s 400-plus demonstrations around the nation will hopefully resonate with lawmakers, it takes more than rallies to accomplish lasting change. The following is a guest post from Dr. Kira Krend, a biology teacher in Honolulu, HI, on her March for Science—one that she does every day.
The display on my fitness watch tells me that this is how far I’ve walked so far today. It’s only 2:33 pm. I haven’t finished setting up for the lab tomorrow, and a stack of ninety-eight tests sits on my bag so I don’t forget to bring them home to grade tonight. In the next five minutes, I have three students stop by:
“Dr. Krend, can I come to class 30 minutes late tomorrow?” (No.)
“Hey Dr. K., do you have any food?” (I have some apple slices. No? Okay.)
“We found a baby bird downstairs, can you come help us with it?”
Sigh. That last one’s going require me to walk a lot more steps. Setting up for the lab is going to have to wait.
I’ve been watching my liberal scientist-filled Facebook feed blow up with March for Science posts since January. I appreciate the creatively knitted caps, witty slogans on signs, and inspiring reasons they are marching for science around the world on Earth Day 2017. I have no problem with the march today; in fact, the profound belief in the value of the intersection between science and public has been a driving factor in my life.
I decided to march for science before it was cool: I am a Ph.D. who chose to teach high school biology.
Here is my story.
I always liked biology. The natural world appealed to me as a kid. But I really liked, and really cared about, other things too. When I was applying to colleges, I stressed over what I should put as a major. Political science? International Relations? Anthropology? Biology, or maybe a different science? What did I want to DO with my life? What did I want to BE?
I asked everyone I knew, particularly the adults in my life, what they thought I should be. I desperately hoped the answer was clear to everyone who knew me, and that I was just overthinking it. Everyone had a different answer. Doctor. Lawyer. Astronaut. Diplomat. Everyone had “big” ideas for me — I was a smart, hardworking, overachiever type kid (valedictorian). Alas, there was no consensus. I decided to choose biology, thinking back to what subject I had loved the longest, and comforted that I could always change my major.
Three weeks into my first college biology class, I knew I had made the right decision. Smooth sailing from here! I was happy as a bio major; and part way through my sophomore year, I picked up anthropology as a double major, mostly because I liked taking courses on primates (who doesn’t like monkeys?!?!)
To my dismay, as my senior year of undergrad began, it happened all over again. Biology was great, but what did I want to BE? What did I want to DO that would pay my grownup bills? How about leading a happy, fulfilling life?? Panic set in.
I had heard that with just a Bachelor’s degree in biology, I would be cleaning beakers or cages — and I didn’t really want to do that. As an undergrad, I had worked at the tutoring center, and volunteered at the Natural History Museum leading groups of school kids. I liked both jobs and had a natural talent for explaining things to people. Looking back, it never crossed my mind to work in education. Somewhere, perhaps from the residual pressure of expectations for me from my high school years, and my exceptional undergrad GPA and honors thesis (again, valedictorian), I was convinced I would disappoint everyone if I didn’t shoot for something “bigger.”
So, immediately after graduation, I applied to Ph.D. programs. My logic (though flawed in hindsight) was essentially, Well, I’m pretty good at school. Maybe I’ll just keep doing that.
I flew 4,000 miles to Hawai`i to start my doctoral studies at 22 years old. Over the next 7 years, I would learn how to be a no-kidding, professional biologist. My research examined epidemiology of avian malaria in Hawaiian forest birds. I got the “best” of both worlds: hiking up steep trails at dawn carrying heavy equipment to set up mist-netting to catch birds, and the frustration of meticulous lab work testing blood for malarial DNA and antibodies. It was both physically and mentally challenging, and made me a better scientist in many ways. My professors all assumed (like they do with all doctoral students) that I would go into academia and live a life dedicated to research while occasionally teaching a class or two to make the university happy.
To fund grad school, I worked as a teaching assistant, instructing undergrad labs most semesters. I also taught 3rd graders in a 6-week summer science program for some extra money. Again, I thought of teaching as a side gig, a means to an end: getting my doctorate. It was just a bonus that I really enjoyed doing it.
As I approached finishing my Ph.D. studies, a familiar feeling started to set in. Oh no, I thought. Not again. How can I possibly still not BE anything yet, and not even know what I want to DO? Everyone assumed academia, but…I just…didn’t feel it. The “publish or perish” life of a professional researcher, endlessly searching for the next source of grant funding, was not appealing to me.
I turned in my Ph.D. dissertation and worked as an adjunct professor while I tried to figure out what post docs positions, or other jobs I should apply for. When I calculated it out, teaching Ecology for a semester at my university as an adjunct paid $9 an hour. But, though it was unsustainable as a living wage, I really did enjoy it. To help me survive financially, I got a job teaching for the University of Phoenix one night a week — actual, on the ground classes with live students, not their online program.
Despite the fact I have my full-time teaching job now, I still teach at the University of Phoenix one evening a week, and here’s why: 80% of their students on O`ahu are veterans. The courses I teach are Health and Wellness, Biology 101, and Environmental Science. Say what you will about the “for-profit” college model, that’s a different conversation; but in my class, on those evenings, I throw my full heart and mind into providing those students the best possible educational experience. Even after a long day of work. They may not be future biologists, but they are consumers and they are voters. In addition to serving our country, they are the “public” we speak of so often. I get to teach those veterans how to take care of themselves, and how to take care of the planet. I’d do that for free; It just helps that it pays me a little.
Somewhere around that time, I realized a fundamental truth I had been fighting: I liked doing research, but I loved teaching. I was a competent biologist, but my really exceptional talent was explaining complex biological concepts to non-scientists. What was truly the best way I could contribute? I asked myself. What was the best way for me to give back to Hawai`i, a place that had given so much to me? To educate Hawai`i’s keiki, I thought. The island kids who are going to grow up to be doctors and biologists, but also politicians, lawyers, businessmen, and voters.
If I can help my students live a life where they understand the value and the process of science as they move into adulthood. Hundreds of them. Every year. I feel that is bigger contribution than any publication I could write.
So, that’s how became a teacher: via the circuitous route of getting a Ph.D. in biology.
As I began full-time teaching, those old feelings that the world would be disappointed in me for not having something society views as a “big” or “important” job creeped in again. My parents were teachers, and after all, isn’t the American dream that you work hard so your kids can become something “bigger” and “better?” At some point, I realized my parents weren’t teachers because they couldn’t be something “better.” They were teachers because they wanted to be.
At first, I avoided telling my old professors where I was working and what I was doing. I was afraid they would be disappointed in me. I ran into one, and told her what I was doing. She said, “Thank goodness! We need more people like you teaching in K-12. I could never do it, that’s so great!”
That was 6 years ago at this point- I’ve taught 8th grade up through high school seniors, and now I’m at my second private school, teaching AP biology. My students benefit from the fact am I trained biologist with research experience; it makes me an even better educator. But no matter how prepared you are, there is nothing easy about this job. If you haven’t ever been a full-time teacher, you have no idea what it is really like to be in the trenches. I once heard teachers make more decisions in a day than air traffic controllers. It’s not just the time and energy with students. The planning, prepping, curriculum development, discipline, parents, meetings, and grading all require multitasking like a champion.
Teaching is exhausting, demanding, fun, and fulfilling. While little kids are natural scientists, I still love getting high schoolers excited about biology — it’s more of a challenge. At least once I day, I witness a kid have that ‘lightbulb moment’ and saying “ooooooh.” Or “that’s so cool!” or “I have to admit Dr. K., that’s pretty swag” as he watched transgenic E. coli colonies fluorescence bright green with jellyfish proteins right before his eyes.
The old saying “Those who can’t do, teach” always angered me. Or people who say, how hard can teaching be? I mean, I’ve taken a lot of classes. Well, I’ve ridden in a lot of planes, but that doesn’t make me a pilot. A friend’s dad said “C’mon, but what do you really want to be? Nobody wants to be a teacher.” In that moment, all I could think of was that I wanted to punch him.
In grad school, I would hear professors complain about how grad students were ill-prepared for grad school, that universities really needed to step up their undergrad game. Teaching undergrads, we would complain they were coming into college vastly under prepared. They can’t write! They don’t even understand this or that! Man, high schools really need to step up their game. It really does all start with K-12 education.
Scientists say this so often. I’ve heard them at conferences and forums and meetings. K-12 education is the key! But, I am really busy, and I have three grants due tomorrow, so I am going to stay here in my office and write. But I’m judging the science fair next week! And I get science kits in the mail and do them at home with my own children, who are the future, right? So I’m doing my part?
It isn’t for me to say what part each of us should play in this fight (and make no mistake – it’s a daily battle). But it is imperative to recognize the difference between marching and chanting for a few hours, or judging a science fair once a year, and choosing a challenging career dedicated to a cause. There is a difference between serving food at a shelter on Thanksgiving, and working every day with the chronically homeless.
Like many teachers, I pour my heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into teaching. I teach in the same halls a young Barry Obama once walked down. There are endless opportunities and possibilities for my students’ futures. I can only hope I influence them positively as a teacher and role model. I’m not saying every scientist reading this should quit their research career to teach K-12 full time; we need you to keep doing good science. Frankly, the world depends on it. But if you care so passionately about the cause, and the importance of our governmental officials and voters understanding and valuing science, think long and hard about my story. If you talk the talk, do you truly walk the walk?
13,407 steps in a day. Sometimes less, often times more. Every step around the school, my classroom, and toward my students is my march. It’s a long march, and I’ll do it again tomorrow. And the next day, and the next. There aren’t witty slogans. It doesn’t end when the sun goes down and all the poster board gets stored in a closet.
Do not be content, and do not stop when the march is over. This fight is not just the fight of a generation, but of a planet. And the battle needs every single one of us.