A teacher’s dilemma.

Fall quarter is approaching and once again I am feeling the tension mounting. What persona will I project to a classroom filled with fresh young minds? I am scientist and teacher. Part of my role is to model scientific thinking, project my own identity as a biologist for the students to see. Another, my role as teacher, is to guide students as they develop their own sense of where they fit in the world of biology.

What does it mean to be a scientist? For many of my students, it means being a fount of knowledge about varied and esoteric topics. They enter my class ready to produce thousands of flash cards to cram scientific jargon into their minds. They are not alone in these assumptions. When I introduce myself as a biologist, I’m routinely asked for my opinion about medical procedures or expected to identify the latin name of some plant or animal. Facts, hard and fast, are assumed to be my forte.

But the truth is, science does not have all the answers. It simply provides the framework to ask questions. So that incrementally, iteratively, collaboratively we come to better understand our world, ourselves, and the mysteries that remain unexplored.

As a scientist, facts are fluid to me. They are the underpinning of my experiments but only real until new data exposes their flaws. There are a few hard and fast rules in science, we call them laws. The joy of the scientist is in the space between those laws and the void where outcomes are uncertain. With each experiment, I throw a fishing line into that void. My heart races at the thought of what I might see as I reel the line back in bringing what was previously in darkness up into the light. There are no failed experiments, only more questions and improved casts into the unknown.

As a teacher, I realize that facts are the life rafts that students hang on to as they face the void. My students are afraid of the unknown. Their fear of failure quenches their curiosity. They hesitate to cast their fishing lines until they have more solid footing before the precipice. They expect me to gather more facts for them. They’ll learn to fish later. Instead, I push them to probe the unknown and provide them with strategies to discover new information on their own, so that they build their own solid foundation. The allure of satisfying their expectations is great. It would be so easy. And yet, if I am to teach with authenticity, I cannot give in to that temptation. Instead, I must answer their questions with more questions, hold their hand as they cast their own line, and promote their reflection on the process that I hope they’ll engage in for the rest of their lives.

Their disappointment at my lack of answers may manifest itself as anger “why doesn’t she teach?” or derision “she doesn’t know what she’s talking about?” And still, I cannot give in. I have shaken their core beliefs about science and their role within it. They need time to process.

Throughout the quarter, I will need to remind them that my role as their teacher is to inspire curiosity, provide a framework to communicate with others about science, and support them as they develop their own questions. Only then can I claim that I have promoted their development as scientists, questioners of the world.

Over time, some will come to understand why I approach my courses with this philosophy and will appreciate their own growth as they struggle with these big goals. The ones I hang on to, that keep me going through the emotional turmoil, are the ones who in the small, safe incubator that is my classroom all the sudden have the opportunity to shine. The ones for whom memorization has always been a struggle but whose creativity takes my breath away. The ones who have questioned whether they belong in the community of scientists because they “like being around other people.” The ones who don’t see themselves in the faces and actions of scientists so often portrayed to the world.

So Fall quarter here I come, ready to do battle. For as long as I teach with authenticity true to both my scientific and teaching identities, I can hold my head up proudly at the end of the day and know that at the very least, I have dared to dream big for my students even if they aren’t all ready to dream for themselves.