PNAS: Nicole Leuke, Science Teacher

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Nicole Leuke, a science teacher in Alberta.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I am a High School Science and math teacher. I teach primarily physics and general sciences (grades 10,11,12). I have been teaching for approximately 3 years.

2) What is your science background?

I hold a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Physics, and a Bachelor of Secondary Education with specialization in physics and math. Both of my degrees are from the University of Alberta in Edmonton Canada.

3) What led you to this job?

I had always like teaching, but didn’t think the university degree in education would be enough of a challenge for me. I was also priveleged to have a phenomenal high school physics teacher and through his inspiration I decided to pursue a physics degree. My intention at that time was to eventually go on to graduate studies and hopefully teach and research at a university somewhere. When I got through my third year in physics I began to realize that the academic world wasn’t quite what I thought it was and began to have second thoughts about grad school. Between my third and fourth year of undergrad I had the opportunity to work on some material development for our province high school courses and to teach in an informal setting. I loved it! I then decided to finish my physics degree and then complete and education after degree. That’s what I did and I haven’t regretted my decision once.

4) What’s your work environment like?

I have my own classroom. Unfortunately in our current school setup I don’t have any windows (my only real complaint). To a teacher having your own classroom is a fantastic thing because you don’t have to move around each period and you can really make it your own.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

My workday starts at about 8:45, our school schedule consists of 4 80 minute periods. I usually spend the first part of my classes lecturing with the students having the remainder of the class period to work on homework, or small laboratory activities. I try to have larger formal laboratory activities planned on a regular basis and these can usually take up a whole class period. Of course teachers have other responsibilities as well. I have weekly lunch time supervisions, and I also have to attend meetings for the several committees that I’m involved with. (Yearbook, and Grad Committee). Of course there’s also the massive amount of prep time I have to complete, and marking. Once you’ve taught a course once the prep time does decrease, but the first time through is usually the most difficult. Unlike most professions teachers put in a lot of extra time we don’t get paid for (sports and other extracurriculars). We do get the summers off (in most places), but we make up for it throughout the year believe me. I find a science teacher, however, that my marking load is not nearly as daunting as an english or social teacher’s.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

I find my science background extremely helpful as I usually have a more detailed and complete understanding of the concepts I’m teaching. I find I also know (having seen it first hand) where a lot of the more basic ideas will lead students in future courses. In addition, I am also able to make more connections to where students might use what they’ve learned in every day life. Probably the biggest assest is the expanded knowledge base I have to draw from. If students want to know more, or they are curious about certain things I find I can better explain these concepts to them and perhaps challenge them more than I could otherwise.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

Teaching qualifications/requirements vary greatly from province to province, state to state, and country to country so one would need to make sure they understand what is requried of them. Most only require a teaching degree to become a teacher, and additional degree like I have isn’t necessary, but it’s a great idea. I know the University of Alberta offers not just after degrees (for those who already hold one degree in their field), but five year combined degrees as well. This shortens the time you’re in university, but you get all the benefits as well. The best thing I can offer is to do your research.

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

Because of my science background I think I’ve come to naturally question things around me. I look at the world through an amazing lense that allows me to better understand and appreciate things.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Research your options. Keep in mind you’re not limited to the academic world. In addition you may be required to move in order to find work in your chosen field. If I had decided to stay in the academic world I would have likely had to move to eastern Canada, something I was not prepared to do.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

I have 6 years of university which means that I make about $5-6000 dollars more than a teacher with a four year degree and the same years of experience. Often you hear teachers complain about their poor salaries, which is all to often true. Fortunately for me I work for one of the better paying school boards, but in Alberta we don’t do as bad as many claim. My husband is a graduate student, so I am more or less the only wage earner right now and with just my salary (an no children) we live a fairly comfortable lifestyle.