Tuesday, January 18, 2011

No woman no cry: my teaching journey

I was much impressed by Michelle's blog posting about the personal events that brought a change to her teaching. At the end, she encourages educators to share their journey and experiences. Her post speaks strongly to me. And if there is one evidence of the power of online communities and learning networks is the fact that I feel much closer to Michelle and others out there (whom I only know through online connections such as Twitter), than to many people I have personally met. 
When I look back to my own journey, I realize that it was my thirst for communication and personal interaction that brought me to teaching. I had the usual academic career path- a bit slower and longer than usual because I had to jump through a couple of countries before I started my postdoc at a renowned institution. But I was a researcher and I knew my gig. I worked at the bench, ran my gels, and cultured the cells. I could sit for hours at the microscope searching for the perfectly stained cells. I walked the walk and talked the talk. I enjoyed it. Besides, that was what I was supposed to do. 
Postdoc time was the first time when I was not teaching. I had to teach almost since I finished college- informally first: explain the new tech or the summer student what to do. Then more formally: there were courses to organize, students to supervise, college lectures. At some point I HAD to teach- my Ph.D. program required 20% teaching load. How I managed to do that in Swedish is still a bit mind-boggling to me. But there were always students in my life until I started my postdoc.
I missed them so much. Yes, teaching was time-consuming and sometimes tiresome, and students could be annoying and demanding. But they asked the most interesting questions, they kept me updated and open-minded; and then there were those golden a-ha moments for which we educators live.
I felt lonely in the lab. Pure research is a solitary work, in spite of being surrounded by other people. I looked for teaching opportunities, and soon I had classes in the evenings. I was energized. I met with people I could have never met before in my elite research-postdoc science circle. I have my doubts if my research, supported by grants and published, has actually changed anybody's life. Teaching, I knew I touched people's lives and sometimes even made a difference. 
As my fellowship came to an end, I applied for jobs and got one in the biotech industry. For 2 years, I worked in cancer drug research. I learned a lot- not so much about research, but  organization and protocol writing, quality control, and a more systematic approach to science. 
I still felt lonely. Work was intense and often stressful, and time management was critical. There was not much time to do anything else than work, except some short and usually superficial water-cooler conversation. Besides, I was not really sure that my work was saving anybody's life.
Once settled at work, I went back to evening teaching. Two or three times per week, I would leave work in a rush to get to class, arriving home after 10 pm. I saw less and less of my teenage son. The extra money was nice, but was it really worth?
Then one day, it dawned on me: I was happier and more energized  late afternoon stepping into the classroom than I was coming to work early in the morning. I felt useful and worthy. 
It took me months to make the decision to resign. I was not alone. I had other people's examples in front of me, who defied conventions and turned their back on the rat race in order to pursue their dreams. I saw them happier and more fulfilled than many others who were doing the "right thing."
This was almost 4 years ago. Since then, I have been happier professionally than ever. I am fortunate enough to teach different classes and be involved in many different projects. I have time to pursue other interests. I have more time to spend with my family. I have time to read all the science articles I never had the time to peruse before, and follow topics out of my specialty. 
My latest revelation has been, thanks to Michelle and others, the incredible potential of social media and online community building. For the past 3 months I have been exploring lots of new tools (getting almost burned in the process) in order to improve the learning experience for my students and me. If there is something that I enjoy in my classes is how much I learn from my students. And I am doing baby-steps sharing my journey...Twitter feeds...blog posts....all new uncharted territory but SO inspiring. 
(I spent quite a time thinking on an appropriate title. I wrote up several but deleted them. My playlist then just started to play Bob- and I had my right title. It has been a tough journey sometimes. But it has been a joyful one: "Everything 's gonna be alright, everything 's gonna be alright")

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