Confessions of a Genetics TA

The problem of getting paid is an inescapable part of graduate school, sort of like a rite of passage into the world of academia. However, since the cash flow towards scientific research has been steadily squeezed to a slow drip, many grad students look outside of the lab for funding. As a result, the majority of PhD students at Northeastern teach for their bread and butter, myself included. I teach two genetics labs per semester as a supplement to a lecture course headed by a professor, a typical teaching assistant (TA) award. The experience has been eye-opening to say the least and has really made me think about the role of educators in this country.

Like any good Netflix documentary junkie, I’ve seen Waiting for Superman. I’ve also heard the statistics regarding the abysmal academic performance of American students compared to their international peers. Indeed, a study published by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance ranks U.S. students 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading.

Rate of Education Improvement in 49 Countries from 1995 to 2009
Rate of Education Improvement in 49 Countries from 1995 to 2009

While always a downer, information regarding this country’s failing school system never truly disturbed me. In college, I thought my outrage was better spent on more important environmental injustices like the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the dolphin slaughter in Japan. In my defense, coming from an upper middle class DC suburb, I simply couldn’t relate to the cycle of hopelessness that has crept into so many school districts. My own public school education was exemplary; my high school routinely ranks within the 100 best high schools in the country.

It wasn’t until graduate school, when I was required to teach, that I began to care about primary/secondary education in this country. Now, I realize that barely a year’s worth of teaching experience doesn’t lend much credibility to my opinions. In addition, I know next to nothing about how teachers at lower schools operate. However, this blog is supposed to be a receptacle for our thoughts and I hope you readers will grant me the liberty to make the following assertions.

Things I have learned about teaching: It is hard. Really hard.

I don’t pretend to call myself a teacher. I’m more like a supervisor (or a specialized babysitter) whose main job is to prevent the students from injuring themselves with bunsen burners. Still, I am responsible for imparting some knowledge to approximately 40 college sophomores/juniors every week. It is an intro genetics lab, I know the subject matter like the back of my hand. However, knowing and teaching are two VERY different beasts. I can stand in front of my class and chat about population genetics and dihybrid crosses until I’m blue in the face, but my students usually appear glassy-eyed and bored.

Kind of like this. Except they never start dancing. There's no dancing in genetics lab.
Kind of like this. Except they never start dancing. There’s no dancing in genetics lab.

A great teacher inspires young people; he or she has a certain je ne sais quoi that students respond to. Access to this intangible quality can make or break impressionable minds. I’ve been lucky enough to have several such mentors throughout my early education. In fact, there was one class and one teacher in high school that inspired me to pursue genetics in college. I know that sounds insipid but it’s true. Our early academic experiences are hugely influential, and by and large are shaped by individual teachers.

Earlier this month, I drove out to Callahan State Park in Framingham with several grad student cohorts to view the Comet Pan-STARRS. We had to take the Mass Pike during rush hour which should demonstrate our dedication to natural phenomena. In any case, when we got to the park, we found ourselves in the company of two local high school teachers and their science classes. Each of the teachers had a very impressive telescope, the sort of machine that would take a very sizable chunk out of a teacher’s salary. What’s more, the duo not only lent the vast majority of comet-viewing time to their students but they also welcomed me and my friends to use their telescopes for as long as we wanted.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about that evening – aside from getting to see a giant ball of rock, dust, and ice hurtling through space 100 million miles away – was the teachers’ passion for astronomy. As a grad student in the natural sciences, driving an hour at the end of a long day to see a comet is what I live for. However, these teachers managed to get 30 or so 16-year-olds to visit a cold dark field in the middle of nowhere just to look at what is essentially a fuzzy white blob.

In case you were wondering, this is Comet Pan-Starrs. Thanks to Boston light pollution, it was not visible to the naked eye in Framingham.
In case you were wondering, this is Comet Pan-STARRS. Thanks to Boston light pollution, it was not visible to the naked eye in Framingham.

My point is this: teachers deserve a huge amount of respect and good teachers should be treated like royalty. The aforementioned intangible quality of great teachers, like the star-gazing pair in Framingham, is being squashed by politics. We need to provide teachers with better salaries, more resources, and greater independence if we plan to catch up to those 24 counties that are beating our students at math. Ultimately, neither the government (federal or state) nor the school districts can pull our students out of this unacceptable slump. Empower the teachers and they will turn the nation around. This is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned as a TA as my second semester of teaching draws to a close. I still care deeply about oil spills and dolphin’s rights but my eyes have been opened and I’m ready to take up the mantle for teachers and education reform as well.


2 thoughts on “Confessions of a Genetics TA

  1. Great post! I agree 100%. While I always loved nature, it was my high school biology teaching that inspired my decision to pursue a career in science. Teachers really do make all the difference, and their expertise in inspiring students to pursue careers in science is critical now as we are constantly losing great minds to non-STEM careers, due to the misguided conclusions that science and math are “hard” and “boring”.

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