Interview with a ...
Learn more about this occupation in the Occupational Outlook Handbook.
What do you do?
I’m a chemistry teacher at a public high school in suburban Philadelphia. I teach all levels of chemistry, from beginning to advanced.
I have 4 class periods every day. Once a week, the students get a double period, which gives us time to do chemistry labs.
What do you enjoy about teaching high school chemistry?
Chemistry is a science that focuses on matter. There’s an abstract component to it, because a lot is based on atoms that are too tiny to see, but it’s a very hands-on subject as well.
For example, you can draw conclusions about molecules reacting based on changes in color or heat, but you can never actually see what’s happening at the molecular level. High school is the age when abstract thinking is developing, so it’s exciting for me to see students start to grasp these concepts.
How do your students use the periodic table of elements?
The periodic table is arguably the most important tool a chemist uses. In my classes, we refer to it constantly. I introduce it on the first day of class, and we continue to use it throughout the year.
I tell my students that the periodic table is like a smart phone. It holds so much information, but if you don’t spend time learning about it, you won’t know how it can work for you. There’s a bit of memorization involved, but after that, you’ll know about all the properties of elements within each group (vertical column on the periodic table).
My favorite thing about the periodic table is that Dmitri Mendeleev, who is credited with coming up with its layout, was building a puzzle with the limited information he had way back in 1869. He left holes in the table but predicted that certain elements would be discovered—and then they were.
In addition to classroom instruction, what other tasks do chemistry teachers have?
The lab component involves a lot of preparation, such as making solutions and setting up the equipment. There’s the priority of student safety to consider too.
We have to order chemicals and other supplies, and in all teaching there’s collaborating with colleagues, planning, and grading. We also do assessments and meet one-on-one with students to help those who need practice.
Tell me how you prepared for this career.
I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. I later went back and got a master’s degree in chemistry education, and during a sabbatical I got a master’s in professional studies in food science.
You also need to pass a background check to work with children, and you need to be certified. [All states require certification for teachers who work in public schools.]
What else does a chemistry teacher need to be successful?
For any teacher, it helps to have drive and creativity. For the chemistry part, you need to be able to simplify explanations without compromising accuracy. Chemistry is a complicated subject, and your class is often the first time students are hearing about it.
Did you always want to be a chemistry teacher?
From the earliest I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher like my dad. The chemistry piece came when I went to college and had to pick a major. My high school chemistry teacher was very influential, so I picked chemistry and stuck with it. I feel like it was the right choice.
Do you have advice for someone who wants to become a chemistry teacher?
It’s OK if, as a new teacher, you don’t know everything yet or don’t have all the answers. You’re still exuding positivity that students will benefit from, which veteran teachers don’t always have. There’s an enthusiasm in new teachers that can’t be replicated.
Being a teacher can be difficult and exhausting, and it’s a near-impossible job if your heart’s not in it.
What are some of the challenges?
We teachers are constantly competing for students’ attention against things like videogames and other technologies, and that’s hard.
Also, there are new initiatives for teachers to change what we’re doing, and keeping up with those changes can be overwhelming.
What do you like best about your job?
The students. I think teenagers are funny and resilient, and those are qualities that I’m drawn to.
And I love that you can do everything in chemistry: there’s math, there’s reading and writing, there’s conceptual understanding. I never get bored, and it keeps my students on their toes.
Elka Torpey, "Chemistry teacher," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 2019.