THEY'RE NOT CELEBRITIES. THEY WALK PAST YOU ON THE STREET, BRING YOU YOUR FOOD AT A RESTAURANT, AND LIVE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD. THEY'RE EVERYDAY PEOPLE. JUST LIKE YOU.
JANUARY 2005: MIKE STRUHARIK
WE ALL KNOW WHAT ITíS LIKE TO BE A STUDENT, AND SOME OF US KNOW WHAT ITíS LIKE TO BE A TEACHER. BUT WHAT ABOUT BEING SOMEONE WHO, IN THE SPAN OF A YEAR, WENT FROM ONE TO THE OTHER? MEET MIKE STRUHARIK: COLLEGE-TRAINED SCIENTIST, PUBLICLY-EMPLOYED HIGH SCHOOL CHEMISTRY TEACHER. VINNIE BAGGADONUTS STOLE 20 MINUTES OF MR. STRUHARIKíS DAY TO TALK ABOUT BEING A FRESH NEW EDUCATOR, AND TO USE HIS BIOLOGICAL EXPERTISE TO GET TO THE LIP OF A LONG-STANDING MATTER.
Vinnie Baggadonuts: Okay. First thing I want to know is when did you graduate college?
Mike Struharik: June of 2003, and that was after five years as an undergraduate.
VB: And how long did it take before you found a job doing what you do now?
MS: The whole teaching thing actually started with me as a sub in Columbus, Ohio. I applied for that toward the end of summer, but it picked up in November. There's just so much red tape to go through-- getting all your fingerprinting, and having the paperwork processed here and there.
MS: So, out of college, I was unemployed there for a while. I graduated in June and started subbing in November, and did a year of that in Columbus. Actually, I moved out to where I'm living now [Washington, D.C.] to look for jobs in research, because I got my degree in biology. But there was nothing out there. There was this whole hiring freeze. I don't know what was going on. All these people were getting laid off, and the market became flooded with all these overqualified science people. Here I am with a science degree, and I didn't know what to do.
MS: I was looking at internships to get more experience when the opportunity to teach high school chemistry just fell into my lap. And, you know, I picked it up.
VB: You'd think there would be a constant need for people doing research, what with us not really knowing a lot of the answers and all.
MS: Well, it all depends on what lab is where, and who runs it. Every lab is run by somebody, and they have to get money for it. It's more a question of funding than anything else. And right now, the personnel kind of outweighs the funding.
VB: So, when you took the teaching job, it had been about a year since you'd graduated.
MS: Yeah. It was a year in the summer. And it was pretty frantic, because they actually hired me on really short notice. The guy who was supposed to take that position ended up backing out about a week before school started. They were in a pretty tight spot.
VB: So, could you make lavish demands like, "I'll need a Rolls-Royce to pick me up every day," and things like that?
MS: (laughs) No. I thought I was going to go in there as a sub, honestly. I kept thinking I would wind up doing one term until they found somebody with an education degree, because I didn't take any of that education stuff in school. I took social psychology and all that stuff, but the curriculum I specialized in was science, not education. Though I'm learning more and more that being a science teacher is not about being a scientist. It's about being an educator.
VB: Was it a difficult thing to start teaching, as opposed to doing what you went to school to do?
MS: Well, being a good instructor is difficult. You can explain something to one person and have it make sense. If you have an understanding of some concept in your own mind, you can explain it to somebody. But the challenge is holding everybody's attention-- because you have a room full of 30 kids-- and have them follow the same train of thought. Or they have to at least be willing to.
MS: And the real challenge is having a command of their attention and keeping things interesting, because some of the material is really dry. There's no denying that, but they have to learn it.
VB: Has it gotten any easier?
MS: Yeah, definitely. At first I'd get up early and go to work-- school starts at about 7:30 AM-- and I'd be there until six or seven at night, writing and shuffling papers. Then I'd come home, and I'd still be working on school stuff until nine o'clock or so. I'd have to cut myself off and make time to get sleep. I've gotten to the point now where I can cut myself off earlier and earlier. It's not because I'm slacking. You just find ways to work more efficiently. You have to. Otherwise, you'll work yourself to death.
VB: So, with making the transition from student being taught, to teacher teaching students, in such a short time, was it easier to notice the difference, or at least appreciate what you maybe never appreciated before?
MS: You know, I knew teachers had a pretty tough job, but I never really knew how much planning actually went into it. Still today, I feel like my workday hasn't begun until after the final bell has rung and all the kids have left the building. Then I have to get all my materials together and figure things out and write things out, planning how I'm going to teach this certain point or concept or whatever.
VB: Do you think it's harder to be an instructor than a student?
MS: Absolutely. You have more responsibilities. You put more time into this stuff. I'm not saying being a student is easy at all, because being a student, there's this knowledge you're supposed to obtain and you do it at your own will. When you're a teacher, you already know the stuff, but you have to find ways of explaining it to not one or two people, but a group of people. And within that group, you'll have kids who have different ways of understanding things. You might have to re-explain the same thing four or five times, in four or five different ways, for everybody to get it. If you just explain it the way that you understand it, maybe a fifth of the kids in the room will get it, and the rest of the kids will get frustrated. And when the kids get frustrated, then you start having your behavior problems and the whole thing can blow up in your face.
VB: Would you have considered yourself as having been a decent student, or a well-behaved student?
MS: Well-behaved, yeah, because really, the whole behavior thing is not a question of intelligence at all. It's attitude and respect. I've never disrespected my teachers... to their face, anyway. People say things behind teachers' backs all the time. I understand that.
MS: But you don't stand up and start cussing out a teacher. I've had kids cut my class and go to an administrator's office and just sit there and bitch and complain about what a bad teacher I am, when they're the ones that never do anything in my class, you know?
MS: I've never tried to do anything like that. I would certainly slack off in classes, but I understood that if you don't put the work in, you don't get the grade. That's how it works. And there are some kids who don't get that. I mean, they know that's how the system works, but they want to find ways around it, where they don't do any work, and complain enough until they get their grade back. They're in it for the points. They're not in it for the knowledge.
MS: What's unfortunate is a lot of parents support that kind of behavior, whether the parents realize it or not. They don't want to see their kids get bad grades, but at the same time, they have a completely different idea... I mean, every teenager's parents are like this. They think their kid is a lot more well-behaved than they actually are.
VB: Was seeing this more discouraging, in a sense, because you didn't come from an education background, where you might have been prepared for this?
MS: Honestly, I think I'm really lucky. I think there are a lot of people who become educators for the right reasons, and they have a lot of ideals they want to live out. They take a lot of classes and spend a lot of time going to graduate school, doing student teaching, and all that stuff. Then they get to the classroom and see the reality of it, and they don't like it. They've built themselves up to this point, though, and now they have to carry through with it. I think I'm fortunate because I got to jump right in at the beginning with a teacher's career, you know? I never did any student teaching or anything like that. I studied science. I never had to pay for graduate school. But I also think that had I taken education courses and done student teaching and stuff like that, I might have a better idea how to do this job and work more efficiently.
MS: I've had to learn everything on my feet over these last few months.
VB: Have you taken into consideration any of the things your favorite teachers would do, when you were a student, to make you more interested in learning?
MS: Yeah, I will think back to my high school and college days. I actually hated my chemistry teacher, oddly enough.
MS: But my biology teacher was the guy that really got me into science, whether he realizes it or not. And he had an awful class, man, the class that I was in. It was one of those general level classes. I felt bad for the guy, because he spent a lot of time dealing with behavior problems instead of actually instructing. But when he did instruct, he'd focus on the kids who actually cared, and that's something I try and do in my classes. You sort out the kids who actually care, and invest your time in them. The kids who give you problems, you just sort of run them through the system.
VB: Have your opinions of the education system changed at all since you've become a teacher?
MS: Yeah. I am of a biased opinion here, but I do think there are some unreasonable expectations being placed on some teachers, and students, as well. Like, you'll have people who are great creative thinkers, and on the other side of the spectrum, you have people who are really logical. What happens is, you're taking kids who are specialized in the creative side of the spectrum, and trying to make them do something they just aren't ready or willing to do. It's just expected that they're gonna be able to do it because they've passed all the prerequisite classes. But the reality is that in those classes they just scraped by without learning much, and they really are not ready. In chemistry, I get some kids who just cannot do what they need to. It's not their thing, they aren't ready, and they shouldn't be in the class. But they're there to fulfill a graduation requirement, and they want to be able to scrape by just like in their other classes. I also think teachers are held much more accountable now if a kid is failing a class. A lot of the older people I talk to who haven't been in a high school in a long time, they say, "Big deal. They flunk." But that's not how it is, now. As a teacher, you have to provide all this evidence to show all the things you've done to try and help this kid. There's paperwork to file, notes to send home, meetings to go to, you deal with the parents and the administration, register the kid in a database. You have a lot of kids, and you really don't have time to teach them all the things they're not interested in learning anyway, you know?
MS: It's not just a science thing, either. When I was studying science at Ohio State, I met a freshman who was already getting into graduate-level biochemistry and stuff like that, but was scared she would fail English 101 because she couldn't write. It goes both ways, you know? You get your logical people who can't be creative, and you get creative people who can't easily learn things that are logical or scientific.
VB: What would make this work better for the students and the teachers?
MS: More directed learning. I don't know. I don't really have any immediate solutions to it. I do think that it needs to be realized that you can't make a jack-of-all-trades out of everybody.
VB: Do you think this standard exists to create jacks-of-all-trades, or does it exist to prove to the world that our kids aren't stupid?
MS: Well, I think it exists to try and have a more educated workforce. That's what you hear in politics, lately. But not everybody's fit to be educated. And as far as wanting to prove our kids aren't stupid, I don't think American kids are stupid at all. When you hear these statistics about the U.S. being ranked 14th and 15th in the world in this or that, but then you also hear that those statistics are comparing us to kids that are the cream of the crop in private schools in other countries where not everyone goes to school. Whereas, here in America, everyone has to go to school.
VB: Do you think that discourages American kids at all?
MS: Oh, yeah. A lot of them don't want to be in school at all. But I think deep down, they're just insecure about their academic capabilities, and that's a real hard thing for a teacher to fight.
VB: Have you ever tried to address it directly with a student?
MS: Yeah. You get mixed results. In a classroom setting, with their peers surrounding them, they'll shut you out. But one-on-one, you can maybe make a difference in the way a kid looks at themselves or their education. And I think that's the best thing about being a teacher.
VB: Do you think teaching is something you'll stick with, or will you pursue research?
MS: We'll see. I don't think I want to do general high school science for too long. I definitely want to develop my own scientific interests and abilities. I do like educating, but if I stayed only with that, I wouldn't be taking in any new cool stuff about science.
VB: Do you think that being an educator will help you at all if you go back into research?
MS: As far as people skills go, definitely. I think being a teacher will help anybody with person-to-person skills, because that's all your day is.
VB: So, your roots are in research-- a field that doesn't have enough funding to allow you to currently be active in it. You're also currently in education, which doesn't really get a lot of funding, either.
VB: You're basically involved in two fields that get next to no money whatsoever.
MS: More or less.
VB: How do you feel about that?
VB: It's interesting to me that you went to school for one thing that, because there isn't enough funding, you can't participate in it. So you wind up getting a job in something that gets so little funding that you end up with an overcrowded classroom and unrealistic expectations.
MS: Man, I don't like this question.
MS: Well, I think that there's a lot of money in research, but it's distributed kind of funny. The money goes wherever people have their interests. And the interests aren't in the pure knowledge part of the field. Most of the research dollars have to be applied toward something. Nobody throws down money just to find something out. They want to find a cure for something, you know? There's a lot of merit in the work that's going on to solve problems like that.
VB: If you were to get back into research, what kind of stuff are you interested in?
MS: What I really liked, and where I left off in my studies, was neuroscience and behavior. In the psychology classes I took, I studied it on a cellular level-- how the nervous system works and how these cells build these channels with the nervous system. But I also liked studying the other side of that. I liked studying how in different animals they have these different means of perception and interpreting information. Like sensory information, and their survival. You know, like bats and bio-sonar, or birds and birdsongs. There was a lab on campus where I worked, and there was a study on how those songs are learned; how a bird's song will develop over a certain span of time, and how their brains facilitate that and how it's adapted to it. A pretty far cry from high school chemistry.
VB: So, you dealt with animals.
MS: I studied them, yeah, but I didn't get to do much hands-on research. The lab I worked at actually operated sound equipment, because they had an archive of animal noises.
VB: Any dog noises?
MS: (laughs) Dog noises? Uh, probably somewhere in there.
VB: Like, any dogs using lips, perhaps?
MS: No, I don't believe dogs have lips, as a matter of fact.
VB: So, in your expert opinion, then, and this is an expert opinion--
MS: (sarcastically) Oh, yeah, man. I'm an expert on dogs.
VB: (whispering) No! Shut up, man. You have to say you are. It adds credibility to the cause!
MS: Oh! Alright. Sure, sure.
VB: So, what you're saying is, dogs don't have lips?
MS: Some of them have jowls, perhaps, but I wouldn't say any of them necessarily have lips, because lips are things you use to manipulate words and formulate your speech. Dogs just don't do that.
VB: Oh, man. This is great.
MS: If they had lips, they'd be able to talk, and they don't.
VB: And when they howl, they don't use their lips, right?
MS: They sure don't.
VB: This is the best interview ever.
MS: But then again, I could be mistaken. One thing I've found, Vinnie, is that for every expert, there's another scientist who disagrees.
VB: Yeah, I know. That's the problem. Whatever.