Rabi laughs when I ask the question. “How I became a teacher?” Rabi always knew she wanted to be a scientist, but it wasn’t until she borrowed her college roommate’s education textbooks and read them cover-to-cover that she realized she wanted to become an educator. After getting her Bachelor’s Degree in Astronomy and Cognitive Science from Swarthmore College, she used the resources of the New York City Teaching Fellows Program to earn her Master’s degree in Science Education from Pace University and officially become an educator. She currently holds a New York State Permanent Certificate to teach Earth Science and General Science in secondary schools (grades 7 – 12).
“I love everything about being in a classroom with a bunch of kids,” she says. “It’s kind of like being on stage — you have a plan, and you’re a performer — but it’s also intimate and spontaneous. I love the process of getting to know my students, coming to admire and appreciate them, and watching them start to embrace science as something enjoyable, useful, and even empowering. It’s the most flat-out fun I’ve ever had, on a day-to-day basis, at any job ever in my life.”
But it’s not just the classroom experience that Rabi loves. “I also love a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into education,” she gushes. “Designing a curriculum and a set of good assessments is one of my favorite parts. I like mapping everything out and drawing the connections between the different things we are doing, testing out possible new experiments or design projects, and doing background reading to get a better sense of the theory underlying my practice.”
She knew she’d chosen the right career as a scientist the first time one of her students made a pun about convection. “When the rest of the class started laughing, I was sure there was no other way I’d rather be doing science.” But she finds evidence of her success every day in the classroom every time she grades her students’ work. “I know grading is often portrayed as an onerous part of teaching, but I find it really rewarding. Done right, assessment makes it clear how the students have taken what they’re learning and integrated it into their understanding of the world at large. Seeing that is great. It happens spontaneously, too, of course. One time I was on the F train (a subway line in NYC that is elevated through most of Brooklyn) with some of my students, and as we approached the spot where the land starts to slope up and the train points its nose down to head into a tunnel, one of them turned from looking out the window and said, ‘Hey, that hill is from where the glacier melted, right?’ Then we spent the underground part of our ride talking about how much farther under we’d be if the ice were still up there.”
Rabi made the decision recently to return to school and earn her PhD. “I am on an unpaid leave of absence from my position as a high school earth science teacher. I absolutely love teaching, but I needed to understand more about why and how to improve science education on a scale beyond my own classroom. I do intend to go back to teaching soon, though,” She says assuredly. “Right now I’m a full-time doctoral student, so I take three or four classes each semester, and I also work part-time doing research at Teachers College. The project I’m working on now is a new science and nutrition curriculum that is being used in middle schools around the city. I work with a number of different teachers to help them implement the curriculum, and to evaluate how it’s being used in the classroom. I work with eight to ten classes at a time, and visit each class a few times a week. While I’m there, I sometimes guest-teach or team-teach a lesson, or I observe the lesson and take field notes. I meet with each teacher to debrief and help plan pacing or modifications for upcoming lessons. I also arrange and run field trips for the students, as well as professional development for the teachers learning to use the curriculum.”
When asked what advice she’d give to someone else planning to become an educator, she says, “Studying education can be very different from practicing education. I recommend doing both! But it helps to be able to devote yourself to one at a time for at least a little while. I’m getting so much more out of being a student now than I did when I was teaching and getting my master’s degree at the same time. Of course, my experience as a teacher makes all my research and coursework much more meaningful to me now, on both an intellectual and an emotional level.”
Rabi Whitaker is looking forward to returning to teaching soon. “On a more philosophical level, science education as a civil right is important to me, so I like having the support and time to incorporate that into my work. Taking the time now to earn my doctorate degree in a more academic setting—although it’s weird that there is such a thing as a more academic setting than a high school—will allow me to do just that.”