ant to know a dirty little secret? (I ask this question of every new patient I get in the office between the ages of 11 and 14) Before I was a dentist I was a middle school teacher. “Really” they say, eyebrows raised.
“Yep. 6th, 7th and 8th grade science. So tell me, what sort of stuff are you doing in science in school right now?”
The dumb kids always say “Uhh… I don’t know”. The smart kids always have an answer,
“Well, yesterday we were reading about cell division… I think it’s called mitosis.”
“Oh cool!” I say as I look over their Xrays to see if they even know what floss looks like. “So tell me, what’s the difference between prophase, metaphase, annaphase and telophase?”
At this point their eyes go wide as if to say “Oh crap! I wasn’t expecting to be quizzed on science when I came in here.” Needless to say I don’t let ’em off the hook until they at least *try* to answer the question. Yeah, I was that kind of science teacher.
I make no effort to hide the fact that if I won the lottery tomorrow I would sell my practice in a heartbeat and spend the rest of my days teaching middle school science. Other than being a dad, that is what I was put on this planet to do. Why then, you might ask, am I doing crowns and fillings instead of teaching class? I’ll answer that one later.
Last Friday was my day off. (I mean really, what self-respecting dentist works on Friday?) Every other Friday I do the parent-volunteer thing in Episode IV’s classroom… and every other every other Friday, her teacher lets me teach science.
I’ve been teaching science in my daughter’s classroom since her kindergarten teacher found out I used to do it for a living. Generally the teachers are just so grateful to have someone (a “real” scientist) teach science, they’re happy to just turn me loose and give me the kids for an hour. UnDorkMommy is happy to point out that they don’t have to twist my arm too much. I usually work up a fun little powerpoint, get out my laser pointer and put on my white lab coat. It’s become such a regular thing that when the kids see me on campus on a non-Friday, they ask me with excitement “Are we doing science today?!”
We’ve done everything from disecting owl pellets, to lessons on camoflauge, to oral healthcare, to the bones in the body, to weather, to the planets in the solar system. When I came in a month ago we learned about states of matter and I brought in a block of dry-ice and made HUGE dry-ice bubbles with a store bought bubble set that the kids got to pop in spectacular dramatic fassion. Then, we went outside and explored solids/liquids/gasses by doing all sorts of craziness with mentos and diet cola. (if you don’t know what happens with mentos and diet cola, do a YouTube search and prepare to lose the next 1/2 hour watching awesome science) By the end of the lesson I had 30 1st graders out on the playground, drenched in diet cola, chanting “SCIENCE!! SCIENCE!! SCIENCE!! SCIENCE!!”
This past Friday the topic was “polymers”.
Now before you roll your eyes and think “Polymers? 1st graders? Really?” I must say that as a committed science teacher I firmly believe there is no scientific concept too complicated for any mind to absorb. It’s simply a matter of the teacher breaking it down appropriately into bits and pieces that are digestable for the intended audience. Science is all about understanding. Teaching is all about communicating. Not enough scientists are teachers (and far too many who aren’t have classes to teach). But just in case you’re getting lost in the scientific weeds, let me put it another (less scientific) way:
This past Friday the topic was “GAK!!”
Really, making gak is as simple as linking polyvinyl alcohol monomer (Elmer’s glue) with aqueous boron (“borax” laundry detergent). That, and a little food coloring, makes some pretty awesome slime.
For those of you who want to try it at home, don’t even bother getting the Borax. Just mix in a little liquid Tide with the Elmer’s glue. It’s easier, and the result is fluffier, slimier slime.
Needless to say I spent a little time before the experiment teaching the kids what “mono” in “monomer” ment, and what “poly” in “polymer” ment. Then I drew a few polyvynyl alcohol molecules on the whiteboard and showed them how the boron linked them all together, and they were with me the entire way. Secretly I wished the Principal had walked in at that very moment to see a room full of 1st graders doing very real organic chemistry.
For two years now Episode V has watched me go off to his big sister’s classroom to teach science, and he’s heard all her classmates spill out into the playground at the end of the day talking about how exciting it was. This week, during the buildup to the gak experiment, the frusteration in his affect was palpable. He wanted to be part of the scientific awesomeness, but sadly I wasn’t going to his pre-school. This was a 1st grade lesson. “I wis I was seven” he said as I practiced the experiment the night before. “Then I could be in 1st grade and do cool science too.” What he didn’t know was that this time, special arrangements were made.
The next morning, when I threw on my white lab coat and got all my supplies under my arm I walked to the front door to head over to the school and said to Episode V “What’s the matter, buddy? Why aren’t you in your clothes?” He just looked at me, confused. “Go get your clothes on, quick! You’re coming with me today. You’re going to do science with me and your sister in her class today!”
Eyes wide with disbelief, he dashed off to his room to throw on his clothes. He’s never dressed himself so quickly and as a reward, for two glorious hours he got to be a real, live, 4-year-old first grader in his big sister’s class doing real science with his daddy.
If I love teaching so much, why am I a dentist? It certainly isn’t my dream job, but I definitely don’t hate it. Heck, I may even enjoy what I do. But why do I do it? I do it because it enables a dream of mine that is much more important.
When I was a young man I knew that whatever career path I took, I wanted to be a dad. And I knew that in order to be the sort of dad I wanted to be, I needed to have a job that, if at all humanly possible, gave my wife the option to stay home with the kids (if she wanted) and, if at all humanly possible, gave me the latitude to video tape ballet recitals, coach little league, and volunteer in the classroom.
And so here I am a dentist, because among other things, being a dentist means I have a little extra time to give my family.
And the old saying is just as true as it is corny:
“Children spell love ‘T. I. M. E.'”