Saturday 21 January 2012

"Why Didn't You Become A Doctor?"

Students are curious creatures. They ask a lot of questions. Many of them are personal. I answer questions about why I don't have children, because I like to show them that it's possible to have a happy and complete life without having children (many of them say they didn't realise that not procreating was an option). I tell them what university is like, including the fact that I partied a lot and nearly failed at the end of my first year. Some things are out of bounds - I refuse to answer questions about sex or drugs.

For all that though, there is one question I hate receiving, and someone from every single class I teach asks me every single year. Sometimes twice. "Why didn't you become a doctor, miss?" I loathe it. It makes me feel utterly inadequate, and I feel quite hurt by it, though I know that isn't the intention. It seems to be quite common, though usually directed at nurses, according to some of the 120,000 hits for the phrase - I bet it makes them feel like shit too.

The truth is that it never figured in my plan. From a very early age it was dinosaurs that I obsessed over. I always wanted to be a palaeontologist. I had a variety of science-themed toys growing up, including a Fisher-Price doctor's kit, but also a Salter's chemistry set, an electronics kit and a microscope. Grandpa was a GP, and I loved his study, complete with a skeleton, sphygmomanometer, and loads of textbooks. His three children all went into the medical profession - my uncle became a consultant radiologist, my aunt a theatre sister, and my mother a radiographer. It was all very interesting, but it wasn't for me.

I could have become a PhD doctor rather than a medical doctor. I tried it twice. The first one didn't work out. The second time coincided with the worst personal ordeal of my life, the start of my teaching career and the beginning of my PGCE - something had to give and it was the PhD. It has been suggested more than once that I am not intellectually capable of postgraduate study, and that's probably true.

So having "failed in the real world", I am a lecturer in an FE college. Don't get me wrong - I think my job is amazing. I get to spend my days helping students to feel as enthusiastic and passionate about science as I am. I am, for some of them, the only adult who shows an obvious interest in them and their well-being. In retrospect, if I had done a PGCE immediately after graduation rather than seven years later, I could have saved myself a lot of heartache, stopped myself from getting so much into debt, and Paul and I would probably own a house by now. I am proud of my job - I'd do it until I drop dead. My parents are proud of me. My husband is proud of me.

But the thing that is implied by "Why didn't you become a doctor?" is that being a doctor is the ultimate career. It doesn't matter that I have the chance to provide the biological foundation for 30 years' worth of medical students - doctors are better than teachers. Teaching is taking a bit of a pounding at the moment by the government, the media and the general public. It seems it has a similar reputation among my students. They share the same thoughts as the lawyer in Taylor Mali's "What Teachers Make" - what's a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?

Most of these kids are from families who all want their children to become doctors or engineers. So they've just grown up with the view that if they're good at biology they become doctors, and if they're good at physics or maths they become engineers. Because I'm good at biology (hey, I'm the teacher!), then I should have become a doctor. Their question is asked innocently, but the implication is still there, that in some way my career choice is a consolation prize to becoming a doctor. I got into Cambridge University - I probably could have got into a medical school somewhere. If that had been what I wanted.

Students who want to have children are able to understand why some people may not want to have their own children. So why the lack of empathy for someone who genuinely never wanted to be a doctor? Why imply that I'm defective?

Monday 16 January 2012

Cutting Up Students - For Science!!

Though it isn't on the Edexcel specification, I like to teach my students the difference between a light microscope and an electron microscope (not always obvious for them...), and then the difference between scanning and transmission electron microscopes.

Light microscope, at the Science Museum, London, June 2010

So a light microscope is great because entire cells can be seen in colour, but of course we don't get to see details of organelles. The transmission electron microscope (TEM) is ace for this, but you only get one slice through a cell at any one time, so the image may seem rather abstract.

Even for apparently bright A-level students, that concept is rather complicated, so I like to use a more visceral example. It's good to pick the one student who's really been pissing you off all lesson, probably talking while you're talking or something. Bring them up to the front and get a 1m ruler. Hold it diagonally across their body from shoulder to waist (trust me, you do not want to take any other angle). Then ask the assembled, if now rather amused, masses the following:
"If I were to take a sword and cut a slice through this student at this angle, which organs would I pass through and what would the surface look like?"
An animated discussion will now ensue as the students come up with increasingly bloodthirsty ideas about which organs will be visible.

Transverse section through L1, from Gray's Anatomy

Once they've discussed the many and varied ways in which the victim could be made to suffer, follow up with:
"Would this give you a good idea of the human body overall?"
Hopefully the unanimous response would be "no". So then, they can exercise their higher level thinking skills and come up with a way of getting an idea of the structure of the whole from thin slices. Some of them might even be aware of the Visible Human Project, which did just that. Or, perhaps more in keeping with how a TEM actually works, they could come up with a ballpark figure of how many other students would have to be sliced through at different angles to build up an image of the whole human body...

Incidentally, Google really should be clever enough to exclude all images of the popular US drama "Grey's Anatomy" when I'm looking for the anatomical textbook "Gray's Anatomy". And there should be an "assume user is not a bloody idiot" option, so that it doesn't say "Showing results for Grey's Anatomy. Search for Gray's Anatomy instead?".

Sunday 8 January 2012

Change The Algorithm

I'm in recovery from the brilliant ASE conference in Liverpool, so while I collect my thoughts, consider this, spotted on the Taylors Coffee website.

If you were looking for Hot Lava Java, the coffee that goes up to six, why in the name of Flying Spaghetti Monster would you be remotely interested in decaffeinated coffee??

Time to rethink the advertising, or at least the algorithm used to suggest other products.

Monday 2 January 2012


It seems that every few months now someone gets their knickers in a twist over teachers' use of social media. This is usually due to some wazzocks spoiling it for the rest of us. With the emphasis on some. I've discussed this before and at some length.

This time it's Jim Docherty of the SSTA telling us:
"First thing is don't bother telling anybody else about your social life. Nobody is interested about your social life and it doesn't help."
No chance of that, Jim - I only have a social life for a couple of days at Christmas and Easter, and for a week or two in the summer! But how patronising. Then, there's:
"Secondly, never make any comment about your work, about your employer, about teaching issues in general."
This, of course, would make it very difficult for teachers to contribute to #SciTeachJC, #ASEChat and #UKEdChat. Not to mention the sheer quantity of useful links, advice and resources I've been able to exchange both ways with other teachers.

As ever, Tom Bennett is a voice of reason, and his rules should be required reading for teachers setting up their first blogs or Twitter accounts.

For my part, I maintain a degree of anonymity. My Twitter account has never been associated with my full name, and though the bio bit is fairly obviously me, it still has to be found first. I block the college, and deliberately do not link to the college's website. Former students are most welcome to follow me (and be followed) once they have left the college, and I love chatting to them via Twitter, e-mail and text messages.

As for this blog, you won't find it via a search for my married name. You will find my profiles on Academia and LinkedIn. And they go to my personal website, but there's no link to the blog. Some students find out my maiden name - I don't conceal my former identity - but I don't go into the classroom and shout it out. Actually, very few people ever google me, least of all my students. Should they find this blog, then they will find the majority of my complaints directed towards politicians and the general public. Some individual interaction with students is mentioned here, but they are always given full anonymity and treated with great affection.

And, though I admit I am very fortunate in this regard, my online activity, so long as it does not bring the college into disrepute (or involve illegal activity), is contractually protected. This is, I think, an advantage of working in FE where most lecturers are industry professionals with additional careers within their industry. As with most codes of conduct and guidelines, everything there is to say about one's online presence can all be distilled into one easy motto.

Don't be a dick.
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