Sunday, February 5, 2012

10 Reasons I Love Teaching Geology at a Community College

Oh, I cannot resist a meme involving top ten lists! Eric Klemetti at Eruptions started it on the topic of liking volcanoes. He was followed by Callan at Mountain Beltway on geologic structures, Siim Sepp at Sandatlas on sand,  Silver Fox at Looking for Detachment (on detachment faults, of course), and Hollis at In The Company of Plants and Rocks (on Wyoming). I teach geology at a community college, and I can't imagine a greater career. My list isn't on a specific geologic topic, it's about the joy of teaching about the Earth...

What happens when you teach geology at a community college?

We get to study anything we want
When I was in the master's program at Reno back in a different century, I had trouble settling on a geological discipline. I finally pursued a project in neotectonics, but I was constantly distracted by other stuff that was going on. Being at a community college means I have few opportunities for directed research, seeing as how I teach a large number of classes and labs. If a student asks a question on some area of the earth sciences, I get to track it down. Some years it's dinosaurs and paleontology. Other years it's seismology, or metamorphic rocks of the Sierra Mother Lode. I love learning about all of it.
We get to travel a lot to interesting places
I take my students a great many places around California, the American West, and the world. If you are are regular reader of my blog you already suspected this...
We get to meet interesting people
There seems to me to be no truer melting pot in our society than the campus of a community college. In a classroom you have people from all kinds of backgrounds thrown together: conservative and liberal (and "don't care"), rich and poor, young and old, people of faith and atheists, and people of many different cultures. The college lecture hall and especially the college laboratory is a place where people meet as true equals, and some actual communication can take place between people who would otherwise never interact. And I get to meet and learn from them all! I figure that in my 23 years of teaching, I have met something like 10,000 people. I obviously can't remember every single one of them, but it is kind of neat to be in some public place and have a stranger walk up and say "Hi, Mr. Hayes! You were my teacher years ago!"
We get to achieve goals:
Sometimes I sit in a restaurant or wander slowly through a store and I think about how the business has been there for whatever total of years, and the employees put in their shifts and look forward to their breaks. There is always a lot of hustle and bustle, there is always routine. The faces change, and sometimes the owners change, and at the end of the day, what has changed? A few more people have been fed, some more items have been sold, and for what purpose? Making money, and staying in business for another day. That is all well and good for a capitalist system, but what a mind-killing bore. There is nothing to work towards. There are no goals, at least not for the drones who do all the work (I imagine the owners have a goal of dominating their particular business; I learned that from the game of Monopoly). As a teacher, I and my students have a challenge, one that has a beginning and an ending. It may be that a student's goal is to pass the course somehow and move on, so they can start a career and...make money like a good capitalist. But I have the challenge of guiding students to know something more than they did when they started (what we call student learning outcomes). And the information is something that enriches their lives (and in the odd case, maybe even saving their lives; think earthquake preparedness).
We get to be creative
The art of teaching constantly requires thinking up new ways to enable learning on the part of the student. I have to challenge myself to break out of a mold when something isn't working. And I love drawing; by the end of the day I am usually covered with colored chalk. I've also grown to love photography, too.

Geology is fascinating
I can't speak for others, but I taught business math for a few semesters early in my career. If I had been teaching business math or accounting or economics for the last two decades, I think I would be nuts by now. I just can't imagine making certain subjects interesting. But there isn't a day that goes by when something fascinating isn't going on somewhere in the world. The stories are sometimes tragic, and sometimes awe-inspiring, but never boring. Even the most pedestrian subjects can be made interesting in some way (if you work at it)...even soils. We always have something strange and bizarre to talk about in class.
We help people discover a world outside their own
This isn't the same as the note above about traveling. Not all my students can go on field trips, but we get to open their eyes to the existence of strange and wonderful places beyond the confines of their normal everyday lives and hometowns. Every geological process involves examples from all over the planet; we use multimedia examples from our own lives or those of others to illustrate these incredible earth systems.
We get to contribute to the health of planet Earth
The decisions about how best to keep the planet liveable for 7 billion people are being made for the most part by those with a financial stake in outcomes and the politicians they lobby. Their priorities are not always correlated with everyone else's best interests. Without money, our best hope for just outcomes in environmental issues are the votes of an educated population. The community college system is on the front lines of providing that education.

We get to make a real and lasting difference
I am proud of what many of my former students have accomplished. A decent number of them went into geology, but more satisfying to me is how many of them are teachers now. There is a cascading effect of positive outcomes when students become teachers

Let's see, that's nine. What was the tenth? Oh yeah...

We're gonna get rich
Because teachers are held in the highest regard by society and especially by politicians. The politicians think that the people who are responsible for educating our children and teenagers deserve the highest possible compensation for their many years of academic preparation and daily challenges in the classroom. Now, if you actually believe in the accuracy of this last item, I recommend maybe not going into the field of education for a career. But if you want to look back on your life and say I changed things for the better, give a thought to teaching. And it's not too late to start no matter how old you are, or what career you are in now.


Gaelyn said...

You teach for all the right reasons. Plus, you're talking about our constantly changing planet! How cool is that. I totally support community colleges for the opportunities to all ages for continued education.
I'll stick to teaching in the parks. Very gratifying.

Unknown said...

Great post! I only teach geology labs as a grad student, but I totally agree with how you feel.

Garry Hayes said...

No one "only" teaches! You are teaching classes to students at the same level as mine in all probability. Just a different system. Thanks for commenting!

Christoph ( said...

Great posts! Students can be happy to have such an enthusiastic teacher!

Rockdawg said...

Being rich is all a matter of perspective. It sounds like you love what you do, and to me you don't get any richer than that. Having material wealth is a different matter, just because you have a lot of money doesn't mean your life is rich. As long as you make enough money to be able to do the things you want to do, that's all that really counts.

Randy A. said...

Not only have some of my students gone on to become teachers, but one ended up being my daughters teacher! He is an excellent teacher, but I can't take credit for that...

And you might want to add one more thing to your list -- teaching the earth sciences is fun! I always joke around in class, and try to make it fun for my students as well as myself.

For instance, today was the first day of the spring semester, so I told my students: "We're going to have a field trip to the San Andreas fault. We'll stand on the fault, and then jump up and down to see if we can trigger the 'Big One'"! ;-)

Matt said...

Excellent post!

I especially liked the blurb about the melting pot classroom. Makes me want to return to college and pursue geology!

Nick in New York said...

Great post! Glad to see someone who is so passionate about teaching at a school where you can really make a difference in people's lives. Now if only us fresh off the boat teachers could find work in high schools and community colleges in this country we could achieve even more. Instead, it seems they want to save administrators' jobs and consider teachers to be expendable.

The urge to teach for some is as strong as breathing, and many of us are still holding our breath. Thanks for the reminder of why we strive for what we do. Keep up the great work!