Lately, there have been a lot of moments that make student teacher Natalie Fowler feel good about her choice to make a career move into teaching. There was the day a couple weeks ago when a student she’d been helping with his English and math homework told her that he wished she was his teacher for every subject. Just before Thanksgiving, a student had an assignment for another class to write a handwritten thank-you letter to a school staff member he appreciated, and he chose her. The day she announced that her last day was coming up, one student started to cry.
Fowler has always wanted to end up in a profession where she felt like she was directly helping people, but her first try at that wasn’t teaching. Initially, she thought she’d use her chemistry degree from Iowa State University as a launchpad to pharmacy school. But she wanted to try a real-world job in the field first, just to make sure committing the next eight years of her life to a doctoral program was a good idea. The job she took at a local branch of a chain pharmacy was an eye opener. “I really didn’t like the corporate mentality and the for-profit attitude,” Fowler says. “There were a lot of people who needed help or couldn’t afford what they needed, and you just sort of said ‘sorry,’ and then felt bad about it for the rest of your day. It was hard to see people come in for something they needed to live and then get — for lack of a better word — screwed every day.”
The experience at the pharmacy, and a little COVID lockdown self-reflection, led Fowler to rethink her career goals. Ultimately it led her back to an option she’d previously ruled out. As an undergraduate, she had briefly considered studying to become a chemistry teacher but had dismissed it, thinking the job wouldn’t be challenging enough or would be one of those careers where you do the same thing day after day, year after year. But the more she dug into teaching programs, the more those preconceptions melted away. Looking at the coursework, teaching was clearly a dynamic, high-skill profession that incorporated not only subject matter expertise, but knowledge of child and adolescent development, the latest pedagogical techniques, and a high degree of empathy and emotional intelligence. She had recently moved from Iowa to Michigan when her husband got a job in the auto industry, so she reached out to UM-Dearborn about enrolling in the teacher certification program. While that program is a good fit for folks like her who already have a bachelor’s degree in a teachable subject, an advisor at the university suggested she also give the master’s program a look. It wasn’t that many more classes, and the idea of the higher-level courses and a higher starting salary sounded great. Fowler admits she was “petrified” for the first day of her Multicultural Education course. It’d been a couple years since she’d been in college, so she’d have to get back in the rhythm of studying and deadlines. “And I was a science and math person, so asking me to write an essay is about the worst thing you can do,” she says. “And that class was all papers!”
Despite those early nerves, it didn’t take long for things to feel like they were clicking. One of her early courses was all about assessments, where she learned innovative strategies for tracking what students are actually learning. Her course in adolescent behavior gave her a science-based window into what’s really going on in the young adult brain, how it impacts students’ behavior, and how you can best approach that as a teacher. Her disabilities class was so good that she seriously looked into what it would take to pivot to special education. Her student teaching post at Oak Park High School, teaching science to ninth and 10th graders, was everything anyone could want out of a capstone experience. There, she got to work with two cooperating teachers with completely different styles: A free-spirited biology and forensics teacher who had a blue mohawk for half the year, and a more traditional chemistry teacher who was a big believer in rules and procedures. Fowler says she’s taking away important lessons from each of them. From one, she’s learned a lot about how rules can help ensure that you’re treating all your students fairly. From the other, she saw that it’s OK to sidebar with the kids if there’s a teachable moment that’ll help them become “good humans.”