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CAREERS Dr. Ryan Williams eyes career as high school science teacher

July 15, 2014

This is the first in a series of profiles highlighting some career paths that build on a science background.
The job requirements include the patience of a saint, an elephant’s hide, a marathon runner’s stamina, and Justin Bieber’s ability to hold a crowd, plus the cross-disciplinary erudition of a Da Vinci. With these qualifications you might have the makings of a high school science teacher.
Take it from one former post-doc in the Dennis lab that aiming to teach high school science is not for the faint-hearted. “It’s like being a scientist. You don’t do it for the money; you do it because you love it,” says Dr. Ryan Williams.   
Dr. Williams earned his Bachelor of Education (University of Toronto) in 2013, with credentials to teach various levels of high school mathematics, biology, and chemistry. He offers this sobering overview of what’s involved just to get in line to be eligible to be hired in Ontario. Of about 13,000 applicants (with teaching degrees) who applied to the Toronto District School Board in 2013, only 400 were deemed “eligible to be hired” for the 2013-14 school year. Even then, they were unable to work until openings appeared in the system and applicants could be assigned an ID number, the necessary entry ticket to Phase 2, the supply-teaching scramble.
Dr. Williams has had to be available at 6.00 a.m. each morning for a potential telephone call offering a day of supply teaching at any one of dozens of Toronto high schools. It wasn’t long before teachers and schools were requesting him by name, and by the end of June he had exceeded he required days of in-school experience.
New grads are competing with retired teachers for stints as supply teachers and for valuable long-term occasional (LTO) roles, such as maternity leave replacements. As of early July it is not clear whether his eligibility to be considered for LOT positions starts in 2014 or 2015. “This is where the thick skin and the patience of a saint come in handy,” he says. But he perseveres.
Exceptional opportunities  
For Dr. Williams the journey started when he moved from Wales to England, where
he received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in biochemistry at the University of Sheffield. There he got his first taste of teaching in labs, which he enjoyed enough to apply to teachers’ college at the same time that he was applying to the doctoral program. “I received acceptance at both places on the same day, and I sat in a chair for a few hours trying to decide,” he says. Reasoning that he should pursue the exceptional research opportunity at hand, he completed his PhD.
Dr. Williams then decided to accept the opportunity to join the Dennis lab. He plunged into his post-doctoral project, which was using bioinformatics to study the position and density of NXS/T sites. (That research was published as “Encoding asymmetry of the N-glycosylation motif facilitates glycoprotein evolution” in PLOS ONE, January 2014.) 
With the end of his post-doctoral work at the Dennis lab in sight by 2011, Dr. Williams had decided to stay in Canada and apply to teachers’ college again, this time at University of Toronto. But he was offered a well paid job as a scientific consultant (or patent agent) at a law firm on the same day that he was accepted at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education). “Once again I sat in a chair and tried to decide,” he says. The law firm had described the position as conveying scientific information and teaching lawyers the science they needed. “With that in mind I thought that I could give it a try and defer teachers’ college for a year,” he says.
One year was enough. “In science you are following the evidence, but in patent work you follow the evidence to the extent that it’s in your client’s interest. The rest is up to the other party,” he explains. Leaving behind the disinterested objectivity of science did not suit him, and he resigned just one day after he successfully concluded his first filing. Finally, it was time for teachers’ college.
The Bachelor of Education degree has just been extended in Ontario to two years, so Dr. Williams cautions that his experience of a one-year program (September 2012 to June 2013) may not be directly comparable. The course is still split into two major components. The first component is attending classes at OISE and writing assignments and reflections, which can be approached as a job and finished by 5 p.m. each day. “I found it manageable,” he says, crediting the fact that he brought the maturity and life experience of a 33-year-old to the program. (Most of the class comprised people in their early- and mid-twenties.)
Different ballgame
He describes his time as a supply teacher and intern as a whole different ballgame. At the start, preparing course materials and lessons plans takes about an hour of prep per hour of classroom time, eating up evenings and weekends. “It takes practice and accumulation of lesson plans to be able to cut that time back,” he says.
With about 100 days of in-class experience under his belt, Dr. Williams feels confident in the classroom. His Welsh accent, his height, and his PhD help to attract a class’s attention, he says. But holding the attention of a Grade 9 math class — or a Grade 12 chemistry, biology or math class — is demanding every minute. “The kids try to put one over on the supply teacher. In a new class I start out by writing ‘Dr. Ryan Williams’ on the board, and they want to hear about that. It gets the conversation and the class started,” he says. One advantage of the PhD is that he has the confidence to reply, “I don’t know, I’ll check
it out and get back to you later,” when a question calls for it. “It’s important to model the intellectual stance of science, that we are always ready to acknowledge the limits of knowledge,” Dr. Williams says. (Some of his younger counterparts find it harder to do that in the classroom, he observes.)
He cites two major in-class challenges: cell phones and the simple truth that many students don’t like school. “When you’re presenting lab results in an auditorium, if someone doesn’t want to pay attention it’s up to them. But when teaching Grade 10, it’s your job to get their attention and keep it. That’s where the entertainment skills come in,” he says.
Dr. Williams already knows that he’s made the right choice of career, despite losing the relative autonomy and order of the laboratory. The dynamic, challenging environment of the high school suits him. “When teaching university courses you are restricted to a narrow slice of science. In high school you’ve got the whole of science at your disposal. You can pull in cancer one day and owl pellets the next, and use contemporary materials from the newspaper or social media. It’s dynamic, creative, and a lot of fun,” he says.
Long and winding road
What particular job satisfaction is going to take him through the next three decades as a teacher? While nurturing any future scientists through their high school years is one source of satisfaction, it is just as important to help all students develop critical thinking skills relating to concepts such as source, data, evidence, and proof, he says. As part of a required teacher’s statement Dr. Williams wrote, “We must instill the ability for students to question and decipher the science backbone of our world. […]
I feel that to adequately prepare science students for the 21st century we must first teach the key skill of questioning data and their source.”
Now married and settled in Canada, Dr. Williams is confident that he will secure that elusive prize, a permanent teaching job in Toronto. When vacancies do come up he is among hundreds of new and recent grads (including some have been looking for up to five years) competing with permanent teachers who have been laid off due to falling student enrollment in some schools. He guesses that he faces anywhere from one to four years to land a permanent job.
This summer Dr. Williams is organizing some elements of his NXS/T project that did not make it into the PLOS ONE paper into a new paper. He is enjoying the break before returning to the daily supply teaching and LOT scramble in September.
In retrospect, Dr. Williams has no regrets about the journey that has taken him this far. “If I hadn’t tried out both the post-graduate academic route and the intellectual property law firm, I might have wondered if the grass is greener over there. I wouldn’t trade my post-graduate training at university and the Dennis lab for anything. It’s taken me to a place where I know that teaching high school is a great fit for me, and where my qualifications give me a good shot at long-term success.”   



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