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Why I Became a Teacher: Erin Denniston, Elementary School Science Coordinator

Ask any teacher and they'll tell you: education is a calling. Here they share their stories of how and why they decided to become educators.

Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you: education is a calling. The job speaks to you in a unique way, and when you realize you’re meant to be a teacher, there’s no turning back. That’s why we asked teachers to share their stories, how and why they decided to become educators.

Today you’ll meet Erin Denniston (master’s degree, K–8 science education), whose path to becoming the Science Specialist for McDougle Elementary School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, took more than a few twists and turns . . .

When I was in second grade, my best friend and I started a day care program in the basement of my suburban home. We charged parents 25 cents per preschool child. We had worksheets for them, coloring activities, we even walked them the half mile up to the elementary school’s library for story time. It was a simpler time, I suppose, but you could also say I was a born teacher.

However, I took a left turn sometime in college after being dissuaded from a career teaching history at the college level by my mother, who was concerned I’d never find a job. So I got a degree in social work. Unfortunately, in 1980 social service programs were being gutted, and I found myself without a job anyway. I began working as an aide in an elementary school and my passion for teaching was reignited. I got a degree in elementary education and a license to teach K-6 in North Carolina.

How I got into science, and now STEM education, without a science background, is another left turn. As a stay-at-home mom, I taught myself the broad strokes of all the basic sciences through reading anything I could get my hands on in the local library and passing on what I could to my young sons. My education continued after my kids started school when I got a job as an educator with the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science in Durham.

Convinced that hands-on investigations were the best way to teach science, I began working in the public school system to bring that experience to students and teachers. As I developed as a teacher, eventually obtaining a master’s degree in K-8 science education, I began focusing on what was originally called Design Technology, or Children’s Engineering. I found that posing a relevant engineering problem to students—providing them with a set of design constraints and a set of materials with which to solve the problem—was a highly engaging, intellectually rigorous way to get students to understand basic science concepts. I’d found my niche.

My husband and I were early adopters of computers, and my interest in technology has only grown through the years. I’ve been the go-to person for technology or computer-related issues at every school I’ve worked in (although, I have to say, technical savvy pales in comparison to my sons and husband—we’re a technologically inclined family, to be sure). But, as an educator, I am passionately devoted to the idea that children should not be passive consumers of content. My goal has always been to find the tools children need for them to able to “create, collaborate, and communicate” through computers as well as other technology tools.

Whether it be through using digital cameras, blogs, flip-cams, website building, coding, or, most recently, 3D modeling, I see my job as helping teachers match their instructional goal with the right tool so that our students get a broad exposure to the array of options available to them. My message to fellow teachers is that it’s not enough to sit kids down in front of a screen to do essentially the same kind of “kill and drill” worksheets that have plagued education for decades. It’s not an advance if students are watching videos on an iPad instead of a TV. No great gains are made if they’re merely looking up facts on Wikipedia instead of a textbook. My job is to help teachers and schools find authentic uses for technology, ones that will help grow the kinds of skills we know are critical to not only STEM fields but every other endeavor. It’s still a tough sell but I’m in it for the long haul. I may have taken a few left turns to get on this path. But it’s straight ahead from here.

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About Erin Denniston

Erin Denniston is the Science Specialist for McDougle Elementary School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


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