The real value of lab technicians

Disclosure: My school, an independent, not-for-profit institution, has a full-time lab technician. She supports our science teachers. She prepares demonstrations and laboratory activities, orders equipment and supplies, and keeps things organized. She also assists with special projects, such as my Wednesday afternoon Chemistry Education Research Group.

The hours that I don’t have to spend in the prep room have given me the opportunity to develop and to maintain the curriculum, which directly benefits students.

How can chemistry teachers — the front line troops — develop any meaningful curriculum if their time is spent on mundane tasks better suited to a lab technician? In Ontario, teachers are well compensated. In my opinion, it is a poor use of financial resources to have “Ontario Certified Teachers” (don’t get me started) — people with a minimum of five years of university education, many of whom who are highly experienced, at the top of the pay scale and experts in their field — setting up labs, ferrying equipment between classrooms and washing glassware.

It makes no sense.

Why relegate curriculum development to high-priced school board-level consultants and edu-geeks when classroom teachers can develop what works for their students? In this business, one size does not fit all; an assignment or laboratory activity appropriate in one setting may not work in another.

Chemistry teachers — teachers who know chemistry and how to teach it — are in the best position to develop chemistry curriculum. We don’t need a graduate degree in education, or parts I, II and III of the professional development course du jour. Based on interaction with students and with colleagues and based on what is learned at conferences or from the chemistry education literature (yeah Chem 13 News!), chemistry teachers can hone their lessons and develop activities and ideas that resonate.

But this takes time. Lots of time.

I’m not one for canned resources; they’re not my style. Over a 25+ year career, most of it teaching chemistry, I have developed every item that I use in grade 11 and AP Chemistry: over 85 PowerPoint Lessons and counting, tons of lab activities and handouts. These items are continually improved; virtually nothing remains unchanged from year-to-year. The benefits to students are incalculable. All this is thanks to our lab technician and to my school for having the foresight to allocate resources accordingly. I think it’s high time for teachers — and students — in publicly-funded schools to enjoy the same opportunities.