APPLETON, Wis. – Kara Pezzi didn’t want to be a teacher.
With a degree in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin
at Superior and plans to pursue a Ph.D in chemistry down at UW-Madison, Pezzi couldn’t
initially see teaching as the best way to pursue her passion for science. “I
wanted to be a chemist,” she recalled during an interview this week in a high school
Serving as a graduate teaching assistant, however, she
realized that a doctorate in chemistry “was not the path my life would take.”
High school chemistry teacher Kara Pezzi will be recognized as Wisconsin's top science teacher under the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
Pezzi quickly found that she took to teaching undergraduate
chemistry like a fish to water. “I found my passion,” she remembered. It was “a
chance to share my love of chemistry, a chance to open the eyes of young
people, to show them the world from a different perspective.”
Next week (June 27), Pezzi will be among about 100 math and
science teachers traveling to Washington to be recognized for their efforts through
a National Science Foundation program called the Presidential Awards forExcellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. The teachers’ packed schedule
includes meetings with NSF officials and members of Congress, a White House
tour and perhaps a meeting with President Obama.
Despite the national recognition, it’s not been a good
decade for teachers, especially high school teachers. According to some
estimates, the percentage of U.S. spending on education has declined by 2
percent to 5 percent of total GDP over the last decade. Despite all the talk
about STEM education (science, engineering, technology and mathematics), the
reality at the high school level is overcrowded classrooms, distracted students
uninterested in or fearful of demanding science classes and, of course, harried
Pezzi, who is teaching an interdisciplinary summer school
class for high school instructors, normally teaches five sections of chemistry
at Appleton East High School (the school has gone from three to two chemistry
teachers during her 14 years there). Pezzi has about 30 students per class in a
room equipped with 28 lab stations. For many, chemistry will be the toughest
class they take in high school. “They look at science as being really, really
hard,” she said.
Indeed, the high school has only 60 students taking physics,
an elective course that used to be required in the Appleton school district.
Pezzi just shrugs. “It’s not something that’s easy to fix,”
the Milwaukee native said.
Along with reducing class sizes, another reform would be
dropping standardized testing. Having taught high school chemistry for 20
years, Pezzi is convinced that standardized tests don’t work. “Let us teach,”
Despite the long days, students complaining about poor grades
and the pervasive fear of failure on the part of many parents, Pezzi said an
occasional call from a former student makes it all worth it. She recently heard
from one who is earning a Ph.D in chemistry from Johns Hopkins University in
Baltimore. You can sense her pride.
That future chemist and the others whose lives were changed forever
by a thoroughly committed chemistry teacher in this small Upper Midwestern city
are the essence of education.
For that, we all owe a debt of gratitude to our teachers.
And we’re glad Kara Pezzi changed her mind and became a high
school chemistry teacher.