By Lindsey Ziliak
---- — BUNKER HILL — Eileen Johns stood at her white board Wednesday, quickly drawing a picture of sodium chloride’s lattice structure for her second-period class at Maconaquah High School.
Her integrated chemistry and physics class was getting a lesson on ions and bonding. She discussed valence electrons and covalent bonds with students. Every now and then, she paused to quiz them.“What does the word valence mean?” she asked. “What are valence electrons?”She looked around the room before calling on a teen boy. He didn’t know the answer, but a girl at the front of the classroom thought she might. She raised her hand. Johns called on her to help the boy out.“It’s electrons at the highest energy level,” the student responded.That’s right, Johns told her.Watching her interact with students, it’s hard to see that Johns is a first-year teacher. And it’s even harder to tell just by looking at her.Johns didn’t take the traditional route to teaching. Her path was long and winding.It started at Penn State University in 1980. She graduated with a bachelor’s of science degree in microbiology.Teaching wasn’t even on her radar at the time. It’s something she couldn’t really see herself doing, she said.Johns was intent on working in a laboratory like she had done in college.“I thought I would be looking under a microscope at microorganisms,” she said.Instead, she moved to Indiana and took a job at Delco Electronics as a manufacturing and development engineer. She was still using a microscope like she thought she would, but the specimen was different. She was studying integrated circuits.“I was part of the group on the floor making parts,” she said. “When something went wrong, we had to get the process running again. We used to call it fighting fires.”It was a fast-paced environment, she said. The technology they were using was so new that Johns and her colleagues had to learn it on the job. It was fun, she said.But when she gave birth to her third child, she decided she wanted to spend more time with her kids. Johns quit her job after 15 years to become a stay-at-home mom. As the kids started school, she decided to go back with them. At first she volunteered in elementary school classrooms. She kind of liked it, so she started substitute teaching.She was a substitute teacher off and on for Northwestern School Corp. for five years starting in late 2008. She taught in classrooms from kindergarten all the way to 12th grade. Johns spent five months as a long-term substitute for a biology class at Western High School, and another three months as a long-term substitute for a math class at Northwestern High School.“I wasn’t making much money,” she said. “Then I asked what it would take to get my teaching license. I thought maybe I could do this.”She enrolled later in the Indiana Wesleyan University building degrees program. It would take her 18 months to become a licensed teacher.It would take her another two years to find a job. She and her family could afford to wait for the right one to come along, she said.Then, she found out about the opening at Maconaquah High School.Principal Dave Noonan was impressed with her.“How do you measure that experience?” he asked. “She also brings a maturity. She’s been out in the workforce. That’s a very attractive feature.”Her extensive classroom experience as a substitute was also a plus.During the interview, Noonan told Johns she would be teaching some science classes and maybe an algebra class if she was hired.She got the job, but didn’t find out until the day before school started that she would, in fact, be teaching the algebra class. Noonan said she took it in stride and never once complained.“That’s how adaptable she is,” he said. “I’m very impressed with her work ethic.”Johns admits that her days can get crazy. She teaches three integrated chemistry and physics classes, one algebra class, one chemistry class and one physics class.Her integrated chemistry and physics students are learning about ions and bonds. Her chemistry class is making Powerpoint presentations on elements of the periodic table. The physics class is discussing forces and acceleration, and the algebra class, well, they’re struggling.“The algebra kids are realizing algebra is tougher than they thought,” she said.Some days it’s hard for her to keep track of things.“My afternoon is more of a struggle,” she said. “All of a sudden I say, ‘What am I doing here?’ But I don’t get bored because I’m teaching the same thing six times a day.”Noonan said you won’t find many stories like Johns’ in education. Few people choose to become teachers after working in the business world for nearly two decades. When they do, though, they often teach science or math, for whatever reason, he said.“It’s a pretty small group of people,” he said. “But it’s growing.”
Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at firstname.lastname@example.org