This Scientist Switched Careers to Help Kids

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Joey Patterson didn’t go to school to become a teacher. He was a biology major at University of North Carolina and assumed he would end up working in a lab. But in his last year of school, he served as a teaching assistant for an intro to biology class and loved it.

When the New York City charter school network Success Academy came recruiting on campus, Patterson applied. He was offered a job as an elementary school science teacher. But he declined because he was daunted by the idea of teaching younger students and because he still wanted to explore the biology research world where he’d amassed most of his training.

So upon graduation in 2013, Patterson took a position in his field: a research assistant at a government-run HIV lab, sequencing RNA samples from HIV to study the virus’ genome. It was a good job, yet he wasn’t fulfilled. “While I knew the work I was doing was important and integral to the mission of the program, I personally struggled not being able to see or feel the immediate impact of my contribution,” he says.

Then Patterson remembered Success Academy. “It was still sticking with me,” he recalls. “The people I met during the recruiting process were incredibly warm and personable, and were able to point out how the skills I did have would translate into teaching.”

He talked with a college friend who’d been teaching since they graduated. The friend told him that the impact you make as an educator could be felt in the moment and on a daily basis. Patterson realized that this feeling was what he was craving. He reapplied to Success Academy, reinterviewed, and was offered a job again—this time for the fall of 2015. He took it.

A Year of Mentorship

Patterson was hired as a science teacher in an elementary school—kindergarten through 4th grade—in the South Bronx. “It was not what I had in mind,” he laughs. “I had never worked with kids that young in my life!”

He received robust on-the-job training from the teaching veterans on the team. In his first year, he helped out in homerooms, where a primary teacher leads the class with support from an entry-level teacher like Patterson. As a science teacher, Patterson saw several classes a day for limited periods. But from assisting in homerooms, he noticed “how strong the relationships were between kids and their homeroom teachers” when they spend most of the day together. He knew that was the next best step for him.

The next year he became a third-grade homeroom teacher, and the year after that, fourth grade. During that time, Patterson also earned his master’s in education from Hunter College. Last year, his principal was transferred to a new Success Academy location—the middle school at the new Hudson Yards complex in West Manhattan. And so was Patterson, as a fifth-grade math teacher. Success applies a combined STEM model to teaching math and science, so Patterson now has experience in both subjects.

Adapting to a New Normal

In March of 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic closing all New York City schools, Patterson and his colleagues were in new territory. “This shift to remote learning was something people were very cautious and anxious about,” he says. But the pivot went smoother than anyone expected. “We spent three days as a staff meeting virtually,” and on Thursday, March 19, Patterson says with palpable emotion and pride, “We had 100% of kids show up, 100% submitting work and participating. They seemed to be willing and able to adapt to this new platform almost seamlessly, in a way I absolutely did not expect.” He credits the culture of Success Academy for that ease.

“We have built such a strong community,” Patterson says, “Learning at a computer all day can be boring for sure, but I think it’s super impressive that our kids care so much about their learning, their school, their classmates. I’m awed that we were able to do such a vast undertaking but in the process have it feel so normal.”

It even felt “normal” for teachers, administrators, and families, too. “Everyone’s done such a good job caring about each other and the work that we do,” Patterson says. “None of that has wavered at all in the past weeks. I am very thankful that on all levels, we are supported as people, but also in the work that we are doing.”

Success Academy applies a combined STEM model to teaching math and science.

Lessons Learned

Here are some things that Patterson has learned from his time in the science and education fields that you can apply to your own work and life. “These are skills I hope to take with me through the rest of my personal life,” he adds.

1. Communicate Effectively

At Success Academy, there are lots of meetings throughout a day, both among the teaching and leadership teams, and with families. “That is very much aligned with what it’s like to work on a research team: keeping the end goal top of mind,” he says. “There is some sense of reward from that day-to-day persistence, that ‘try something until it works.’ It’s much more rewarding for me to do it with a kid.”

2. Push Success

In his first year at the charter school network, Patterson says, “I saw how there are no excuses for the kids. Every single person in this kid’s life—everyone in the school building, and everyone outside of it—is pushing them toward challenging, meaningful educational goals.”

3. Accept Feedback

Feedback is another regular workplace attribute, Patterson says. “I’m constantly receiving feedback on how to improve, but I’m also involved in the development of all of those I work within the pursuit of being the best we can be for the kids.”

4. Listen More, Talk Less

His motto: Coach from the sidelines. “The better teacher you are, the less you are talking. It’s more about allowing kids to share their ideas and providing guidance to further them as mathematicians, thinkers, and scholars.”

5. Embrace Failure

Reframe your thinking. If you see failure as a stepping stone to learning and eventual success, you won’t be afraid to take risks or stretch your abilities. “Using failure to learn, the way we expect kids to, is an integral mindset for doing research and also critically important for teaching,” he says.

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