Thursday, April 03, 2014

Shadowing Assignment: The Chemistry Teacher

     Sparks flashed in front of teenagers for those who had the balls. “Wow, that was a good one,” said Linda Spatafora. It was an exothermic reaction of iron(ll) oxide with aluminum. A student was having trouble creating a spark until after a lucky hit made a loud crackle, she missed it because she closed her eyes. Two iron balls were being passed around in the Grade 11 AP chemistry class, one was wrapped in aluminum foil.

      The Richmond Hill High School (RHHS) chemistry veteran of 12 years was giving a lesson after the class had a test. The 13 students paid close attention while Spatafora drew chemical equations on the Smartboard. They were particularly attentive when it was experiment time, the lights were turned off and Spatafora had poured some ethanol inside a beaker and threw a lit match inside. After momentarily stepping away, she began to explain the process of the reaction which displayed itself in bright neon blue and occasionally glimpses of orange.

      Spatafora first got into teaching because a mother was anxious about her son entering university without a proper education in chemistry for his final year in high school. “There was a real desperate need for chemistry teachers, the 52-year-old educator said. Supply teachers were merely covering a position few knowledgeable graduates wanted to fill a couple of decades ago. Now a mother of three, she was formerly a babysitter then technical support for a chemical instrumentation company which made her travel extensively in the United States.

      Teaching was only supposed to be temporary, Spatafora was just occupying herself until her daughter was old enough to be in day school then she could work full time. She was hired as a long-term occasional teacher which meant she acted as a supply teacher for a semester with no guarantee of a permanent position. But it turned out to be her lifelong career having taught at King City Secondary School and Holy Cross Catholic Academy before remaining in Richmond Hill High.

      “One thing that I always think about as a teacher is that the future is in the children. So to have a little bit of a hand in developing the minds of those students is developing something for the future. You’re glimpsing at what’s happening in the future, the Torontonian teacher said. She blew her nose because chalk makes her nose congested and she was helping four girls with redox (reduction-oxidation) questions on the blackboard in an after-school tutorial. Spatafora said she was a little bit allergic to chalk but mould is the big one. “I like spring but my allergies don’t like spring, my allergies like autumn better.”

      Huron Chu, a new addition to the science department who had started teaching in February, described Spatafora as a master in chemistry, patient, thorough and extremely helpful. “All my chemistry questions, I definitely go to her. She’s fun and social, we can sit in the office and joke and talk about other things than just school which is nice,” Chu said.

      In third period, there was a practice test handed out which would be marked only if the students handed it in. The real, compulsory test is next week. It was an opportunity for a grade boost for the well-prepared. Spatafora loudly reminded them, “If you think you’ll do well, you’ll hand it in. If you don’t want it marked, you don’t hand it in.” A girl whispered to her classmate, “I’m making this one count.”

      Giorgio Del Bianco credited Spatafora for improving the chemistry curriculum and creating a highly engaging Environmental Club and organizing many science competitions for the school. He has
worked with her for 10 years. “[She’s] very professional, hardworking, cares about the kids, amazing,” Del Bianco said, “She’s a guru with organic chemistry. We get along really well, we joke around a lot. It’s a lot of fun.

Her Italian husband thought she was insane for doing so much for her classes when she first started teaching at this institution. He’s a manager at IBM who she has now been married to for 26 years. They were prom dates, they had dated when Spatafora was 18 and tied the knot eight years later. The half-Austrian, half-Yugoslavian teacher was born in St. Michael’s Hospital and lived in Toronto her whole life. She went to York University for her undergraduate degree, University of Guelph for her master’s, and University of Toronto for her bachelor of education.

“Guess what your homework is tonight?” Spatafora gleefully asked. “Solubility questions,” replied a student. “Yes! Look at them all!” as she scrolled down two pages full of questions shown on the projector.

      For relaxation, the teacher has just picked up on yoga. Previously, it was only walking for half an hour on her treadmill. Being very involved with extracurricular activities, leisure time is extremely limited especially with all the marking and class preparations that needs to be done. She gets her teaching assistants to catch mistakes on quizzes first before looking over them to help save time. Emily Jiao, her TA for this semester, told Spatafora to pick from a selection of small hand-painted bowls she had gotten from her trip to Mexico last week. “I love red. They’re beautiful,” Spatafora chose a blue bowl with bright red and green peppers on it. “My husband likes to eat small peppers.”

Spatafora’s table held a kettle, a hole puncher, an electric pencil sharpener, her four-year-old Asus laptop, organizers containing stationery and now a dainty Mexican souvenir amongst the clutter of paper. Clipboards for science contests, AP examinations and Environmental Club hung on the wall before her table.

Involvement with Environmental Club started in her second year of teaching at RHHSA group of girls had asked her to supervise, it was initially just an awareness group but it grew to be a proactive club with students planting trees and shrubs, picking up litter, cleaning the Rouge River in knee-high boots and campaigning in school for the reduction of waste and single-use water bottle usage. “The interesting thing is . . . kids who are in it for one year sorta see us do little things and don’t see it as a big thing,” Spatafora said, “but after you’ve been running it for 10 years, you see how much of a difference it has made.” An example is when they first started clearing the streams that were part of the Rouge River, it had shopping carts and “just crap” in them but she sees an immense improvement now.

A chance to hone leadership skills is given to the co-presidents as Spatafora wants the club to be more student-directed.

Liz Kennedy. The science teacher who had inspired Spatafora to be the active teacher she is is now retired. “She was an incredible teacher. Her demos, and she was sympathetic and understanding and if you were lost on a concept she’d take time to sit down,”Spatafora said. “To teach with her for five years is what makes you a great teacher. She was so dedicated to the students and their learning.” Kennedy’s commitment to her work and contribution to the betterment of the teaching program was appreciated by Spatafora.

      The volunteer work she does for the students isn’t undermined by any student or herself. Spatafora receives many gifts every year. “Candles came in so handy during the ice storm.” She also receives a lot of chocolate, a sweet she loves. But now that she has high blood sugar levels, her doctor has advised her to watch her diet especially since her aunt has diabetes.

      Bread is out of the question as it is an empty-calorie processed carbohydrate which raises sugar levels too high although there are always bagels in the house because it’s what her husband likes. Spatafora makes food for the week on the weekend for her husband, her vegetarian daughter, and herself.

      Focus not only the money because if you’re not miserable, you’re happy, was the career advice Spatafora gave to her children. The smiley teacher said, “I love coming here every day. I love the people I work with. I love being here.”

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