Comstock Park — In ninth grade, Aaron Peoples took a biology class. It was during that class he remembered making the decision, “I am going to get paid using this.”
Through some exploration at Grand Valley State University, he made his second decision: to become a biology teacher, because he found it gave him the opportunity to connect with people.
“I always say I use biology as a way to have a conversation with you,” he said. “Not like, it’s the most important thing we’ll always converse about, but since we’re in here, I’ll use that as the avenue.”
Twenty-six years later, Peoples said he still enjoys sharing his knowledge and learning about his students, but mostly he loves seeing that spark of understanding and discovery when his students have that “a-ha” moment. School News Network spoke to him about the ups, downs, ins and outs of being a teacher.
What is the thing that gets you up in the morning and excited about teaching? “I really love the fact that I cannot totally predict my day. Looking back at different jobs I had, I didn’t want to know exactly how my day was going to go. … With teaching, even though I’ve got a plan for every day, the fact that even from hour to hour, I don’t know if everybody will react the same, that part’s a little bit exciting. A student may ask a brand-new question or they make an observation for the first time in their life. So everyday, it could be something new, even though I’ve done it numerous times.”
What are some of the biggest challenges and how do you strive to meet them? “I think right now, the biggest challenge is knowing how, or being able, to find the balance between ‘should I push against this kid’ or ‘should I be understanding to know what it is they need.’ If you don’t know their entire life story, it could be the worst thing ever to push, versus a student being a little lazy and I should push. I think that’s probably the hardest one — do I really have the (correct) read on the situation and then (do I) know what is the best way to reach this student?”
What are some of the biggest differences in teaching pre- and post-pandemic? “There are two of them that stand out to me. The first one is attendance. I have not ever had as many students acquiring as many absences as they currently do. That was something that would happen here and there in my first 20 years, but in these last couple (years), the students who rack up multiple attendance issues are so much different. I think we had those two years (during the pandemic) where either you couldn’t come to school or we were going to be offering things online and you could either be here or or you could check in online. … Now we don’t have that, and so it’s like no, you need to fully join us back here at school. So attendance has definitely been something that I would say is a noticeable change in my career.
“The second is the socialness of students. Students used to group around their lockers more. They would talk more. We have five minutes (between classes) and they would ensure that they use four minutes and 30 seconds of the passing time (to be social). Now, they will be here (in the classroom), ‘Johnny on the spot.’ They have four more minutes to hang with their friends or be just doing whatever, and they will be right here. I don’t know if it’s because during the pandemic, we said don’t cluster in groups, (or because) we’ve allowed backpacks so you don’t have to go to lockers … but they just don’t socially hang in the hallways as much.”
What’s the most amazing thing about high school students? “The most amazing thing is still the fact that you can meet students who have had a first experience with something, even if you’ve thought, ‘Oh, by high school, they’ve done that.’
“We have a project we do in the fall where we collect water and we’re looking at it, just making real-life observations, and students will go, ‘All these things, I’ve never seen.’ To still be able to have those statements and ‘a-ha’ moments feels like it clicked.”
Peoples said he keeps a collection of “dead things” in his classroom to spark both novelty and excitement: “The student who sees (the collection) for the first time and gets excited about it and who then … asks me why I have them and then proceeds to ask 20 more questions. … I am like, ‘Now you know exactly why I have them, because you just rattled off about five minutes of nothing but questions, which was, like, kind of the point and why they’re here.’”
What would you say to someone considering teaching as a profession? “It’s an incredibly rewarding profession, but you are in it full time. … No matter where you are, something may pop up and it will be, ‘I could use that for my classroom.’ It’s just one of those professions (where your mind is) never really turned off because at a moment’s notice, you might switch the gear, and you’re back thinking about a classroom or (a student). So it is a career that you’ve got to like, because you’re going to be thinking about it all the time.
“If you are looking for something where you come in and then be done at the end of the day, picking it back up tomorrow, this is not the career for you. But if you like to be kind of always contemplating it, it’s a super-rewarding career. I find working with people to be a highlight of the day and obviously, I have met a lot of people all through the years that I’ve taught.”
What do you like about teaching biology? “The most exciting thing is that I literally have one of the easiest ways to say, ‘I guarantee you’re going to be using this.’ In biology, this will be something you do for the rest of your life, whether you consciously think about this or not. This is literally your story. Look outside the window, look at yourself, go to a doctor’s office; which version do you want? There’s so many examples that I know the students are going to use.”