Career Paths

If You Love Teaching, Consider a Two-Year College: Part I of II

Heather Sklenicka

How I Discovered Teaching at a Two-Year College

In high school, my circle of friends made fun of the local community college. We were all planning to go to “real” colleges, and we all did. I went to a great liberal arts college, racked up the loans, went on to grad school, and was planning on teaching at one of the “real” colleges. The only hitch was that my husband was offered a job in Rochester, MN. The crazy thing about Rochester at that time was that there wasn’t a “real” college in sight. Rochester is located 45 minutes to an hour from a lot of great “real” colleges, but in 2000 it didn’t have a single one itself. What it did have was the oldest community and technical college in the state, Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC). I shared my worries about a move to Rochester with others, and one friend suggested I talk to someone who taught at a community college. I came up with my list of questions, and eight hours later (we could both keep a conversation going) I was convinced that the two-year college route would be a good fit. My husband took the job and we moved.

After finishing grad school (and commuting for nine months), I was able to land a temporary position at RCTC. The sigh of relief was enormous. After I’d been teaching for a year, the department grew and I secured a permanent, full-time position. I have now been here for 10 years. I want to share with you what I learned in my eight-hour chat-a-thon and in the past 10 years that might help you determine whether teaching at a two-year college might be for you.

We have fantastic teachers. Excellent educators surround me every day and help me to be my best in the classroom.

Two-Year Colleges Emphasize Teaching

The most important thing at a two-year college is the students. Your job is to educate students. Teaching load varies greatly among systems, but in Minnesota I have 20 contact hours with students. That means I spend 20 hours a week in the classroom and have 4–5 office hours. I spend the rest of my time preparing for classes, grading, answering student e-mails, and solving the world’s problems. We don’t have teaching assistants, so I have to grade every assignment I give (or let the computer do it for me). When I sat down to grade 82 papers on the difference between ionic and covalent bonding last fall, I had only myself to blame. I also had the freedom to change the assignment the following semester.

My course load usually ends up consisting of two lectures and the labs that accompany them. This is where I’ve seen the difference between the two-year college system and other kinds of higher education. I teach lab. I spend a lot of time with students and get to know them very well. For better or worse, I am able to connect with them as much or as little as they want to connect with me. There are fascinating people going to school these days. Some students are in school with their kids. Others are straight out of high school (or still in high school) and ready to hit the ground running. Quite a few have been through school and the work force and are now motivated to get a new career. Of course, there are some students who don’t know their path and are trying out some things.Two-year schools are the perfect place for all of these students. The large diversity of experience makes the job that much more interesting.

The classes taught at a two-year college are, of course, the same taught the first two years anywhere. Beyond General and Organic, there are courses to prepare students to take them (often called Preparatory Chemistry) and other interesting ones specialized for programs at the specific college. We have a very large nursing program, which is not a surprise because Rochester is the home of the Mayo Clinic. Students entering our program have to take the first semester of a General, Organic, and Biochemistry (GOB) course. Imagine teaching all of General Chem and the very basics of Organic Chem in 16 weeks. It is a crazy fast course where the instructor is trying to get the essence of the material to students, since there is no time for depth. Other colleges have forensics or food chemistry classes that really allow creativity in the classroom.

As I suggested before, the big difference I have found between the two-year and “real” colleges is the former’s intense focus on teaching. All of the instructors at RCTC are there to teach, and we have fantastic teachers. Excellent educators surround me every day and help me to be my best in the classroom. The wild thing is that every two weeks I get a paycheck for doing what I love, teaching chemistry! If you are interested in teaching, I hope you’ll add two-year schools to your list of places to check out.