A few days ago, I reblogged a post from MotherOcean entitled Why Being an Aquarist is the Most Awesome Job You Have Never Heard Of. It eloquently explains what an aquarist is (someone who takes care of fish, basically), and what that career entails. Aquariums would not function without the highly dedicated, trained, and skilled aquarists, without a doubt. Also, aquarists are some of the coolest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to call my colleagues.
It may or may not be well known that I am an educator at an aquarium, and I would like to take a moment of your time to explain what it’s like being an informal, professional educator in an aquarium setting.
First of all: mad props to all the people I’ve worked with over the years, both in education and not. A lot of zookeepers and aquarists tend to prefer to work with animals rather than people – that’s why they do what they do. So, kids really just aren’t their thing, and every time they see my kids their eyebrows go up as if their faces are saying “Nooo thank you to that.” I get the impression that most of my coworkers respect my patience with children.
Without meaning to be, some parents are a bit condescending when they (constantly) ask me what I’m studying in school. As if being an informal educator is on par with babysitting in an aquarium setting. Sorry, parents, but I went to college and have a bachelor of science in Environmental Science – so, yeah, I know about a lot of different topics. And thank you for noticing that I am good at teaching; I have about 7 years of experience with it.
The other people who sometimes patronize me are classroom teachers, again without intending to. As if I couldn’t handle being a classroom teacher. Sorry, teachers. I love you, but I intentionally did not become a classroom teacher specifically because I don’t want to be pressured to teach to standardized tests, deal with disciplinary issues, or grade homework. There are a lot of things that I would love about being a classroom teacher, but I also really love being a fun part of the kids’ special experience.
That aside, I am a full-time (read: 40 hours per week) educator at an AZA-accredited aquarium and a part-time outreach educator at an AZA-accredited invertebrate zoo. I’ll explain what I do at my full-time job.
So what do I do? Well, that depends on what time of year it is.
I love the fall. School is back in session, and most teachers don’t know their students well enough to trust them with a big ordeal like a field trip yet, so this is the perfect time of year to do projects. In August, my department always spends about a week just putting labels on mailers with information about school programs and then sending them off to teachers. We do about 1000 a year, I believe. We watch movies, chit-chat, take it easy. You’ll see why this is well deserved after we get through summer.
In fall, we teach a few sporadic classroom programs, as well as teacher workshops, day programs where we introduce kids to the aquarium field, homeschool days, and special events for teachers. In between all that, I spend a good portion of my time completing long-term projects. One of my projects that I’ve decided I’ll never really finish is inventorying our storage room and putting that into an Excel document so that anyone can find anything, if we have it. But more likely, I’m working on developing some sort of curriculum.
I really like writing programs, but it’s trickier than just writing what I am interested in. I have to decide on an age-range, and take into consideration the developmental needs of those students. Preschoolers, for example, need to wiggle around, kindergartners love to repeat phrases and do silly hand motions, high schoolers like to roll their eyes. I also have to write the curriculum to state/national standards. Teachers need to justify their field trips, so our classes need to meet some of the educational standards (or benchmarks) for their grade. Once that has been sorted out, I have to think of what would be feasible given our various resources, and relevant.
Another thing to consider when teaching and developing curriculum, whether it’s worksheets, classroom programs, or interpretive programs, are best practices. There’s a surprising amount of research into what makes interpretation (translating natural resources into terms of the guests’ experiences) effective. There are also, of course, trends to contend with – right now, informal education is moving away from traditional classroom lecture style to hands-on, and especially inquiry-based learning (which might be the best thing to happen to my life; I love it).
So, when I’m writing curriculum, I have to tie all of those things into conservation messages promoted by our facility, the AZA, and the kids’ background knowledge. It can be a lot to keep track of, but I really do enjoy it. Writing continuing education programs (called enrichments) for our volunteers is really similar – consider your audience, their interests, best practices, trends, and engagement – but I don’t have to worry about state standards. Ka-ching!
Then winter rolls around, and classroom programs start to pick up. We teach in the morning, give lunch breaks to our interpreters (those nice people who talk to you about the animals on exhibit/in the touch pool and tell you how to be safe. Fun fact: they are also college educated, or in college, so you can, in fact, take their word for it), then get supplies ready for various programs.
Winter is probably my least favorite season because it involves a lot of silly programs that I personally believe are a waste of my department’s time and talents. Yeah, we “get” kids and truly like them, but I don’t enjoy sitting at a table that’s empty for 30 minutes at a time, then overrun by kids who are half interested in the resource-intensive (read: wasteful) craft they can do/take home/whatever I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. The best part of winter is when we do teacher workshops and have lots of day programs.
Then, after the new year, we ramp up for spring. Spring. Is. CRAZY. Around February, we start getting inundated with field trip reservations (be nice to the girl on the phone; she works really hard to accommodate everyone fairly; it’s not her fault you’re disorganized/can’t read the paperwork or turn things in on time). January and February are generally pretty quiet, so this year when I took my two-and-a-half week vacation to Europe, I was really surprised to see how much I missed.
But around mid-march, we get in at 8 AM, set up for programs, and then teach straight through from 9:30 AM to 1:30 PM (sometimes 2:30). That might not seem like much, but we have to carry the same high-energy, happy vibe like each class is the first we saw. We also have to quickly set up the room in between different programs, answer questions, and help wrangle school groups. Then I will give the interpreter a break, take my own, do whatever else happens to be on my docket (menial tasks like paperwork, cleaning, sorting t-shirts, etc.) before I run home.
Although we have overnight programs every week, springtime sees them increase. It’s actually nice, because I get the day before/after off and get to sleep on the clock – for all of the 4 or 5 hours it usually ends up being, IF nobody gets sick/has to go home/has a problem with the exhibits. If I’m not the one leading the overnight, I still get to come in an hour early to help prepare for/clean up after breakfast.
Springtime flies by, but summer is no break. As soon as classroom stuff finishes up, I have to put together all the supplies for summer camp, organize paperwork, look out for allergies, etc. Then, because of my work schedule, I get to work a full 40 hour week…then work another full week right after before getting 2 days off and starting all over again.
And summer camp. Oh, summer camp! It’s like day programs, but you have more kids, and you have them all week so they have enough time to lose respect for you and each other! If you’ve never been alone in a play room of 20 running, jumping, screaming, pushing, shoving, crying, tattling, bullying 7 year olds, then consider yourself lucky.
In between summer camps, we have day programs, teacher workshops, and the occasional vacation coverage. Every week of the year, we set up for overnights, mop, vacuum, and scrub the classroom, take care of our animals (including water changes), renew supplies, do pathway interpretation, provide crowd control for events, and handle between 200 (fall) to 3000 (spring) school/daycare groups.
So, hopefully you can see why we like August when everybody goes back to school and we breathe a couple sighs of relief.
No, we aren’t running around caring for animals all day. That’s its own animal, pun intended but I’m not sorry for it. It’s hard, when an animal doesn’t want to participate in a training session, doesn’t feel well, isn’t getting along. And it’s hard to spend so much of your day cleaning up.
A lot of keepers get their start as educators, but I never will. As much as I love the animals, I really hate to do dishes and cook, and keepers spend a significant portion of their day preparing food, cleaning exhibits, and washing stinky dishes. Educators have to care for a few animals, which is fine, but I get to enjoy all the animals without having to do the unfun stuff.
As an educator, I’ve been puked on, spit on, punched right in the boobs, scratched, and poked. Every time I teach a program, some shark-obsessed kid will tell me why megalodons still exist (they do not), or hear the same stories. Every time that I do exhibit interpretation, I get to hear someone say about how they swam with stingrays or ask what about the Crocodile Hunter. I have to discipline kids who pick on other kids, and console ones who miss their parents. I have to try to make picky eaters happy, and make sure that not a single french fry touches the lips of a kid who is allergic to shellfish. I get to hear every complaint that parents have, no matter how unreasonable it is, and enjoy the wonderful adults who talk through me, who disrupt my classes by coming and going or yelling at me, who text and make phone calls while I’m trying to teach.
Despite all that up there (all 1700 words of it), I love what I do. I really do. I love inspiring children to look deeper into natural systems, to look at animals in a new light. I love when a class goes quiet with thought as I describe a world without tigers, as they ponder the gravity of extinction…and then empowering them to protect endangered species with simple steps, and bigger actions. I love breaking down exactly how much fresh water is available for all 7.1 billion humans to use, and making kids hold water jugs to feel what it’s like for the people who must carry their water miles from the well. I love speaking to a few guests, or a crowd of 100 or more.
And I love giving teachers new tools to educate their children. I love giving teachers a break from teaching, to enjoy learning along with their kids. I love changing misconceptions. I love encouraging all students, but especially girls and people of color, to be scientists. I love seeing stuck-up high schoolers light up with legitimate excitement as they dissect a squid; or, failing that, I love seeing them get squid guts on their clothes.
Even when my campers are upset, I love seeing the compassion that their peers have – sometimes, the other kids are much better at consoling their classmates than I ever could be. They’re also better at punishing the bad ones, it’s great. I love the hilarious and sweet things that kids say. I love hearing a parent gush about how great a program was, or how much their kid enjoyed it. I love seeing the same faces for day programs and summer camp over and over again.
I love having the chance to be creative. I love knowing that ideas I had are being used in other classrooms across the country (cough OCEARCH cough). I love exchanging ideas and techniques, and hearing about others’ experiences. I love learning to be a better educator and constantly improving myself. I love teachers in general, because who has a better sense of humor about kids than them?
I love my coworkers. The other educators are hilarious, talented, exasperating people, and they feel like my family. The trainers and aquarists operate on varying levels of hilarity and familiarity, but they’re all eager to help out. They’re all interested in connecting with the public to various extents; they have so much knowledge and passion. It’s my job to relate that knowledge and passion to the guests, and I love that too. Of course I love the animals; what’s not to love?
So, there you have it. Anywhere you go, there will be things that are hard about your job. But if you’re as lucky as I am, there will be a positive side to the same coin and when you flip it, it mostly lands on that side. Working in the zoo/aquarium field is hard: hard to get into, hard to afford, hard work once you’re there, no matter which department you fit in. But it’s so, so worth it.