Chemistry Teacher Finds Himself on Both Sides of Cultural and Academic Divides

At first glance all there is to see is a tall man with big hands who always seems to carry a water jug and a vibrant colored shirt that almost seems coordinated with his bright smile. Clayton E. Mattis has lived a life many of us cannot imagine. From growing up in Kingston, Jamaica to working here at Mamaroneck High School as a chemistry teacher, he has learned a lot throughout his journey.

The Globe: How does the environment of learning in Jamaica as a student compare to the environment in MHS for your students?

Clayton E. Mattis: It was very tough because of the lack of resources. For example, I wanted to go to medical school there, but they only took 100 students out of thousands of applicants. The teachers were especially hard on their students for this reason. The teachers and the school system had to make the requirements tough because there was already a very small applicant pool. It was almost impossible to make the standard. In America in general, there are more opportunities for students, as such, it’s almost impossible to be denied an opportunity having met the requirements.

TG: Ever since you moved here from Jamaica what were the cultural differences that you noticed?

CM: In terms of culture it was very similar to the culture here except for a few nuances in traditions. For example, it was offensive to not say “Hello” even to strangers. It was something that was taken for granted. Then when I moved here I realized that people would only greet friends and relatives with “Hellos” instead of everyone they see. It is less of an automatic response here.

TG: When did you realize that you wanted to become a teacher?

CM: I have always loved kids and the impartation of knowledge. It’s absolutely wonderful to see someone’s eyes pop open when they realize something new. It’s an extremely fulfilling career and everyone deserves to learn.

TG: Were there any other careers that you wanted to pursue other than teaching?

CM: I wanted to be a doctor and I actually got accepted in the University of Havana and I received a scholarship to study there. Even though it was a fantastic offer I didn’t want to be restricted to only practicing in Jamaica and countries that had good relationships with Cuba. Even though now the relationships with Cuba and America has improved, at the time I thought that if I went to medical school there I would never be able to work in America. Working in America was a dream of mine.

Dr. Mattis was unable to find a spot in a school that allowed him to practice medicine in America due to his status at the time as an international student. As a second option he choose to do chemistry, or in his own words, “chemistry chose me.” For this reason he ended up going to graduate school to do a Ph.D program in chemistry at City University of New York, Graduate Center. This school allowed him to thrive as a scientist and he eventually ended up working as a college professor at Hunter college. At Hunter college he taught premed students for a number of years while doing graduate research in carbohydrate synthetic chemistry. Though he loved teaching at college, he found problems with the structure of the college system that stopped him from doing what he loves. Dr. Mattis wanted a career that would allow him the opportunity to focus on the “impartation of knowledge.” This eventually lead Dr. Mattis to teaching at MHS.

TG: What is the main difference between teaching as a professor and teaching as a high school teacher?

CM: In college the students had less of an appreciation for the science and all that it’s worth. The course I taught was prerequisite class for medical school for this reason they were only grade oriented. While here the students that are at the introductory level of science are more driven by pure curiosity and have deeper appreciation for science.

TG: What was the reason you decided to leave the college you were working at and teach at high school?

CM: As a chemistry professor working with a college in order to get tenure and have a sustainable career I was forced to constantly publish my research. The whole point of your career at the college is the research publications. I personally always knew that I loved teaching; I didn’t want to have a career only research-oriented. I understood that in the college environment that was unattainable. So I decided to switch to high school in order to focus more on teaching.

TG: Have there been any struggles that you have had in the classroom that you have not had before?

CM: In college versus high school the big difference is that students wouldn’t take a class if they didn’t want to. This is different because I have to work with students that have little interest in the class and for this reason they give less effort for this class.

TG: Did you personally learn anything from MHS?

CM: I came in fully confident with my content knowledge but the PD’s/New Teacher Meetings helped to develop my pedagogy. It became very clear to me that Mamaroneck values clear instructions, expectations and feedback at all times. Also that Mamaroneck values teachers knowing their students as individuals and not just as people to teach for 50 minutes. I learned more effective and efficient teaching strategies, closing a lesson-unit/exit strategy, assessment strategies, grading and technology in the classroom, to name a few. For example, after every test I analyze my students’ performance to see common mistakes to perhaps improve my teaching of specific topics. I was also instructed to change the seating arrangement in my classroom to clusters of four to better facilitate collaborative learning, independence and active engagement among students. The entire administration has taught and shaped me as a teacher. I had the content and knowledge for being great teacher but they have helped to work on my pedagogy.

TG: What are your views about MHS use of technology and the iPads in the school? Are they a positive tool for learning or do you think they distract student’s focus away from the class room?

CM: Having iPads in the classroom is a great technologic advancement. It is extremely necessary. Without embracing this technology, we would be regressing. This tool enables communication to flow effectively between teachers with their students. For instance, I can talk to all my students with a simple email or post on eChalk. Even though, I am a beginner and have my work cut out for me, I am embracing this technology for my classroom. In addition, personally, I think that cellphones are more of a distraction in class than the iPad, since the teachers and the administration regulates the iPads use.

By Gabriella Tucciarone

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