Editor’s Note: This story was written for and originally published in “The Tattler,” Ithaca High School’s student newspaper.
Why I shop downtown — Marty
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Hailing from room H206, Kate Gefell teaches Honors Chemistry and Earth Science. She is known for her corny jokes and holiday traditions, including exploding pumpkins and Mole Day.
At dinner one night, I sat down my mother to learn more about her path to IHS. Although I may be biased, I think that her dedication to her students and her sunny disposition make her an invaluable member of the IHS community.
Elise Reynolds ’15: Where did you grow up? Tell me about your family.
Kate Gefell: I grew up in Rochester, New York in the town of Brighton. I’m the fifth of eight children—I have six brothers and one sister, and I’m right in the middle of all of those brothers. Growing up was very lively in our house; we had a big yard, so we spent a lot of time outside playing games.
Q: What was your high school like? What were you like in high school?
KG: I went to an all-girls Catholic school called Our Lady of Mercy, so the environment was quite a bit different from IHS. The best part was that it gave all leadership to girls at a time when there were generally far fewer women in leadership positions in society. I loved it—it was like a slumber party all day.
I was interested in a lot of things! I loved singing, so I was in musicals, and I played piano. I was also in student government, and I worked as a cashier. I worked very hard in school. I loved English and language—and math and science, of course. It had a lot to do with the teachers rather than the material itself—I had two science teachers, for physics and chemistry, who were really fantastic and influenced me a lot to eventually be a teacher.
Q: After high school, you went to Cornell for engineering. That must’ve been quite a leap.
KG: Having six brothers, I was somewhat prepared to be in a school where the ratio was seven males to one female—that was the ratio in chemical engineering at the time. Because of my family and the fact that I had been able to have leadership at Mercy, it didn’t faze me so much to be in the minority.
Q: How and why did you make the transition from engineering to teaching?
KG: I worked as an engineer at Rohm and Haas Company in Philadelphia for four years, paid off all of my debt, and bought a car and a piano. I went into production engineering because I knew that I was very much a people person, something that sort of made me an outlier in engineering.
I worked with operators in the plant and actually got the opportunity to teach them. I taught statistical quality control and loved it—not so much the statistics, but just being with the operators and helping them learn something new. I had had people in high school tell me, “You should be a teacher, because you really explain things well,” so as I started to realize that engineering wasn’t for me, that thought was in the back of my head.
I started to think about what would make my life feel worthwhile. At the end of the day, did I really want to have as my greatest contribution in life improving the products and profit of a corporation, even if it did mean a great salary? I didn’t think that I could be happy having that as my life’s work. I liked the science of it, but in application, I found it too narrow.
Q: How has your engineering background influenced your teaching?
KG: There’s teaching and there’s thinking. Engineering really influenced my thinking. I think in a way that is very logical and systematic, so I like to teach that way, too. I want to help people who are more scattered to see logical sequences and follow them.
I went into engineering that way—I didn’t just want to learn a body of knowledge; I wanted to think. I always liked the practical aspect of engineering, and I try to apply that as well. We’re doing these experiments with little beakers and test tubes, but look at the world! Look at how things connect and where science can take you.
Also, significant figures—I’m totally into them. That was my freshman year at Cornell. If you didn’t have sig figs, it was considered really sloppy work. That’s a big thing of mine. Students probably hate that, but I think it’s really important.
Q: Last year you started teaching Earth Science. How does it compare to Honors Chemistry?
KG: I did teach Earth Science about 20 years ago, but I’d gotten rid of everything, so it was basically starting from scratch. It’s been challenging, but I love it. What I love about teaching both chemistry and earth science is the contrast of macro vs. micro. Chemistry is very conceptual: molecules and their interactions.
Earth science is all around you; it’s practical and hands-on. What’s always fascinating to me is where things intersect. You can’t have a complete understanding of rocks and minerals without knowing chemistry. I want to interweave the courses so that Chemistry students see how chemistry is intimately involved in earth science and earth science is bolstered by a better understanding of chemistry.
Q: You frequently put science jokes at the top of tests. Which is your favorite?
KG: What does a subatomic duck say? “Quark!”
Q: How has IHS changed in your time here?
KG: In terms of teaching, there is a lot more interaction between colleagues. I think that because of Professional Learning Communities, the collaboration and teamwork among teachers is much greater now. In the beginning, there was no cohesion. How can we ask students to collaborate if teachers aren’t collaborating? It strengthens everybody: to be a good teacher, you have to be eager and willing to learn.
Q: What is the best thing about the IHS community?
KG: The amazing student body, in every aspect—not just student achievement, but character. There are outstanding people walking in the halls every day. I’m humbled by the fact that there are brilliant minds all around. Brilliant minds in terms of humor, music, language, technology, and creativity. The breadth of intelligence, both academic and practical, is truly impressive.
Q: What is something you’d change about it?
KG: I’d love for there to be not just more tolerance, but a greater understanding of and appreciation for the incredible potential of diverse groups working together on any endeavor. So much can be achieved. The IHS community can be a bit fractured, a microcosm of the world right outside our doors; if I could figure out how to make bridges across populations, that would be something I’d love to see not only in IHS but in the world.
Q: What is the biggest misconception about teachers?
KG: I think the impression that teachers are slackers, that we punch out at 3:30 p.m. It’s so untrue. You find many passionate teachers who give heart and soul to making fantastic lessons. Those lessons don’t just happen. There’s a lot of thought that goes into them, from thinking to prep to execution.
Q: What is one piece of advice you want to give to IHS students?
KG: Be open-minded! Learn to be comfortable with ambiguity. I think it’s a good thing for people to explore different things and not get set on one career too early. Don’t feel like you have to know answers—there’s always more to know. To have humility as you go through life will serve you well.
Book: Any and all Jane Austen
Music: Joni Mitchell
Scientist: Neil deGrasse Tyson
Lab equipment: Bunsen burner
Mole: Molezart, Elmole, S’Mole