A life devoted to science education04/08/2013
Legendary science technician Kay Memmott looks back on her long career.
Welcome, Kay. How long have you been a science technician?
I was a science technician for 55 years and have now been retired for eight years. Previously I worked in the dairy and plastics industry. I did take time out to be with my two children until the youngest started school and again when we came to New Zealand from the UK when I had to wait two years for a position to become available.
What led you into the field?
I travelled to school on the bus and always tried to get onto the upper deck. We would pass an industrial laboratory where I saw technicians performing their tasks and thought how I would like to do that and get paid for doing it. I attended a girls’ grammar school which was in a large old house.
I loved practical science but was a bit of a day dreamer. I used to sit by the window that looked out onto a lovely manicured garden. I usually only managed a few weeks before I was moved to the front of the class in front the teacher’s desk, but in those few weeks, I would watch the science technician walking around picking flowers, collecting leaves and seed heads for our science lessons and decided that was what I would eventually like to do.
I also envied the fact that she had to set up practical experiments and they always worked.
What was it like when you first began?
I started my career in England on a full-time salaried position. The larger comprehensive secondary schools had at least two science technicians whilst the smaller schools had just one. When we came to New Zealand in 1974 and I enquired about a position, I was told that New Zealand schools did not have technicians and would I like to do some relief teaching.
That was a “no, thank you” from me, but I had to wait two years before a school that had just opened advertised for a science technician. I applied for the advertised position and felt sure that I would get it as I held an English science technician’s qualification, which was unavailable here.
However, upon waiting two weeks and not having a reply, I phoned the school and the position had not been filled but the principal saw the position as being suited to a man!
Could I solder? Yes, of course I could. Could I use a power drill? Can’t anyone? I was beginning to wonder whether I really wanted to work in a school where the principal asked questions based on gender. However, I got an interview and convinced him that I could do almost anything a male could do, plus all the things that a woman can do, too. He was never allowed to forget those first questions!
Over your career, how have you seen the role of science technicians change?
I suppose the first change that comes to mind is that most if not all secondary schools here in New Zealand now employ a science technician.
When I first started working in New Zealand, we were very much on our own and had no conditions of service. We were paid only for the hours that we worked, were not paid for any public holidays and had no holiday pay.
It wasn’t until NZEI took support staff on board through ESPA (Education Paraprofessional Association) that we started to negotiate a contract and began to accumulate conditions of service. The first one being that we had a place to store personal possessions after a support staff member had her hand bag stolen. Yes, we started from scratch.
The second change was that we got recognition from a national organisation and later we were taken under the wings of the science teachers through The Royal Society.
Prior to the change to Tomorrows Schools, science departments would be issued with equipment through the Ministry of Education. A new laboratory would bring along with it wooden crates, which I seem to remember came from India, with lots of science equipment.
This process would be repeated every few years. It was like opening a Pandora’s Box. However, the equipment that arrived was not necessarily what was needed. After all, who needs more than one small jar of sodium and phosphorus or dozens of retort stands.
Tomorrows Schools saw the installation of the operations grant and science departments were able to decide how they spent their budget. They had more autonomy, but in many cases, they had to fight for their budget when the board of trustees had other priorities.
The technician’s salary also comes from the operations grant, and many BOT members, who themselves had probably never seen a science technician in their school, did not and many still do not reward technicians for the responsibility and knowledge needed to perform their tasks.
Technicians must respond to every change in the science curriculum. They must be aware of new demands for the practical component and provide good working equipment.
NCEA demands internal assessments, and each student requires the correct equipment to perform a given experiment. It’s the technician who is responsible for making, replenishing, and maintaining sets of gear. No longer does one experiment get demonstrated by the teacher and moved from class to class. Techies have to be on top of the game at all times.
Having been away from the position for several years during which technology has moved at an ever increasing pace, I am not fully aware of the changes that there have been, but from what I have seen and heard, more work now involves computers, PowerPoint presentations, and electronics.
I did some relieving work a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed issuing electronic kits for electricity experiments rather than having to solder leads to light bulbs or repair ammeters that were mistaken for voltmeters.
Technicians are no longer expected to work in areas the size of a large cupboard, I hope, and if they are, I suggest that they alert in health and safety officers because technicians have a responsibility for the safety of their workspace and the equipment they issue.
Digital communication has changed the role of science technicians. How wonderful it was when we all had access to computers and were able to contact a whole network of school technicians not only locally but worldwide. This helped us solve problems and share ideas more easily.
There is now more control on chemicals which can be used in schools so that the classroom environment is safe for the students without spoiling the magic and excitement of science.
I hear you’ve always been a good problem solver. Is there a stressful situation that stands out in your memory?
Most of the problems have been about where to obtain equipment or specimens or just providing a listening ear for people in what can be a solitary position. Sometimes, dare I say it, I’ve advised fellow technicians on how to deal with a stressed teacher.
Something I found very stressful was helping to negotiate technicians’ pay. Sometimes their board of trustees refused to place them on the grade to which they were entitled. Often it only required the right word or sentence – e.g. ‘managing systems’ – put into the job description to help their case for a higher grade.
They could certainly try their best but sometimes it made little difference. Nothing is more soul destroying than doing an excellent job with less than the deserved reward.
What is it about being a science technician that has kept you doing the job?
I had an HOD who trusted me to get the job done in my own way. Because I worked in a new school, I was able to set up my laboratories as I wanted them, and he always supported me if I had problems with any of the staff.
I had support from most of the teachers I have ever worked with and still count many of them as my friends.
I have loved working with students – especially seniors – and enjoyed my interaction with many of the students who have been sent to me for ‘time out’.
I so enjoyed working with new equipment and experiments, even if they worked for me but messed up when students got hold of them. Each day brought a challenge.
I have been fortunate to be able to work at the same school in an enjoyable environment for thirty years, in a job that I chose whilst daydreaming when still at school.
It enabled me to work while my children were at school and be with them in the school holidays even though I wasn’t paid for school holidays. (By the way, I want to mention, support staff are still not paid for school holidays…)
A technician’s job presents a challenge every day but challenges are what techies enjoy and are good at. That is why many of them stay in the job for many years.
Most of all, I kept doing the work because of the support and friendship from other New Zealand science technicians.