After 16 years of working as a science teacher at Beatrice High School, Joan Christen will retire at the end of the school year.
Christen reflected on her career, admitting that she initially didn’t want to be a teacher. Instead, Christen married her husband of 48 years shortly after graduating from Lewiston Consolidated Schools, and worked doing sewing and upholstery work for people.
“I did that for a long time, until one day I woke up and I couldn’t walk,” Christen said. “I found out I had a problem with my back that was probably there from infancy that was aggravated by heavy lifting.”
Christen went to a back specialist, who suggested teaching was a good profession considering her condition, as she could sit or walk around as her back required.
So at 38 years old, Christen started attending classes at Peru State College.
“I’m what you would call a late bloomer,” Christen joked. “I took a couple classes in the summer to see how that was going to work out, and it worked out really well. I majored in natural science and mathematics, and a minor in chemistry.”
Christen accepted a job teaching at Southeast Nebraska Consolidated Schools in Stella, where she worked for seven years.
While teaching, Christen received her masters and Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she studied entomology – specifically, the molecular genetics of screw-worm flies.
“I was kind of a guinea pig for an experimental Ph.D. model, where I did my classwork over the school-year, and then in the summer I went up to Lincoln and did my lab work,” Christen said. “My biggest passion is insects. I love insects. I always have, from the time I was little.”
Due to the distance from her home and the steady decline of student enrollment, Christen started looking to teach elsewhere.
In 2003, Christen was hired to work at Beatrice High School. Since then, Christen has taught zoology, botany, earth science, physics, integrated biology and AP biology.
Christen said she also started a special topics class, where students decide their own experiment, which they then present at the Junior Academy of Sciences.
“It truly impacts kids’ lives more than any other class in Beatrice, I think, because they become the expert at something,” Christen said. “They have to learn how to present something scientifically based on statistics and facts and results of their experiment. I just think it really turns a lot of kids on to going on into science.”
Christen said that 45 local students competed at nationals this year, and BHS students took five of the seven spots to continue to state. At state, ten students will be chosen to present at nationals, which several BHS students have qualified for before.
Christen discussed some of the projects students do for her classes, including an insect collection for zoology class and a creating a roller coaster out of recycled materials in physics.
“Then they calculate the velocity and acceleration and g-force of the roller coaster and all that sort of stuff,” Christen said. “The more hands-on kids can do, the better I think they are. I think they learn it better.”
Christen said the physics students are currently working on their final, where they build rockets, launch them, and write a paper about the physics of flight. The rockets that are able to be recovered after launch get put into Christen’s Rocket Hall of Fame.
“They can put their name and the date that they recovered it, and we can put it up there,” Christen said. “Sometimes kids come back and want to see if it’s still up there.”
Christen recalled a physics lab where students where challenged to demonstrate inertia without physically touching an object.
“I had this big 2,000 milliliter beaker, and I had an aluminum pie pan, a cardboard tube and a tennis ball on top,” Christen said. “The idea was to get the ball to drop down into the water that was in the beaker. So the kids are looking, and I pose questions like that a lot, so they have to figure it out. I had a broom, because you can step on a broom and make it a lever. You can bend it back and have it hit the pan, and then it would move it out of the way and then the ball would drop down, which is what I was hoping they would figure out.”
“So it’s sitting there, and all of a sudden Mac Henning says ‘I know how to do it.’ I said ‘okay, show us.’ So he gets the broom, and I don’t even remember how it happened, but he didn’t hit the pie pan,” Christen said. “He hit the beaker, and the beaker fell to the floor and shattered. There was water everywhere. It was dead silence, and all I could think to do was laugh, because it was so funny.”
Christen said the moment was made even funnier by Principal Jason Sutter – who was observing the class – calling for a janitor to clean the spill.
“Pretty soon everyone was laughing,” Christen said. “Did he mean to break it? No. Was it expensive? Yes, but what else can you do? It was an accident.”
Christen looked back fondly on many of her students, discussing what projects they did in high school, and what they were up to now.
“I try really hard – since I’m doing a lot of the dual credit classes – to prepare them for what college is really like,” Christen said. “It’s usually a big eye-opener to them, but it works, because kids come back and relate how successful they’ve been in college, and are very appreciative of the things that I’ve made them do.”
Christen said students are especially thankful for learning how to write lab reports.
“They all groan about writing up a lab report, but they know how to do it,” Christen said. “Like I tell them, ‘every professor is going to want it different. That’s okay. You know the basics.’”
Christen said that since she started working at BHS, a science club has been created that averages 130 members a year.
“We do some community service, where we provide poinsettias and geraniums to assisted living and nursing homes, and the kids deliver them,” Christen said. “We do a plant sale. The funds that we generate for that are given in scholarships. I think this year we’re giving six $500 scholarships.”
Christen said the club takes a yearly overnight trip to Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, but this year the trip was canceled due to the flooding in March.
The science classes and clubs have plenty to do at the high school, though, with a greenhouse and arboretum in the school’s back yard.
Christen said that she has learned a lot from her students, especially patience.
“I think the biggest thing they’ve taught me is how much I love kids,” Christen said. “Because if you don’t love kids, you shouldn’t be a teacher. I feel like you can always find something good in every kid, and that’s important.”
Christen stressed the importance of building relationships with her students, which was especially needed after her husband was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma.
“It’s a treatable cancer, but it’s not curable,” Christen said. “When my husband was going through chemo treatments, every month I missed two days back to back to be with him. They were super supportive, very caring, very empathetic. That helped a lot.”
Christen said she started feeling torn between her responsibilities at work and at home.
“I’m usually here at 6:30 in the morning, and if I’m lucky I go home by 5,” Christen said. “I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss the kids. But there comes a time that you just need to do things differently. It was really hard.”
Christen said she plans to use her retirement to spend more time with her husband and family.
She knows students won’t remember everything she’s taught in her sciences classes, but she hopes to have taught all of them to be lifelong learners.
“Just because you finish high school, learning doesn’t stop,” Christen said. “It doesn’t matter if you go into the workforce or go to college or go into the service, you’re still going to be learning. If you know how to learn and you know how to think, then you can do whatever you want.”