Happy Little Accidents

Chemistry teacher Kristyn Pluchino thought she would never become a teacher, but after majoring in chemistry and working as a contractor for the United States...

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By Jingwei Liu

The plans we make for our future almost never come to fruition. In chemistry teacher Kristyn Pluchino’s case though, her childhood dream of pursuing chemistry did. It was in a different sense, though, that reality subverted her expectations: she eventually became a teacher, something she thought she would never become.

Pluchino spent her childhood years in Liverpool, New York, with her parents and two younger sisters. She played basketball often and enjoyed spending time outside with her neighborhood friends. In school, she was especially shy, though her love for basketball was still strong. “I was always playing basketball. As soon as I was old enough to be on the school team in fifth grade, [I played] basketball, through high school and college,” she said. Though she loved basketball, she blew her knee out during her senior year of high school and never fully bounced back.

She spent most of her summers just playing and practicing basketball, though there was one summer where she worked as a front-desk receptionist. “It was terrible,” she said bluntly. “It was mostly because my boss [would] just chain-smoke in her office. It smelled terrible; she was very, very mean, and she just treated everybody like garbage.”

During a much more enjoyable summer of hers, Pluchino did research at her college, the State University of New York at Binghamton. The experience reaffirmed her desire to pursue chemistry, one that she has had since seventh grade. “I found out I really liked science, and chemistry just made sense, so I decided I’d study it. Plus, I wasn’t very good at most other things, so that narrowed it down real quick,” she joked. “I was squeamish and couldn’t handle [biology]. Physics was super challenging for me. I think I was in over my head: I didn’t take Regents physics and decided to take AP right off the bat. That did not go well.”

Though she knew the subject she wanted to pursue, Pluchino was not sure about her future career. The one thing she was sure about was that she was not interested in teaching. “When people found out in high school that I wanted to study chemistry, that was the first question they asked: do you want to be a teacher? And I said absolutely not, sounds like the worst job in the world,” she elaborated. She was also adamant about never moving to New York City (NYC), because her childhood memories of driving through the city to reach her relatives in Long Island consisted of simply sitting in traffic.

Before Pluchino decided to pursue teaching, she worked as a contractor with the United States Air Force. Her parents found her the job. “I was living at home with my parents, and I got out of bed, and I came downstairs, and it was like 11 p.m., and my dad had circled it a hundred times—the newspaper. So I think he was telling me that I needed to get a job [and] move out of their house,” she said. At the Air Force, she trained military personnel on how to properly use gas chromatography mass spectroscopy, a chemistry tool that is used to “separate the components of a gaseous mixture and then identify what’s present,” Pluchino explained. The military hoped this tool would allow them to detect potential chemical weapons. She reflected, “I was young and didn’t need a lot of sleep, so it was a fun job to meet new people, travel, and still get to do some chemistry.”

After her contract at the Air Force ended, Pluchino moved to NYC after her friends urged her to do so. “A lot of my friends were from NYC, so they kept bugging me, [saying,] ‘Just quit your job and move down, and you can become a teacher and get a real job in like a year,’” she recalled. She taught for a while at a charter school in Queens and later went on to get her credits to become a NYC public school teacher. While earning her credits, she met chemistry teacher Dr. [Steven] O’Malley, who introduced her to Stuyvesant and urged her to apply for an open chemistry teacher position. “I sent in my information, taught a demo lesson the next week, and that was 13 years ago.” she said. “Before I knew it, I was a full-time teacher [and] really enjoying what I was doing. I was like, ‘I think this is now my real job.’”

What Pluchino enjoys most about teaching is her interactions with her students. “It’s nice working with bright, motivated, interested students. Obviously, I enjoy chemistry but getting to teach it to other people, and help them understand it and enjoy it is really rewarding,” she said. Her least favorite part is, understandably, the grading. “I hate having to give some students bad news. I know it’s stressful, and in a lot of cases [they’re] doing the best [they] can, and [they] have off days, so having to sit there and put a failing grade on somebody’s test—I don’t feel good about that. I feel like I kind of failed them,” she explained. “I don’t want anybody in my class to feel like they’re not smart enough or [that] they can’t do it. Grading and having to give back [a] 14 on the test, it’s tough.” To the students that are struggling in a class, Pluchino advised, “Anything worth pursuing is going to get difficult at some point and time, regardless of what the subject area is.”

Though she thought she would never become a teacher, Pluchino has been teaching for more than 13 years, and it has become something she thoroughly enjoys. “I fell into [teaching] very accidentally. And here I am, 14 years in teaching. That’s a long time, most of it at Stuy[vesant]. I don’t think I would still be a teacher if I didn’t get to teach at Stuy[vesant],” she said.

Outside of teaching, Pluchino has many other hobbies. “I like spending time with my friends and family, and I’m really into biking. I play guitar, not very well, definitely better at biking and chemistry,” she joked. “I’m trying to teach myself how to play [guitar] as a nice way to just kind of block everything out and really have to focus and not be distracted by my phone and other obligations and all that stuff. It’s almost meditative.”