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He’s got chemistry

Whether it’s a lab in his classroom or his own grad coursework, Ely is always learning

Ely+demonstrating+a+lab+for+his+fifth+period+class.+Photo+by+Stella+Shenkman.
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He’s got chemistry

Ely demonstrating a lab for his fifth period class. Photo by Stella Shenkman.

Ely demonstrating a lab for his fifth period class. Photo by Stella Shenkman.

Stella Shenkman

Ely demonstrating a lab for his fifth period class. Photo by Stella Shenkman.

Stella Shenkman

Stella Shenkman

Ely demonstrating a lab for his fifth period class. Photo by Stella Shenkman.

Stella Shenkman, staff reporter

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Robert Ely has held many roles during his lifetime: veteran, ALC teacher, graduate student. His newest? McCallum science teacher.

I’m driven because I want to learn more. I want to know how things work,”

— teacher Robert Ely

Ely, who is in his first year at McCallum, began his seven-year teaching career in Shreveport, La., at C.E. Byrd High School. In 2013, he and his partner moved to Austin, where he worked as a science teacher at the Alternative Learning Center, or ALC.

“When I first started [at ALC],” Ely said, “it was more like regular school but with smaller class sizes, and it was really good. I liked it because I got to really know the kids to the point where you really know what is going on in their lives.”

Ely conducts graduate-level archaeology field work via Texas State in the lower Pecos region of southwest Texas. He was creating sketches of thousand-year-old paintings. Photo courtesy of Robert Ely.

Ely began substitute teaching during graduate school for extra money, only to fall in love with education. He says that teaching “is definitely the best job I’ve ever had.”

His history with education wasn’t always so happy; in high school, Ely struggled with academics.

“I was one of those kids where all through elementary and middle school, I had extremely high grades,” Ely said. “Once I hit high school, I decided I didn’t care anymore, and I had A’s in classes I liked, but F’s in classes I didn’t.”

Struggling to adjust to the world around him, Ely decided his sophomore year that he would enlist in the Air Force after high school.

“When I was a kid, I was always big about planes,” he said. “Even as a 10-year-old, my room was nothing but model planes hanging from the ceiling. I always wanted to go into the Air Force.”

Ely attended summer school after his senior year in order to get his diploma; afterwards, he enlisted.

Once I hit high school, I decided I didn’t care anymore, and I had A’s in classes I liked, but F’s in classes I didn’t.”

— teacher Robert Ely on his younger self

Being a part of the LGBTQ community, Ely’s experience in the military was far from traditional, and he ended up leaving active duty in order to more fully experience the world around him.

“I was 23,” he said. “And I basically got out because I needed to find out who I was.”

Shortly after leaving active duty, Ely met his current partner, Renee, who was also a part of the military. Together, in 2011, they decided to go back into the reserves, which Ely describes as “a dumb idea.”

The time there, he says, was significantly different than active duty.

“The reserves were nothing at all like active duty. Active duty, I loved it. The people I met there were like family and still are,” Ely said, “But, at the reserves it was a completely different energy, very detached. There was no camaraderie.”

Even while teaching, Ely continues to be a student. Ely is currently taking classes at the University of Texas through Austin Community College in order to get another bachelor’s, this time in chemistry.

“I’m driven because I want to learn more,” Ely said. “I want to know how things work, like in physics, if I could know, not just the concept of launching an object, but all the things it has to do to get to its destination. … The opportunities for further education are there, so why not?”

MAGNETO’S DAD: Teacher Robert Ely and his Egyptian Mau cat whose full name is North Gooseberry Treble/Magneto of House Chirpy Cats. Ely refers to him by the nicknames Magneto, Mags or Magsy. The cat was born in Norway at the prominent Noske Gooseberry cattery and was named grand champion at 1-year-old, but was pulled from the show circuit due to bad knees. Ely acquired Magneto for a small adoption fee and the promise to care for him even as his knees deteriorate. “He’s 100 percent mine,” Ely said. “A very lovable kitty.” Photo courtesy of Ely.

After he receives his degree, Ely hopes to continue his education beyond his master’s.

“I’ll go for a master’s in chemistry,” Ely said, “then, if I decide to get a Ph.D., it will not be in education, it’ll be in chemistry. I’m going to school until I’m dead.”

Even though he’s only been at McCallum for a semester, Ely has quickly made himself at home.

“I have never worked with such a very strong group of people,” Ely said. “The whole science department here is super tight. They all go out together and do things and even have a group chat, which is usually hilarious, I actually enjoy eating lunch with them every day. It’s definitely neat.”

Ely, who teaches chemistry, has a teaching philosophy that is very pragmatic.

“I think every teacher is a little different,” Ely said. “I try … to … focus on what could possibly make the student better.”

His main focus in the classroom is doing as much hands-on work as possible, whether it be individual labs, class presentations or creative note-taking strategies.

“I want to build up my classes’ ability to solve problems,” Ely said, so they can solve them in their everyday lives.

Ely’s students say they enjoy the hands-on class activities. Junior Eliana Schuman feels the approach has helped her succeed.

“My favorite thing about Mr. Ely’s class is the labs,” Schuman said. “Most of them are really fun, and we get to fully experience them without him micromanaging us.”

He’s not always trying to be a teacher; sometimes he is just trying to be a consultant, or even a mature friend.”

— junior Eliana Schuman

Schuman says that this goes hand-in-hand with his overall methods of teaching.

“His teaching philosophy is that if students understand the formulas, then they will do [well],” Schuman said.

His students know Ely as someone who maintains humorous environment in the classroom while also relating well to his students.

“He’s really nice and tries to be a comedian,” Schuman said. “He’s not always trying to be a teacher; sometimes he is just trying to be a consultant, or even a mature friend.”

Schuman is not the only student who admires Ely’s style; sophomore Luka Nugent also likes his untraditional approach.

“He’s very engaging, … and it’s quite fun to be in classroom,” Nugent said. “He might give lectures, but he does so in a fun and interesting way.”
Nugent says he enjoys Ely’s class because of Ely’s personality.

“Mr. Ely is very sporadic as a person,” Nugent said. “I really like his spunk and the way that he can flow in a classroom.”

Ely said he wants students to feel comfortable confiding in him and having a strong relationship even after they complete his class. Because of his negative high school experience, he hopes to pass on what he learned to his current students.

“Don’t try to carry everything on yourself,” Ely advises. “When you’re in high school, sometimes it feels like you’re in a war with a bunch of people. My best advice is to know who your friends are, know what adults you can trust, and to try and build up your experience with school because it is all about building for your future, and you can’t do it alone. I definitely did it that way, and I regret it.”

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1 Comment

One Response to “He’s got chemistry”

  1. bella rothenflue on December 29th, 2018 12:33 pm

    incredible story & incredibly written. stella did an incredible job with this article!

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