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Jacob Banik pursued his MAT-chemistry at the Graduate School of Education while teaching high school students and raising two daughters.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Commencement 2016 profile: Jacob Banik
May 16, 2016Tweet
Five days a week teaching high school science in Athens, Pa.
Three nights a week taking classes at Binghamton University’s Graduate School of Education.
Seven days a week raising daughters ages 8 and 5.
Jacob Banik’s schedule for the past year seems daunting, but it’s not as daunting as 2014. That year, his wife, Kerry, died less than three years after being diagnosed with terminal breast cancer while pregnant.
“If I can get through the first year of being a single dad, going through grief counseling with myself and the girls,” Banik said. “If I can through that, there’s not a whole lot that can stop me.”
Banik, 34, of Wellsboro, Pa., used to work in analytical chemistry. He will graduate this month with a master of arts in teaching chemistry and hopes to teach in the Scranton area.
From tragedy to teaching
Banik received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biochemistry from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2004; a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of East Anglia in Norwich (UK) in 2005; and a doctorate in organic chemistry from Rockefeller University in 2011.
He met his future wife when he was home in Wellsboro after his time in England. The couple soon married, and their first daughter, Molly, was born in 2008. Kerry, who had survived cancer as a teen, was diagnosed again with the disease in 2011.
“They induced her at 35 weeks,” Banik said. “Caroline was born five weeks early, but she was a healthy baby. When more testing was done, they realized how invasive the cancer had become. At that point, doctors said it was treatable, but not curable. We were told we didn’t have decades – but not months.”
The couple decided to move near Kerry’s hometown of Athens, Pa., so they could be closer to her family. Banik took a lab position with an analytical chemistry company in the region. That’s where he was working when Kerry passed away on Jan. 2, 2014.
“We had always talked about me getting back into teaching,” said Banik, who taught chemistry for six months in the Wellsboro Central School District in 2006. “Maybe I could go the professor-university route. But I was a single dad, so if I were to get back into teaching maybe the route needed to be secondary (education).”
Banik returned to the classroom in January 2015, when the Athens school had an opening for a long-term substitute teacher.
“I quit my job in the lab and took the teaching gig – even though it was temporary – because I needed to commit to teaching,” he said.
‘You need to find one person’
Finding a school that offered teaching certification was an immediate challenge for Banik.
“Very few of the (schools) had anything resembling night classes,” he said. “It was daytime hours. They were looking for young kids right out of school, continuing on for their master’s or bachelor’s. I needed something where the classes were at night, where I could still work (days) and provide for my children.”
Banik admitted that he got into arguments with officials at schools over their inflexibility. He had the drive and passion, but was facing logistical hurdles.
“It was always ‘can’t, can’t, can’t … don’t, don’t, don’t … won’t, won’t, won’t. We need you on campus,’” he said.
An official at Millersville University in Pennsylvania gave Banik some advice: ‘I can’t help you out, but you need to find one person who will take you under their wing and figure this out.”
For Banik, that person was Tami Mann, senior staff assistant and education pre-advisor at Binghamton’s Graduate School of Education.
“Tami Mann is an all-star,” Banik said. “She said: ‘Let’s talk to (Professor) Thomas O’Brien. Let’s get this ball rolling.’ To this day, if I have a question – logistically speaking – I go to Tami. She has been a gem of a resource. She made this possible.”
Mann was inspired to make Banik’s mission a success.
“Jacob’s determination and resilience – absolute and unfaltering (while being a single father) and setting the best example for the profession as well as for his children – is what wins me over,” she said. “That is what catches my attention and my admiration.”
Banik recalled his first meeting with O’Brien, his advisor and instructor.
“I got here early one morning,” Banik said. “I grabbed two cups of coffee, and Tom O’Brien doesn’t drink coffee! So I drank them both. He laid out the classes I needed to take. I started with a 7:25 p.m. class because it was the only one I could fit into my schedule.”
O’Brien, who specializes in science education, said it has been “a privilege” to work with Banik.
“A well-earned doctorate is a sign of an individual who is not simply ‘very intelligent,’ but who has also developed a refined sense of what he or she doesn’t know, a passion and confidence to pursue a lifetime of learning, and a commitment to making a positive difference in the world,” O’Brien said. “Jacob came to our MAT program with significant content expertise and experiences in both the world of science and science teaching. … I’m certain that he will ‘pay forward’ many times over all that he learned at (the GSE).”
In the fall of 2015, the Athens school principal asked Banik if he could fill in for a high school science teacher. Banik would teach subjects such as animal science, veterinary science, physical science and anatomy to students in grades 9-12.
“Because of my teaching experience and the PhD already under my belt, Tom O’Brien said there was no question I could do it,” Banik said.
The position meant more work and responsibility for Banik, who was also making a 45-minute commute to Binghamton after work for classes three nights a week.
“It pulled at my heartstrings,” he said. “I love teaching and being with kids, so I committed to (the position).”
Giving back to the students
Banik’s inspiration for getting into education came from his ninth-grade science teachers, Allan and Donna Puskar.
“To this day, I still see them once a month,” he said. “They are like grandparents to my children. They have had such an impact on my life. They set me on the path of science. There was no drive for me to go into science, besides the great teachers I had. … To inspire students and have a fraction of the impact that my teachers had on me – I thought that would be a fulfilling and satisfying career path.”
For Banik, there is much more to teaching than a salary.
“I’m not going to get rich teaching high school. That’s not the point,” he said. “The point is what I can give back and what the kids can get out of my career. I have the knowledge base and experience to show them what’s possible. I know what graduate research is and I know what working as a scientist in industry is like. When students ask: ‘What do I need this for?’ I say, ‘Here is what you can do. Here are the jobs you could have.’”
Banik also stresses citizenship and manners in his classrooms.
“If a student comes to me and says ‘Dr. Banik, can I go to the bathroom?’ I’ll say ‘Well, I hope so!’ They will roll their eyes and say: ‘Please, may I go to the bathroom?’ To certain people, it makes no difference. But nobody has ever not gotten a job because they are too polite. That could be the difference. And they might not hear that at home.”
Giving students self-worth and inspiration is as important to Banik as his science lessons.
“It’s a lofty goal to think that I can have that kind of impact in 40 minutes, but I know that I do it,” he said. “I’ve had kids come back and say: ‘I didn’t really like you, but I learned a lot from you.’ I appreciate that.”
‘A bittersweet day’
When Banik recalled the time management of the past year, he remembered “stressed-out drives” on Route 17 to Binghamton. He also recalled the incremental steps of his wife’s cancer treatment.
“We started out with once-daily pills and she was healthy and we went on trips,” he said. “Then we’d get a PET scan and switch the medication. When the side effects got worse, I’d look back and think: I’d love to go back to the point when it was Stage 4 cancer and a pill with no side effects. Then we’re on to the weekly chemotherapy IV and she feels lousy afterwards. Man, I’d love to go back to the pills with the awful side effects.
“You figure it out and you get through it.”
Banik, who has not ruled out becoming a high school administrator or teaching other instructors someday, said he expects Commencement to be “a bittersweet day.”
“I came out of this learning a lot more than I expected to,” he said. “But it is bittersweet. The only reason I could do this is because (Kerry) is not here. I no longer had the medical bills piling up. … It is a monumental achievement to me. If I can be a full-time dad, full-time teacher and full-time student, what’s next? Bring it on. Anything is possible. The sky’s the limit.”