Mr. Braxton: A Chemist with a Passion for Activism

By: Mahala Garcia-Bartch  

For Mr. Braxton, Central’s newest addition to the science department, chemistry isn’t his only passion––he is also a devoted advocate of education equity. Before choosing to become a chemistry teacher, Mr. Braxton spent a lot of his time as a community organizer and worked on engaging parents of public school students to become more involved in fighting for improved public education. He later worked as a union organizer for the Service Employees National Union Local 32BJl to help workers advocate for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He helped organize successful fast-food worker strikes in various cities, and most notably, helped security officers in Pittsburgh form a union. 

So why transition from community organizing into becoming a public school teacher? 

“I had never actually been a student in a public high school, so I felt more like an outsider trying to advocate for higher quality public schools. At some point, I decided organizing work wasn’t the thing for me in the long run… I’d wanted to actually have a stake in it myself, rather than just being an outsider trying to make it happen,” explains Braxton. 

When it came to deciding what subject he wanted to teach public school students, the chemistry was the perfect fit. “I had a degree in Chemistry and a phenomenal high school Chemistry teacher and so when I thought about going into teaching, chemistry was always something that I thought about doing,” Braxton says. 

What does chemistry have to offer?

“I think chemistry is a subject that can answer all kinds of questions about the world around us. However, one of the more important things to note is that a lot of my students are not going to become chemists, and so I try to think about what a subject like chemistry has to offer students who are not going to pursue careers in science,” Braxton admits. 

He describes that a key aspect of chemistry is that it gives you the chance to practice complex problem solving, a versatile skill.

Braxton continues, “I had a student before who was really interested in becoming a detective, and if you wanna have a career being a detective, you need to know how to take in lots of information and systematically go about trying to come to an answer. A lot of chemistry is about that…you have to collect lots of evidence and try to piece it together to try to understand what’s happening.”

A year of virtual chemistry 

Mr. Braxton’s first year teaching at Central had a bit of a rocky start. He had to instruct students virtually for an entire year, which is not something easy to do considering the intricacies of the subject. 

“The hardest part was that we didn’t get to do in-person labs!” Braxton exclaims. “It’s much more enjoyable for everybody to get to do it hands-on, and I think there is some deeper learning that happens when students actually get to put the chemicals together and see up close everything that’s going on.” 

Now that Central has returned to full in-person schooling, Braxton has been able to have students participate in hands-on labs and lessons and interact with students face to face (with a mask of course!). Although this is his first year teaching in Central’s building, he has already taught under one of the most challenging conditions: through a computer screen. 

How can science at Central be improved? 

While Mr. Braxton admits that Central’s traditional approach to teaching science has been successful for many Central students; he believes that the science curriculum as a whole, even beyond Central, can be improved. Braxton explains, “I think one of things that often happens in science classes is that you’re expected to memorize facts that some scientists have discovered before you were born. But a lot of times, that information doesn’t turn out to be very useful because it doesn’t transfer into other things you want to do in your life. But, if you can actually learn how to think like a scientist, then that can be really useful.” 

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