Once a Grizzly, always a Grizzly: Payton alum reflects on returning as a teacher

By Megha Khemka, Junior Editor-in-Chief

Mr. O’Dowd-Ryan was a member of Payton’s third graduating class and returned to the school as a teacher 13 years later.

When Mr. O’Dowd shared that he was applying to go to Payton in 2001, his friend’s parents were not impressed. “He said, ‘I would never send my kid to a place like Payton,’ recalls Mr. O’Dowd of one eighth-grade father. “‘We have no idea what kind of school it is.’” It was common, he added, for students to get into Payton but choose to go to well-established selective enrollment high schools like Whitney Young instead.

Two decades later, the student who is offered a seat at Payton and chooses not to attend is a significantly rarer species. Yet that parent had a point; compared to many other selective enrollment high schools, Payton is quite new. Whitney Young was founded in 1975, while Lane Tech has been operating since 1908; Payton, in contrast, opened in 2000. Fortunately, the school’s novelty also means that many of the individuals who witnessed its early days are still with the Grizzly community today. Among those is Mr. O’Dowd-Ryan ‘06, a member of Payton’s third graduating class and now in his fourth year as a science teacher here.

The Grizzly experience has been central at many stages of Mr. O’Dowd’s life, informing many of his choices between the time he graduated from the school and returned as a teacher. In fact, it was his experience at Payton that got him interested in being a teacher. Just as many Payton students do today, he took AP Chemistry under Mr. Kinderman. At that time, that included a requirement to spend time tutoring Honors Chemistry students. Between that and math team competitions in which he was judged on how well he could explain his solutions, he went into college already interested in teaching. “I got some public speaking experience,” said Mr. O’Dowd of his time at Payton, “and explaining how I’m doing the work I’m doing.” 

Even once he graduated, his experience with the Payton community continued to influence his decisions and support his ambitions. He applied his high school experience to tutoring students throughout college, and when he came back to Chicago, he participated in a graduate teaching program with a former Payton teacher at the University of Chicago.

Because of that impact, Mr. O’Dowd has wanted to come back to Payton ever since realizing teaching was what he wanted to do. “I had extremely good teachers,” he said, “especially in the math and science departments. And I really wanted to part of those departments, specifically wanted to be part of science.” After seven years of teaching at other schools around Chicago, he was able to do so, joining Payton’s science department four years ago.

In some ways, it was nice to be back to a place he knew so well. “Normally, as a first year teacher coming to a new building, you probably don’t know anybody, you don’t know where the rooms are,” says Mr. O’Dowd. “So it was very nice to come back to a place that I was familiar with.” In other ways, though, the familiarity was strange. “Getting used to working alongside teachers who are far more experienced than I am, because they were teaching when I was still a student when I was still a student here, definitely took some getting used to.” Apart from Mr. Kinderman, Mme. Imrem (French), Mr. Kuchii (PE), and Ms. Bertoni (PE) are all current colleagues that taught Mr. O’Dowd. While there were awkward moments at first, Mr. O’Dowd said he continues to learn a great deal from those individuals and is now more comfortable working alongside them.

Teachers aside, Mr. O’Dowd has noticed that the Payton he now teaches at is distinct in many ways from the high school he attended. Some of the changes are physical: with the addition of the annex in 2016, the school increased enrollment by one third. Others are regarding the makeup of the student body itself. “Payton used to be a much more diverse school,” Mr. O’Dowd said. “And that was by design, the admissions process took race into account,” he added, referring to the previous race-based quotas that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2009, leading CPS to instead use socioeconomic factors and census data to determine admission to magnet and selective enrollment high schools.

On a more personal level, Mr. O’Dowd has also made a conscious effort to make his teaching style different from the biology education he received at Payton. “When I took AP Bio,” he said, “to do well on the exam, you had to memorize as much of the biology textbook as possible. And now it’s been shifted away from just knowing all that stuff, to understanding how that knowledge comes to be.” This is reflective of a shift in science education more broadly, with Mr. O’Dowd wanting to emphasize scientific literacy and critical thinking skills over strict memorization. “So we’ve focused a lot more on the process of science now, as opposed to just, ‘here’s a whole bunch of science facts and memorize them,’ which is not useful,” he said.

That emphasis has become even more pronounced in the past few school years, as the importance of data literacy and scientific understanding were thrown into sharp relief by the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether that’s understanding how an mRNA vaccine works or making sense of constantly changing COVID data, Mr. O’Dowd said he hopes to empower students to make decisions and understand the world around them using the scientific process. 

The pandemic changed his teaching in other ways, too. Like many other instructors, he turned to collaborative software such as Pear Deck and Nearpod to engage with students remotely, and continues to incorporate those tools in his classes today. More broadly, though, he said the challenges of facilitating scientific inquiry online “pushed me to think a little bit more about the ways I can use technology, like differentiate and provide lessons at slightly different levels.” From a content standpoint, too, he has noticed that kids’ experiences with the pandemic have familiarized them with concepts like antigens and PCR testing of which they previously had little knowledge. Mr. O’Dowd added that this provides a new, useful reference point for certain biology units like one on viral infections, but has to balanced with empathy around how difficult the pandemic has been — and still is — for students. 

Between the pandemic and a years-long shift in approach to scientific teaching, biology with Mr. O’Dowd bears few similarities to the education he himself received at Payton. But Mr. O’Dowd says Payton has always been a school that changed lives. “I know I wouldn’t be where I am today, were it not for the support I got from Payton and its teachers, both while I was a student here at Payton, and since then.” Payton’s increased attractiveness for prospective high schoolers, and its role as a place where driven students can receive an amazing education and access to opportunities, is a role he considers incredibly important. 

However, he also thinks there’s work to be done. The changes in demographics he discussed earlier mean that Payton’s incredible opportunities could be offered to a greater diversity of students. And with skyrocketing rankings comes a proportionate increase in stress. As someone who attended a much less intensive Payton, he now hopes to help students find a balance between aiming high and “recognizing that not hitting where you expect to be not being at that top level doesn’t mean that you are a failure.” 

Whether as a student, community member, or teacher, Mr. O’Dowd has been a Grizzly for most of his life and will be for the foreseeable future. In the coming years, he looks forward to continuing to explore some of his nonacademic interests through seminars (this year he’s teaching card tricks, among other things), and potentially putting his marine science background to use through an aquatic science class. With everything that he’s gotten from, and given to, the high school, he doesn’t see himself leaving anytime soon. “It took me a while to get here,” he said of his teaching position at Payton, “and I think I want to stick around.”

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