Coffee with Corey: Teaching & Blessings in Disguise

Dr. Jason Anderson was introduced to Natchitoches when he came to work as a Lecturer of Biology at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts (LSMSA) in 2011.

Teaching wasn’t always on Jason’s radar. In fact, he had zero desire to teach. Although his mother worked in the school system in St. Landry Parish for 38 years as a librarian, from young age Jason was focused on earning his doctorate and working in a lab.

“You never know when your calling is gonna call you and you don’t know your purpose in life until God directs you and takes you down the road less traveled,” he explained. “Mine was a humbling road from the height of earning my PhD, to not being able to find a job, and moving back in with my parents.”

Jason went to Texas A&M to earn a master’s and PhD in plant breeding and genetics. He also holds a bachelor’s in Biology. While he originally went to college to be a meteorologist, he naturally pivoted to become a cytogeneticist.

So where did teaching come into play for Jason? The story begins with failure.

When he was ABD “All but defended” he applied for a national talent search held by the BASF Chemical Company. While you might not recognize the company immediately, you’ve probably seen a commercial with the tagline, “We don’t make the products you buy, we make the products you buy better.”

Jason was one of five finalists to fly to BASF headquarters in North Carolina to interview for an agronomy position. His goal was to have a job lined up to transition into once he graduated. The interview went well, and Jason felt he had a unique toolset to offer with his genetics background.

When he got the email saying he didn’t get the position, he felt true failure for the first time because, before this moment, he’d never failed at anything, ever.

“I’ll never forget that moment, where for a split second I thought, ‘What am I going to do with my life,’” Jason shared. 

What he learned from this failure was to never, ever say what you’re never going to do because failing led him to teaching, which when he was younger, he said he would never, ever do.

Jason finished his PhD during the height of a recession in 2010, so he quickly found it was almost impossible to find a job. Even people with vast experience were getting laid off and Jason found himself competing with them.

From complex lab techniques to classroom quizzes, Jason’s next move was back home to Opelousas to start applying for any job.

Enter South Louisiana Community College. Working as an adjunct professor teaching Biology was a blessing in disguise because it’s where Jason not only learned how to teach, but found his love for teaching blossoming.

“The rewards I got in my first year of teaching were incredible,” Jason explained. “It taught me how to teach, how to have patience, and how to not take myself so seriously. At this point I still didn’t see God’s plan.”

Jason was teaching while also waiting to see if something else opened up in the field he wanted to work in. Quite serendipitously, one class quickly turned into a full load in the spring with lectures and labs.

“All the little pieces kept adding up,” Jason said. “I’ve always been able to help people. Even when I was young, I’d finish an assignment and I’d go on to help someone else. That’s part of my DNA. I didn’t know how much that was going to play a role in my love for teaching. I began to see it while working as an adjunct, but I still didn’t understand how my degrees were going to play a part in it.”

Fast Forward to a day when Jason was skimming through the Chronicles of Higher Education and saw information about employment opportunities at LSMSA. He knew he wanted to teach somewhere where high schoolers actually have a desire to learn

He wasn’t aware that his degrees were about to unlock that door, but the ad stated, “Master’s as a minimum, PhD preferred.”

An application led to a phone interview, which quickly led to a campus tour and a classroom demonstration. Jason was asked to teach a lab lesson on the immune system to demonstrate his ability. This demonstration occurred on the same day there was a tornado outbreak affecting Natchitoches. Jason drove into town to find limbs strewn everywhere. A lot of people weren’t on campus at the time and the students had been up all night because of the tornado warning sirens. Despite the less than ideal circumstances, Jason noticed immediately that the students were engaged, asking questions, and loving the lecture.

What stuck with him the most from his visit to the LSMSA campus was the statement, “If you work here you must be a part of the students’ lives. You’re more than a teacher here. The term “in loco parentis,” is Latin for “in the place of a parent.”

With the unique residential aspect of the Louisiana School, faculty and staff are encouraged to get involved in sports, sponsor clubs, and be more involved in the students’ lives beyond the classroom. So, Jason went straight to the gym and met Coach Dale Clingerman.

“As I’m leaving one of the students said they appreciated my lecture and said they hoped I got the job,” Jason added. “I knew then and there that I wanted the job. I was meant to be there.”

He was offered the position a few days later.

Turning 30 at the time, Jason gave himself 5 years at LSMSA. During his second year a friend in academia told him of openings at historically black colleges geared toward black males with PhDs. Some specifically wanted Jason to apply.

It was here that Jason encountered a fork in the road. A need existed in higher education, but he’d already settled in at LSMSA.

“I took a look at the kids and thought about it and said, ‘Nah, I’m good here,’ and to this day I’m good with that,” Jason shared. “I’ve been growing as a teacher and a mentor. I’ve embraced my role and my responsibilities. You’re more than just a teacher. You’re building relationships that will last long after the students graduate.”

Students attended Jason’s wedding in 2013 and he’s been to several weddings of former students. Some kids call him “pops” and he calls them “son.” Jason’s EXCEL kids are his “EXCEL babies.” The EXCEL Program is a special four-week summer program for new students that improves their foundational skills and prepares them for success in rigorous courses.

“I treat every student I interact with as if they were my child and that’s important because my wife Phyllis and I don’t have children of our own,” Jason added. “When you view it that way, it’s no longer a job. You’re doing what you were meant to do, what you enjoy doing.”

Jason is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, the National Science Teachers Association, and the National Association for Biology Teachers.

Natchitoches reminds Jason of his hometown of Opelousas. He’s seen progress but he’s seen things that have reminded him that there’s still much work to do. Recently, he tapped into speaking opportunities at local schools for some community outreach through former Natchitoches Parish School Board member Ralph Wilson.

In his spare time, Jason enjoys cooking, smoking meats, bbq, fishing (avid bass angler) and hunting (deer). He’s also into playing sports and roots for the following teams: Dallas Cowboys – Los Angeles Lakers – Texas A&M – Southern Jaguars.

As a teenager Jason almost died from a rare viral infection. To this day, his chart still says “unknown viral.” He remembers being in the ICU and receiving his last rights as the doctors didn’t give him much of a chance to live.

“I remember telling my father that I wanted to die,” he said. “I was in that much pain and I was ready. He told me that I couldn’t give up, that I had to fight because I had a purpose. That’s when I made up my mind to not let the virus defeat me and my mindset on life changed. I’ve lived my life based on that moment. You learn about purpose when you go through something like that, that young. I knew God had me on this planet for a reason and the beauty in that is, that at LSMSA, I found that reason.”

As for advice, a lot of people have shared different pieces of a complete thought with Jason through the years, and it goes a little something like this: In life you will discover things that you love and things that you don’t. Sometimes you think they’re your purpose but they’re just your hobbies. When you find your true purpose it will never be work. It will never be a job. It will be something you enjoy doing and something that fulfills you. Don’t confuse something that you’re meant to do with a hobby that you love to do. When you find it, you’ll know it. Work is work, but when you find that purpose it means doing something that you don’t enjoy doing.

“LSMSA has become part of my life,” Jason added. “It has broadened my horizons. I’ve realized that we’re in good hands with the young people I’ve seen over the past decade, their compassion and their views of the world. They’re non judgmental. That has taught me something about life. Every day I learn something from them. What they want to do in life has impacted me. Whether they’re dealing with climate change, diversity issues, or equal rights; you see what they’re going to do and you see that there’s hope. LSMSA is such a rarity that a lot of people don’t know it exists. It has the best faculty and the best assembly of educational minds with vast amounts of experience in their respective fields. Who wouldn’t want to send their child to this school to learn.”