While on the road to being a doctor like her dad, Thomson took a U-turn into teaching

May 14, 2018 — by Alexandra Li

After abandoning career as a doctor to pursue teaching, Thomson aspires to create connections with students. 

As students held on to the flippers of a sea turtle in Costa Rica, the turtle began to lay its first out of hundreds of total eggs. Biology and AP Environmental Science teacher Kristen Thomson stepped back and watched the students appreciate nature.

Since 2015, she has worked with the Berkowitz family to coordinate a trip that takes students to turtle hatcheries near Tortuguero, for several days in January. When one of the students offered a flipper to Thomson so she could also experience the moment, Thomson felt valued and grateful for her students’ willingness to make a difference.

While the role of a teacher may seem to fit Thomson perfectly now, she said teaching was not her first career choice. Instead, she wanted to be a physician like her father,  an internal medicine and pulmonary disease doctor at a hospital in San Mateo.

Having been an outstanding student, she was accepted into the pre-medical program Stanford University, where she began taking the required courses to receive a bachelor’s degree in biology. But her plans about becoming a doctor began to change during her time there.

During the summer of her junior year, Thomson took a summer job in San Francisco as a sixth-grade science teacher, creating a curriculum for children from low-income families. The experience changed her career ambitions.

Looking back, Thomson realizes that her love of teaching really wasn’t a surprise. The majority of the jobs she sought were related to education, like volunteering at a zoo and educating the public about animals or coaching swimming. While becoming a doctor had seemed reasonable because she wanted to help others, she never liked to see blood and felt nauseous at the sight of sickness.  

For Thomson, the experience of working with children from different backgrounds was especially eye-opening, since she realized how lucky she was to have grown up in well-off, loving family.

“Knowing their backgrounds, their successes become even more impressive,” Thomson said. “I wanted to give these kids a fair future and give them all that I could. I never forget those first kids.”

The experience also provided valuable lessons for Thomson — for instance, she learned when she should and shouldn’t take kids’ responses personally. Instead, it became clear that their home environment plays a large role in dictating their behavior, especially for children.

“I was exhausted and it was frustrating at times but I loved everything about it,” Thomson said. “That got me thinking of what I would really enjoy doing when I grow up.”

Even though she had become convinced that teaching was a much better fit for her than becoming a doctor, her father was not as easy to persuade.

“He was going over all the finances and telling me how difficult it would be to make it as a teacher,” Thomson said. “When a parent hears their kid is struggling in school and the kid says they want to change career paths, they want to make sure it’s not because they’re giving up.”

Her father eventually accepted that Thomson would not be following in his footsteps. Thomson said her dad later realized that Thomson’s grandmother had also been a teacher, allowing him to acknowledge her new career path.

Thomson also recalls how she rarely saw her father growing up because he was always working at the hospital. Her first-hand understanding of the nature of a doctor’s profession also contributed to her decision to choose teaching.

“There are some things that you just can’t put a price on,” Thomson said. “Becoming a doctor was something I was willing to sacrifice to be able to spend time with my own kids, so that’s something I don’t regret at all.”

Having decided to pursue teaching, she finished her undergraduate studies in biology.

From there, she received her teaching credential from San Jose State University and went on to do student teaching at schools like Independence High.

After completing her teaching credential, she attended a college fair with a friend, and both decided to put their names down as interested in the Los Gatos Saratoga Union School District. Incidentally, her friend was hired at Los Gatos High while Thomson was chosen for the job as Saratoga High, where she has been teaching for 20 years.

As a teacher, Thomson values the connections formed with students the most. For example, the Costa Rica trip allows her to get to know students better and share memorable real-world experiences with them.

Thomson recalls the final night of the 2015 trip, when she and a group of students sat on the beach under the pitch black sky enjoying the weather. One of the students spoke up and protested against going home, saying she realized that they were actually making a difference, saving animals from poachers and protecting the species. Because so much is still needed to be done in Costa Rica, the student wanted to stay instead of returning to school.

“It was so special just to be with the kids and have the sense of just wanting to keep helping,” Thomson said. “For me, it’s all about creating experiences for students and helping them find themselves.”