After three years of teaching elsewhere, I was very grateful to have found my way to Huron, Ohio, a small community on the shores of Lake Erie near Sandusky and Cedar Point. I recall Superintendent Dr. Roger Barnes welcoming me to the Huron Family 22 years ago. I have always felt I hit the jackpot when I was hired to teach eighth-grade science. Supportive administrators, wonderful colleagues, and a close-knit community with a lot of pride in the school system top the list of reasons anyone would love to teach here. I currently teach biology, College Credit Plus Biology, and CCP anatomy and physiology at Huron High School.
So many things have shaped who I am and why I teach. Spending a few years in the Florida Keys snorkeling the reefs of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park with my father (who was a dive captain) certainly didn’t hurt. The opportunity to learn geology in 18 different national parks during a high school summer field studies program also played a role. So too did the passion of some of my microbiology professors at Miami University. I’ve always loved learning about our world, and it was only natural that I soon realized that sharing my love and passion for science with students would become my life’s work. It couldn’t have worked out better.
There are so many things that go into being an effective teacher. A classroom culture in which students feel comfortable taking risks and making mistakes, student-centered lessons, inquiry, the ability to differentiate to meet the needs of each student, providing students ownership of the learning process, and sharing our own passion for learning all come to mind. Covid-19 has made each of these much more challenging. In many ways, nothing could have prepared me for the last year. I often heard the phrase “building the plane while it’s flying” to describe what we were doing early on during the lockdown. I believe the last year has really highlighted the importance of teachers and students being together in classrooms. While there is and will be a place for virtual or online learning in the future, we must guard against the move in this direction simply for the financial benefits. Learning is a social process and the magic of great teaching is much easier to achieve when we’re together in the same space at the same time.
We had so little warning that initially most teachers (including me) started out in survival mode. It didn’t take long to see the silver linings, however. Despite working pretty much around the clock learning Zoom, preparing materials, grading, providing feedback, and figuring out how to modify summative and formative assessments to work remotely, I also found myself with more time than I’d ever had to reflect, explore new strategies, and experiment. The break in the normal grind that is our profession encouraged me to look outside the box. I explored topics like blended learning more deeply, and finally tried tools which I had been meaning to try but never seemed to find the time, such as Flip Grid. I also took advantage of a free trial of . This virtual lab resource was very authentic and engaged my students in realistic laboratory experiences. Finally, I also took the time to complete the level 1 Google educator training.
Deliberately … and as authentically as possible. Students must know you care about them. I remember what it was like to be a teen. My teachers were instrumental in where I am today. Much to the chagrin of my own children (who attend school where I teach), I sometimes share little bits of my own story with my students. In addition, one thing I do on day one is to have students answer some simple questions on a note card to help me get to know them better. I also ask them to write questions that they’d like me to answer about myself. I then answer one question every other day at the very beginning of class without revealing who wrote the question.
On the other days, I do a quick lateral thinking problem with students to help get them focused and engaged. I learned this from my awesome Methods teacher and still employ it over 20 years later because it works! Both of these activities help to create informal moments in which we can all get to know each other better. The same Methods instructor also taught me the value of “teaching in margins,” meaning that even with well-planned-out lessons on distinct standards, we need to allow room for the rich learning that happens along and even outside the boundaries of these core topics.
The questions are a great opportunity to laugh by sharing a funny story, or to share my ideas about life, success, or other important things. Answering their questions about me lets them see me as a person and not just as their teacher. It takes just a couple of minutes and always grabs their attention. My intent is to send the message that what I want above all is to help them productively move forward on their path in life, not simply to teach them science.
I think it’s important for us to acknowledge differentiation is one of the most challenging parts of our jobs as educators. First, I think we go a long way in meeting the needs of all students when we make our lessons student-centered, use inquiry when possible, and provide students with a degree of choice in how they learn. I experiment all the time, trying to find the best approaches. In my career, the 5E model (or new variations) are at the core of my teaching. I’ve also incorporated Kathy Nunley’s Layered Curriculum methods into my teaching toolbox, and more recently have been incorporating other blended learning strategies from Catlin Tucker into my instructional design.
I’m an avid reader and love picking up a good book about teaching. However, the best resource for me over the course of my entire career has been my memberships to professional organizations such as . I’ve been a member of NSTA since I finished my microbiology degree and decided to head to graduate school to become a teacher. The ability to collaborate and connect with other educators, read about new teaching strategies, and have new ideas show up in my mailbox once per month has been invaluable.
Through my membership in NSTA and the connections I’ve made with other educators, I have a wealth of resources that I use in my classroom. I have my students create scientific arguments (Scientific Argumentation: 30 Activities), complete work on problem-based learning lessons from the , and participate in case studies from the at the University at Buffalo.
The resources from site are also amazing. Finally, I also love for a few traditional labs because of their ease in preparation. I particularly love to use the Lactose Intolerance Lab to help my general biology students construct a mental model for the structure and function of enzymes. Even though this lab is more traditional, students are still required to design their own procedure on the third portion of the lab.
There are two things I’m probably most proud of thus far in my career. In high school I was blessed to be invited to participate in a field studies program to 18 different national parks over three weeks. We studied geology all across the western United States. The same teacher later took me to the Bahamas to study marine biology and to the Grand Tetons to study ecology.
When I entered teaching, I knew I wanted to pay it forward and offer similar experiences to my students. Over a period of about 10 years, I’ve taken various groups of students to the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Sedona, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Tetons, the Everglades, and the Florida Keys, all with the goal of helping students develop a love for learning and science. My experience changed my life as a teen and I hope my students have benefited similarly.
I’m also proud to have been selected to participate in the Northrop Grumman Weightless Flights of Discovery Program. This happened back when I was teaching eighth-grade science. Collaborating with other teachers along with my students to develop experiments for a zero-g environment, actually flying in zero g, and bringing that excitement back to my class afterward was something I’ll never forget and that I hope inspired my students.
That you should never give up on them. A few years ago, a particular student entered my classroom on day one and was immediately very rude and disrespectful. He never missed an opportunity to try to create conflict. I normally do not have very many discipline problems, and I literally can’t remember the last time I have had to give a detention to a student. I was really taken back by his behavior and immediately realized that the issue was not anything I was doing.
I’ve learned that you can’t take behavior issues personally. Long story short, this kid was smart. I mean really smart, and I saw that pretty quickly. A few weeks into the year I wrote him a rather long letter in which I pretty much leveled with him. I first told him all of the positive qualities that I could see in him despite how unfair his treatment of me was. I also laid out several possible futures for him based on his intelligence and his behavior and let him know that his choices would determine his path.
He didn’t respond at the time but his behavior changed almost immediately. At the end of the year, he wrote me the most incredible letter thanking me for not giving up on him. He stated that the problem was within him, that my positive way of interacting with him had helped him to create changes that he knew he needed to make, that he was sorry for the way he behaved, and finally he wrote that he wanted to become a math teacher partly because of his experience in my biology class.
There are so many things that I feel I’ve improved on since my first day as a teacher. Any one of them would have helped me that first year. However, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having a strong plan and really being organized. That alone will be a time multiplier. So, my advice would be to spend the difficult time up front to develop a detailed plan for each prep you teach. Include as much detail as possible. I see too many new teachers trying to figure out what they’re going to do tomorrow. They’re essentially in survival mode. Get yourself organized, get ahead by having a plan, and then spend your time executing that plan (instead of worrying about what you’re doing the next day). Also, join NSTA.
We live in a data-driven world and are immersed in media. Covid-19 and the 2020 election cycle have shown us the challenges many Americans face in discerning fact from non-fact, as well as safely navigating the stream of information available on social media. As a science teacher, I use scientific argumentation, inquiry, case studies, and problem-based learning as ways to provide my students with the opportunities to both decide how to share their own data and evaluate the data of others. My students learn about the importance of peer review in science and have opportunities to read, discuss, and write about journal articles in class. My ultimate goal is to help them develop their own “sniff test” for the information they will encounter and when to be skeptical. My background in microbiology and my research experience in pathogenic microbiology and pharmacology has helped me to be very critical of information I encounter. My goal as a teacher is to begin to build those skills in my students as well.
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