This I Believe

Okay, this post isn’t strictly about my research, but it is about the other important step of science – getting the word out about what you found!

Next year, I will be supported in my graduate studies by the BioME fellowship, in which I will be teaching biology in a K-12 classroom. The actual grade is still TBD until June, but will probably be middle school. I volunteered for middle school because the Arizona state curriculum calls for topics that fit my research interests about then, but also because it’s a really important time in life for most people. For me, it was absolute hell, the low point of my entire life. Maybe that’s why I want to be there – I have some idea I can do it all over again, like Billy Madison. Whatever.

Point is, I had to write a short essay on my philosophy and beliefs about teaching last week, and I thought I’d share it here:

This I Believe

I believe that education is like running a marathon or writing a novel: you do it one step at a time, write one word at a time. Considering the whole of a curriculum for an untrained teacher like me can be overwhelming. But I recall a quote by St. Francis of Assisi, of all people: “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” I imagine taking one stride, then another. Soon a whole training run has passed. One word, then another, form a sentence which grows into a chapter. If I start by coming up with one concept, then an activity, soon – I hope – a lesson plan with take shape. Never losing sight of the big picture, tackling the planning day by day will grow to be a year of lessons.

Some days, one step may be just patiently coaching one student to finish an activity, giving her extra time to finish. Some days it may mean flashing the overhead projector around the ceiling or licking a dirty whiteboard eraser just to recapture the attention of sleepy students after lunch.

When I was in gradeschool, each assignment became its own challenge measuring success. I had to learn to read words, then sentences, then whole stories. In math classes, those seemingly interminable multiplication worksheets paid off with the ability to easily calculate tips and discounts in daily life.

While everyone has their own stride, some habits are less useful than others. There may be no right way to run or to learn, but there are unproductive ones. Those lead to dead ends and injury. It is as true for the students as for the teachers. For a struggling kid, every assignment that comes back with a failing grade stabs with the pain of a knee injury in mile 20, whether anyone can see it or not.

All those individual steps may sound intimidating, but I find comfort in them. It means that tripping up on any one step will not define the journey. For example, my Junior High math teacher, Mr. Peterson, stepped into a pothole one day. As he walked us through a story problem in our Geometry text book, he paused to mock the name the authors had chosen: Melvin.

As soon as he returned to the problem, a girl named Melanie raised her hand. “My dad’s name is Melvin,” she said when called on.

Mr. Peterson considered this for a moment.

“Is he a big guy?” he asked.

“Oh yeah,” said the boy next to Melanie, who was her friend. “And mean.”

Our teacher returned to the problem at hand, but before turning us loose with a problem set, he remarked that the name Melvin was growing on him. “I might even name my next kid Melvin,” he said.

“You’ve got fungus growing on you, too, Mr. Pete,” said Melanie’s friend. “But you wouldn’t name your kid that!”

Whatever Melanie’s dad’s name was, Mr. Peterson survived to tell the tale and I would swear he was the best math teacher I ever had.


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