My motivation to be an educator comes from my own experiences. I have been “the first” in my family at every graduation since middle school because of phenomenal educators and teachers who fostered me in my pursuit of knowledge. I believe that everyone deserves an excellent education, regardless of their background or situation. I aim to provide that education by inspiring my students to think critically about themselves and the world around them.
I began my teaching career at the American University of Kuwait, where I taught English to native Arabic speakers ages 18-37. I relied heavily on peer instruction to overcome language barriers, and I most certainly learned more than my students. I then joined Teach For America, where I taught secondary mathematics in Mississippi and Alabama. Yet, I found remarkable commonalities between my Kuwaiti students and my high schoolers. Teach For America trained me to teach as a leader and offered me the tools to implement active learning in the classroom. I received a National Science Foundation Graduate K-12 fellowship, where I taught inner-city kindergarteners and pre-kindergarteners science and math. By teaching students that cannot yet read or write, I became a very effective communicator. It is extremely rewarding to teach children how to be metacognitive of their own emotions and reactions, knowing that one day they may rely on the kernels of knowledge I planted many years ago.
Despite my myriad experiences in the classroom, I have cultivated several methods I find to be effective. To maximize my impact as an educator and achieve my goals of critically aware students, I engage individual-based learning, active engagement, metacognition, and many others pedagogical techniques. I have found that these methods transcend subject area and age range. I rely on my diverse teaching experiences for when I teach what I view as my most challenging and rewarding demographic—undergraduates.
Individual-based Learning. When I walked into my first college classroom, I was confident and self-assured. I had done this many times before, introduced myself on the first day, jumped right into content. But, I was not ready for what was to come. I thought I would be prepared to teach an introductory class in my field of expertise, but I learned more from my Principles in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology class than I ever imagined possible. As the least medically-focused module in the pre-med sequence, many of my students struggled with the material’s relevance. My students, mostly freshmen, came from incredibly different backgrounds and prospective fields. I looked back to my time teaching my Kuwaiti students who were vastly different in English speaking abilities for the answer.
Essentially, instead of trying to average over the differences, I allowed my students’ differences to shine. By allowing students to pursue their own interests, they began engaging the material not because they had to but because they wanted to. The results blew me away. A Linguistics major wrote her term paper about the evolution of language development in hominids; a Gender Studies major focused on the evolution of forced male copulations in birds; a Biology major took a traditional approach to the impacts that altering the human germ-line could have on society. Not only were students able to see the relevance of the course concepts, but they were able to let their own interests shine through—all while mastering content. With structured peer-reviews of the term papers, students experienced personal feedback where they learned to not only write better but to appreciate each other’s interests and gain perspective on many topics.
Active Engagement. When I walked into Conservation Biology with armfuls of Ping-Pong balls and Whole Foods bags, my students were not sure what to expect. My students had been struggling for weeks with MacArthur and Wilson’s Theory of Island Biogeography. We had discussed how area and distance from mainland relate to extinction and colonization rates, but they just were not getting it. I had drawn countless graphs on the board and pulled diagrams from several textbooks, but the content was still not clicking with my students—many of them received zero points on the related midterm exam question.
I pushed all of the desks to the back of the classroom, and I set up bags of various sizes and distances from my apprehensive students in the front. I gave five Ping-Pong balls to each of them and told them that all bags were worth equal points. Having survived the unexpected flurry of balls flying everywhere, I was pleased that 10 minutes later all of the balls had found their home in a bag. We then, as a group, tallied how many balls were in each bag to see which bags contained more than others. As it turns out, closer and larger bags had the most balls; farther and smaller bags had the fewest. My students quickly drew the connection to colonization rate, and on the final exam, none of my students missed the Island Biogeography question, averaging 2 points higher than the class average. Best of all, I dare say that they will never forget the Theory of Island Biogeography (or the time they threw Ping-Pong balls at their TA!).
Metacognition. Conservation Biology typically attracts a certain type of environmentally-conscious student. However, one of the main goals of the class is to understand the viewpoints of all of the stakeholders at the table—pro and con—when making important conservation decisions and how we form and convey our own opinions. When discussing the consequences of building large natural resource mines in the Pacific Northwest, none of my students would even entertain the idea that the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, AK could be an overall positive. Yet, one of my goals as an educator is to allow my students to see ideas from different viewpoints, acknowledging that every individual’s personal opinion differs on these issues. To foster this understanding, I held a courtroom-style debate where an unbiased outsider and I were the presiding judges to decide to build (or not to build) the ore mine in Bristol Bay.
I split my class into different stakeholder groups and gave them current information, primary literature, and two weeks to form their cases. The groups represented all of the important stakeholders: the Pebble Mine, the Environmental Protection Agency, the First Nations tribes, the Salmon Fisheries, and the Alaska State Government. Students prepared their cases outside of class, knowing their individual contributions contributed to a larger goal of winning the debate—while also considering how we think about conservation and present evidence and logic effectively.
On debate day, the students filtered into “the courtroom,” single-file in their business attire with their dossiers and evidence ready. Each stakeholder group voted on the mine, presented their cases, defended rebuttals, and gave closing arguments. I was excited to see my students pulling concepts from classes from previous weeks. From natural resource valuation to ecosystem services, not a single topic from the semester was left untouched. As the papers settled, a hushed silence fell over the classroom. The jury voted to build the ore mine in Bristol Bay! Without the freedom to step outside their predilections, my students would never have fully understood the opposing views on this real-life conservation issue. My students enjoyed the debate but benefited more from the intense content review that preparing their cases required—an excellent review for their final exam the following week.
I have offered these three examples as representative of my teaching philosophy, which I view as individual-based, engaging, and self-reflective. My hope is that my students leave the classroom with more than just an understanding of the material but with a thirst to know more. My students will be able to think critically about themselves and the world around them. I find enjoyment in teaching, but I find fulfillment in knowing that I opened the minds of my students.
I want my students to remember me not as a great teacher but as someone who opened their minds to a broader world with new ideas. For me, teaching is not only about conveying knowledge to the next generation of young minds but is about providing all students with the opportunity to excel—as my teachers have done for me. I am excited to continue cultivating my own teaching expertise by learning from my students and applying innovative pedagogy in my classroom to pay forward all opportunities that education has afforded me.