Rock On: Expert Advice from Two Master Teachers
Every time I look back at my career as a teacher, I realize how far I have come.
What I find truly astounding is that what made the most impact in my practice was not learned in the resounding hallways of my Alma Mater or the momentous conference rooms of the many in-service training sessions I’ve completed, but interacting and networking with my peers. Sometimes I will get the best idea from asking a question or brainstorming in a Professional Learning Community (PLC) session.
And just like a movie flashback, I am back at the topic for this blog!
I wanted to ask some questions to our teachers that everyone else also asks. It was difficult to single out one or two teachers, because here at FLVS I feel that I am teaching in the middle of a rock festival and every teacher I know is a rock star!
To narrow it down, I reached out to two of our Teacher of the Year nominees, Amsler Burns and Kellie Shellenberger.
I asked them standard questions, but also interesting questions our readers may have wanted to ask themselves.
We conclude the post with some advice for that dreaded “Summer slide” in hopes that our students too will listen to these two amazing teachers’ expert advice!
Was teaching your first career choice?
If it was, when did you first know you wanted to be a teacher?
Teaching wasn’t my first career choice. As a young kid, I wanted to be a large cat trainer, zookeeper, or a rodeo cowboy. As you can imagine, my parents thank me every day for not choosing either of those. Later, I also thought I’d be a horse trainer, a lawyer, or a research scientist. I dipped my toe into those last three careers before I realized that science was the right place for me – specifically, the science classroom. I was one of those people that picked a college major because I liked the subject, biology, and I assumed I’d figure out the career part later. After I graduated, I took a leap and accepted a position at a nearby high school science department. I found that I really enjoyed teaching and felt, in the way a 23 year old does, that I was pretty good at it. I believe strongly that the happiest people do work that fulfills them, challenges them, and makes the world a better place. Teaching does all of those things for me, and I’m still in love with the job.
I did not ever plan on becoming a teacher. However, when I completed my undergraduate degree in the Winter, I decided to move back home to Jacksonville for the spring/summer before attending grad school the next fall. My former high school history teacher called me and let me know he had an open position teaching U.S. History. I told him there were two problems with that: I didn’t take any history classes in college and I didn’t take any education classes in college. In true teacher fashion, he told me “Yes, but I know you and what you’re capable of. I believe you can do this.” Not wanting to turn down the opportunity at a professional job, I decided to at least give it a try. It immediately got in my blood and 14 years later I still find myself in the classroom.
Does your workday have a soundtrack/playlist?
No. I work in blissful silence, punctuated daily by obnoxious barking from my dog when the UPS man drives by. If I listen to music while I type, I end up typing the lyrics instead of what I’m thinking. I guess the language centers of my brain don’t multitask well, and nobody wants song lyrics in their grading feedback.
There’s a song that comes on often on the radio station I listen to called “Breathe” by Jonny Diaz. It is the perfect composition for my life right now as a busy teacher and mother of three. Days can very easily fall into chaos and stress, but this is a beautiful reminder for me to just breathe…..just be…..just rest. When the texts are pouring in, the phone is ringing, the to-do list is a mile long, and I have no idea what to do for dinner, I will just take a break, go on a quick walk around the neighborhood, and rehearse songs and thoughts such as this one that can bring me back to a place of peace.
What gets you out of bed each morning?
Normally it is my alarm clock. It’s very loud. Oh, you meant figuratively? Life! I love starting a new day of new adventures!
Literally, what wakes me up every morning is my 3-year-old Aidan asking for chocolate milk. But what motivates me to put my feet to the floor is that I love to serve others. I have always wanted to be a wife and a mother, and I enjoy getting to spend my days doing that. I am also fortunate enough to have a job that I also view as a calling. I teach because it is the only thing my heart will allow me to do.
Walk us thought a typical day in your life.
I wake up to the aforementioned alarm clock. I hit snooze precisely two times. If I hit it more than twice I’ll be late. I wrestle my two girls out of bed and into their school uniforms, throw some lunch meat into their backpacks, and try to get them to school before the last bell rings. Then, if there is time in the day, I hit the gym for a short bit of exercise. After that, it’s home to work and I spend the next many hours teaching. After the little people get home and I eventually call it quits for the day at work, the evening is filled with dinner and family time before we hunker down in anticipation of doing it all again tomorrow.
After making chocolate milk for Aidan, I get the other kids up and we all have breakfast. We try to do some sort of quick family devotion or meaningful conversation during this time, though at certain times of the year this can be hard to keep up with. My husband packs lunches and gets them ready for school, so I can start with a little “me” time. I’ll shower and get ready for the day, maybe take a quick walk, and just a small bit of reading. After I take the kids to school, I come home and start my work day. My first task is to visit my calendar and to-do list and plan the best course of action for that particular day. I typically spend the mornings being reactive – returning texts, phone calls, and emails, as well as doing some grading. I take a break for lunch – with my husband if possible, since he often works from home as well.
Then, my afternoons are largely proactive tasks – planning or delivering live lessons, calling students to offer support, or working on tasks for professional development or the groups I help coach (A-Team and Peer Ambassadors).
We spend the evening together as a family having dinner, participating in extracurricular activities for the kids, or just enjoying each other’s company. I try my hardest to draw a line and not work during those hours, but it definitely can creep in easily. After bath and bed time for the kids and some time with my husband, I will get in another hour or two of grading. Since I teach a college-level class, the grading demands are heavy, and I find this to be a very productive time for me….no distractions.
When you are not teaching, what do you like to do?
Family time is a big thing. We do a lot of boating and fishing together. I also enjoy hiking, horseback riding, swimming, reading, and playing with my menagerie of pets.
I enjoy doing things with my family. My husband and I make it a priority to have a weekly date night. We like games and puzzles. We recently solved an elaborate riddle and won a free trip to Vanuatu in the South Pacific to dig up buried treasure! My 10-year-old daughter likes to go rock climbing and be outdoors. My 7-year-old son is involved in Cub Scouts. They both also participate in various enrichment activities at their school (cooking, Legos, art, etc…) and I like to help where possible. I am involved in the children’s ministry at my church and like helping with the elementary-aged students.
Finish the following sentence: One thing most people don’t know about me is…
…that I can cross just one eye. Like, not just a little bit crossed – ALL the way crossed! I can also cross both eyes to the outside at the same time – or is that non-crossing them? Whatever it is, I can do it.
…that one of my life-long dreams is to be on Wheel of Fortune. Though for some reason I’ve never sent off the video application – maybe a project for this summer!
When you look back at the end of each school year what memories make you smile?
It’s always the memories of the students. I get attached to them and I like to think about them heading out into the world and being awesome at something. Usually, I make that something science in my mind. I like to think of myself as a science recruiter!
I love when my students go above and beyond. I think of Racine who drove almost five hours with her mom to be part of our field trip at the University of Florida and dissect sheep brains. I think of Xander who took it upon himself to create review resources to help his classmates prepare for their AP exam. I think of Kamilya, Micah, and Zeynab who put together a video challenging their teachers to a student-staff escape room competition. I think of our Peer Ambassadors and A-Team groups who are trailblazers in helping FLVS Full Time develop a positive school culture and recognition from those in the community. I think of all my students who give of their time to come to live lessons, even though they’re not mandatory, so that they can take advantage of the opportunities that come from interacting with a teacher and classmates on various topics. We just have fun while learning together – whether it be tackling neuroscience with play-doh or statistics with a chocolate chip cookie. I think of the way their personality shines through even a computer screen and how it brings me such joy to know that I get to have some impact on their lives.
How do you make sure your students are successful?
I can’t always make the class easy, but I can make it fun. I try to keep it interesting and make the tough subjects less intimidating. I hold students to high standards because I know they can reach them. I also encourage questions – the tougher the question, the better. I get excited if they ask a question that I have to look up the answer to! Asking questions helps make not only good science students, but good scientists.
I think an important first step in helping students be successful is to know that the definition of success varies widely from student to student. For some students, success is defined as passing the course so they can walk across the stage at graduation. I make sure to offer support and encouragement each step of the way for these students. For some students, they have no problem getting through the course on their own and success for them is defined as meaningfully engaging with the content in a way that enriches their lives. I make sure to offer lots of real-world applications and challenges that connect to their fields of interest. For other students, they may not be at a time in their lives where they are able to give what it takes to pass the course. In these cases, success is defined as leaving my classroom better off than how they came. I make sure to provide positive experiences in each of our talks that help better equip them with skills they will need for success in life.
What is your advice for our returning students on staying in “school-shape” over the summer?
Tell us your tips for avoiding the dreaded summer amnesia also known as the “Summer Slide.”
Add a few academic likes on your social media accounts. There are tons of scientific journals that post interesting articles. Smithsonian Magazine is a great one for science and non-science stuff. Read something that isn’t fiction. If it starts to twist your brain around into knots, grab a piece of paper and take a few notes. Notes aren’t just for the classroom! Lastly, do something you don’t know how to do yet. Learning a new task keeps your brain nimble. It can be as simple as weaving bracelets or as complex as playing chess or learning an instrument.
Slides are fun. There’s something exhilarating about starting at a high altitude and whooshing down to the bottom. Summer slides, however, are not so fun. Students are at their highest point at the end of the school year, but if they don’t continue putting their skills to practice, they will quickly find themselves sliding to the bottom. The good news is that this is preventable! It just takes a little practice each day with reading, writing, and math. Summer is a great time for you to participate in self-directed learning. Take up a new language. Find a topic that matches your chosen career field and focus your efforts there. Maybe ask your parents to help you find a program where you can work alongside others to pursue those concepts further. It may even mean having to set up some sort of external motivation for yourself….reward yourself for taking those steps! It only takes a few minutes each day, but this can have a huge impact on the next school year.
Even though Amsler and I were both nominated by our peers, Kellie was selected by majority of votes to represent our school on the next stage of the Teacher of the Year selection process this year so I decided to also ask her about what she found surprising during the teacher of the year selection process and what she learned from it. This is what she told me…
Honestly, the biggest surprise for me was that I was chosen. The teachers at FLVS Full Time are truly some of the finest educators I know. They are so dedicated and caring! I felt honored to make it to the top five in the FLVS district so that I could represent our amazing school to some of the top leaders in our organization. I learned so much from this process. It forced me to take a step back and evaluate best practices, it encouraged me to think of all the ways I bring innovation to the classroom, and it allowed me the opportunity to reflect on the amazing students I’ve had the opportunity to work with across my career.
There you have it, there is not much we can add to this very good advice except your comments!
Teachers, can you relate to any of these responses? Students, what are you doing this summer to avoid the dreaded “Summer Slide?”
I am going to get a chocolate milk but before I say Adieu, thank you to Amsler and Kellie for sharing so candidly with us today!