Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Education for Our Educators

Recently, my mom and I were reminiscing about my childhood teachers. Whenever I think about the teachers that most influenced me, I immediately recall my 7th grade science teacher, Ms. Krueger. You see, I wouldn’t be a scientist if not for Ms. Krueger. She was my first mentor and the person who first sparked my interest in science.

I was never much interested in science as a kid. I loved English… I read, I wrote, and I dreamed of being a writer when I grew up. Ms. Krueger changed that. She turned my attention to science, showing me not only that it was fun, but convincing me that I was good at it. She encouraged me to explore, ask questions, and praised me for a job well done. She made me feel proud of what I could do. In short, she empowered me.

Science was and is a challenging discipline for me; it never came easy. It’s this challenge that I love. There’s nothing like the feeling of success at finally decoding a concept that you’ve been working to understand for minutes, hours, or maybe even days. I got my first taste of this feeling in Ms. Krueger’s class. And now, twenty years later, I have a Ph.D. in neuroscience and a career in science policy.

As I was relating this to my mom, she mentioned my 5th grade math teacher, another favorite of mine. Although I never knew it, she revealed that during a parent-teacher conference years ago, he told her that I was not destined for a career in science. I’ve thought about that conversation a lot since then.

What would have happened if I had never had a Ms. Krueger in my life to encourage me to develop my interest in science? What if my fate had rested with those like my 5th grade teacher, who decided that because science was a difficult subject for me, it was not in my future, so best not to encourage it? Would I be a scientist still? I doubt it.

These thoughts then turned to myself, and my teaching career. Had I pre-judged my students, and in doing so, kept doors closed to them that should have been opened?

It is a strong part of human nature to observe and make judgments. I wonder how often those in a position of authority, such as teachers, role models, and mentors, have done just that, and in doing so suppressed rather than exposed opportunities. So, to those of you in these positions, remember my story the next time you are facing a student who may not excel in a subject, who might even struggle a bit, but looks to you all the same for inspiration and guidance. As shapers of the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and writers, remember to always strive to open new doors, and never close them. You never know where a little bit of enthusiasm and encouragement will lead.

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