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“There’s nothing better than science!” says Pamela Harman, an earth science teacher at Spain Park High School in Hoover, Alabama. “It’s constantly changing, and you’re constantly learning new things. You can go outside and observe it, live it, touch it, and love it. ... It’s the best thing.”
A big believer in the importance of engaging various types of learners by making science something that happens outside of a textbook, Harman is always showing her students samples of rocks she’s collected from around the country or high-tech weather recording devices. Often, she conveys scientific ideas using basic household objects. One of her favorite demonstrations involves simply making popcorn. “There are three main ways that heat transfers, radiation, conduction, and convection,” she says. “We take a JiffyPop maker and see how long it takes to cook. They see that conduction is nothing but popcorn touching the surface of the plate. In the air popper, they see the kernels are moving, and that’s convection. In the microwave, they’re heated by the waves.”
Whenever she goes to a national conference, Harman presents a lab like this to other teachers in order to show them simple ways that they can make science relevant to students without having to invest in fancy instruments or tools. Her favorite thing is learning, she says. A fervent desire to get a good education was what drove her to enlist in the Marines after junior college, to get on the GI Bill. “If you can be a Marine, you feel like you can be anything,” she says.
Next to learning, her favorite thing is teaching. And her third favorite? That would have to be mentoring other teachers in an effort to affect the system and further inspire students. As a teacher of the year, Harman often had to travel, and says one of the best parts of her experience was the opportunity to work with and mentor a young teacher who assisted with her classes.
“The teacher that I am today is because of all the mentors that I have had,” she says. “Sir Isaac Newton said, ‘If I have seen further than others, it’s because I stood on the shoulders of giants,’ and that’s really how I feel that I have achieved any level of excellence, it’s because people have helped me get to that place. It’s so important to have great mentors, not just in those first couple of years of teaching, but to have somebody that you can continue to talk to.”
Of course, a good teacher can only do so much without a classroom full of students, a lack of attendance, says Harman, is one of the key problems plaguing schools today.
If she could change the system, Harman believes this is a problem that could be solved.
“I would start charter schools run by national board certified teachers where students have to come to school,” she says. “They’d be contractually obligated and would have to sign an agreement that says they will come and do their homework and that their parents will be involved. If they miss assignments or are tardy or get busted for drugs or anything, then they’re out. The most disheartening thing is that every student is not given the opportunity to learn. There are areas where students aren’t pushed to give one hundred percent, and that just breaks my heart.”