I believe every student who passes through my classroom has the ability to be outstanding. It’s my job to help them find what they are passionate about. I love my field of biology—the deep questions about how the world works. I love to share the knowledge base of science and to help students become literate in the field, or in some cases, develop a true mastery of it. But while I regularly mentor advanced students in my lab, and most of my classes are based in biology, I am really about teaching the practice of thinking deeply and developing the habits, skills and practices that will allow every student to have access to any information and learning that he or she will ever want.
So, how do I go about it? I use whatever means I can find. I demand the best of all my students and of myself. My classes are highly interactive, and I practice a form of guided discussion in which no student is allowed to hide for long. In some seminars, I lecture to provide background for students in addition to their reading for that day. Whenever possible, I take them into the field. I strive to instill a sense of wonder. Some classes really work. Sometimes things fall flat—but if that happens, I will do anything to fix it.
Several years ago, I was teaching a large lecture class at 5:30 in the evening. By 6:30, we were all exhausted. I was trying to describe the movement of nutrients through the xylem and phloem of plants and could see 200 bored, sleepy faces before me. Suddenly, I had an idea.
Everyone must stand up. All the young women in the class were to be sugar/nutrient molecules. All the young men were water. The center aisle would be the xylem; the two side aisles would be the phloem. The back of the room was the root system. Students were to look at their texts and arrange themselves accordingly. Which molecules entered where and what happened next? Which directions were things moving in each type of tissue? Soon everyone was moving and laughing and paying attention. We ended with students describing what they had done and why. After that, I never believed 200 people must stay in their seats to learn.
Learning is about discovery, but guided, disciplined discovery. I must do it with the students. I must, like a great comedian, be willing to make a fool of myself, to hold the classroom with every inspiration and passion I can find, and be willing to fail mightily at times. These beliefs have led me to design each course in ways that make students responsible for the learning we are undertaking.
There is so much work to do beyond the classroom and my lab. I regularly meet with honors faculty and others on campus to learn and teach about educational theory and practice. And every few years, there is a move to ban the teaching of evolution from New Mexico’s high schools. Each time I lobby the legislature, and so far we have held that line.
Perhaps my greatest contribution has been to the creation of a whole new science curriculum in our honors program. Perhaps it has been the number of minority, first-generation and women students who have gone on to PhDs in the sciences or the large number of Goldwater Undergraduate Research fellowships my students have won. Whatever my contributions have been, they grow out of a fundamental understanding that teaching is a vocation, not a job. My work doesn’t stop at the classroom door. To move from being a good teacher to being a great one is a lifetime’s work. It cannot be rushed, and this goal is rooted in everything I do.
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