By Laura Stedman
One day in science class, we were reviewing the topic of the animal cell. The students had memorized what they needed to know to pass the national standardized exam, and for that I was pleased. But I couldn’t help feeling that something was missing. Where was the spark? They dismissed and shied away from my requests for their opinions. The students refused to offer their own possible explanations for experiments and observations. Instead, they wanted to know what the ‘right’ answer was. They didn’t seem to consider that there were mysteries and secrets of nature, that there was more to know than what the examine cared to test. I asked myself: “Do they recognize the magnificence that takes place here in the cell? Why don’t they share their thoughts? Do they understand the topic? Do they care?” I was frustrated because I felt that I was unable to really reach them.
I was having doubts about teaching until I found a diagram in the back of one my students’ notebooks. This diagram changed my perspective on teaching. In her notebook, the student had drawn the unlikely comparison of an animal cell to a Swazi homestead. She had given the grandmother of the homestead the role of the nucleus. The mitochondria, the organelle which supplies energy to the cell, was represented by the sisters.
I called her into the staff room and asked her to explain what she had written. At first she thought she was in trouble. Then she started to open up. She explained that she had given the grandmother the role of the nucleus because “grandmother decodes when and how things get done.”
As she continued I began to see that she had indeed understood the intimate workings of the cell. I was proud of her, and I told her. “But Miss,” she said, “I don’t know why you’re happy. I only did this from my own mind to help me understand this better.”
“I know,” I said. “That is why I am proud of you.”
I began to understand that young men and women need confidence in themselves and their own worth, as well as direction for their critical thought. With this in mind, I changed my teaching methods to encourage not just academic achievement but also emotional growth. Something magical started to happen in that class. Students started to see themselves as having worthwhile opinions and were not afraid of sharing them. I saw students taking risks in their ideas and growing from them. I felt truly honored and privileged to be part of it.
My love of teaching is genuine. Teaching provides a unique opportunity to learn something new from young people while guiding them toward their goals. The work is challenging and the rewards abundant.
Laura Stedman (Swaziland 1993-1995) Laura taught high school science in Swaziland. She has a B.S. in Biological Sciences and is from Portland, Maine.
Laura Stedman, Obituary: From the Portland Press Herald, January 1996
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