Professional Development Q&A

An Equal Opportunity Educator

By Liana Loewus — October 12, 2011 11 min read
Chemistry teacher Michelle Shearer says she emphasizes real-world connections in her lessons and strives to make learning as active as possible.
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Michelle Shearer began her undergraduate studies at Princeton University with an eye toward becoming a doctor. But when she started volunteering in a 4th grade classroom at the Marie H. Katzenbach School for the Deaf in Trenton, N.J., Shearer found herself rearranging her own studies in order to visit with the elementary students more often—and a new vision for her career path quickly emerged. Shearer stuck with her chemistry major but, in a move that was rare for elite Princeton students at the time, tacked on classes toward a teaching certificate.

Her ultimate decision to go with the profession that, as Shearer says, pulled her in “like a magnet,” has proved a rewarding one: Last spring, Shearer became the 61st National Teacher of the Year.

During her 14 years in the classroom, Shearer has taught science and math at the Maryland School for the Deaf and at Urbana High School, in Ijamsville, Md., where she most recently had a full schedule of Advanced Placement chemistry courses. Shearer is a fierce advocate for ensuring all students—regardless of ability, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic status—have access to a rigorous science curriculum. At MSD, she was the first teacher to offer AP Chemistry in the school’s 135-year history. And at Urbana, she’s maintained a strict personal pledge not to turn students away from her accelerated classes. “How could you ever say you’re willing to educate some students but not others?” she asks.

Like every Teacher of the Year before her, Shearer will spend 12 months traveling around the country, speaking at conferences, meeting with education leaders, and engaging in policy discussions. In an interview with Liana Heitin, associate editor of the Teacher PD Sourcebook, Shearer explained she’ll spend much of that time advocating for students with special needs and accessible STEM curricula. “Children are born scientists,” she says. “All children.”

How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

My philosophy is rooted in the fact that the teacher-student relationship is the essence of education. Students need to learn in an environment that’s very high energy, that’s positive. A climate where the teacher projects the vision that all students can and will learn. I really try to make my classroom somewhere that students want to be. I know that my classes are very large, and that I could make them harder so that some students would drop out. But that’s just something I refuse to do. I refuse to weed out students whose prognosis is not assured. And I really believe that because science is everywhere and chemistry is everywhere, that really it’s for every student.

Why did you opt for the dual certification in special education and science?

I was drawn into teaching in the first place by working with deaf and hard-of-hearing students. And [these] students in many cases have other special needs as well. Could be ADHD [attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder], could be dyslexia, or it could be any other variety of special needs. I realized that if I was going to be a teacher, I needed to know how to work with all different types of students. And I needed to have the special education certification in order to teach in a residential school for the deaf. So it was both necessity and something I realized would enrich my teaching.

In May, Shearer was introduced as the 2011 National Teacher of the Year at the ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. In her speech, she said her students have taught her to "always see abilities, not disabilities."

But now you’re at Urbana, a regular public high school. How does having your special ed. certification help when teaching accelerated classes in the public school setting?

Right now I have all AP. In the course of the 10 years I’ve taught at Urbana, I’ve taught all levels. But it’s interesting, you’d think that 90 AP chemistry students would be a homogenous grouping, but it’s not. Everything I’ve learned from special ed. and everything that I’ve learned in deaf ed. I’d consider best practices. I’ve learned ways to make instruction multi-sensory, I’ve learned to use a variety of techniques, I’ve learned that not all students learn at the same pace, even within an AP class.

So a lot of the strategies that I used with teaching special-needs students, I still use teaching AP students. I think that the key is that whenever I do any activity, I’m always looking past the auditory input. When I taught at MSD, I couldn’t rely on that sense—auditory input was gone to me. I always had to look at, how can I make this visual? How can I make it hands-on? How can I involve movement? So when I design lessons for AP, it’s about, how can I get kids up and moving in the lab? How can I get them working with their hands? How can they see this visually? Can we make a model? How can we use writing to bring this alive?

What kinds of learning differences do you see among students in your advanced chemistry courses?

In the past few years at Urbana, I’ve accommodated students with special needs including dyslexia, dysgraphia, Asperger’s syndrome, low vision, and ADHD. I’d say those are the five most common—and I’m still talking about small numbers. In a class of 30, you’re going to have one or two that fit that description. But the encouraging thing, and the thing that everybody needs to understand, is that those students deserve to be there. They can succeed there. And they can pass the exam and they can pursue STEM careers. The students I have had with disabilities—although in small numbers—have been very successful in terms of passing the exam and succeeding in the course.

I think often we still have a perception of what a scientist is, and that certain students don’t fit that perception. And I’ve always tried to tear that down.

I understand that enrollment in AP Chemistry at Urbana shot up from 11 to 92 when you began teaching the course. Why do you think students are so eager to take classes with you?

Word travels fast in high school. But you know, it’s funny, when students describe me and my class they don’t say things like, “Oh, she’s really nice and the class is really fun.” It’s hard work. And I’m a very no-nonsense, intent, driven kind of teacher. They come to class everyday and they know that for 90 minutes they’re going to be busy every single second. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Friday or the day before a holiday or if it’s snowing outside. That’s just what we do—we work hard. And everybody who comes into the classroom buys into that philosophy. They realize, I think, that it feels good to work hard.

You have an impressive pass-rate on the AP exam.

It fluctuates in any given year but it hovers around the 90th percentile. We’ve been really fortunate because as numbers of students go up, you expect statistically the scores to go down. And that’s not what we’ve seen here. As our numbers have gone up, the scores have either sustained or improved, which just goes to show that the students who are capable of succeeding in high-level science and math courses are out there—it’s just a matter of getting them in the door.

You also have to be patient and realize that who a student is on the first week of school may not be the person that he or she is at the end of the year. If you have students in that first week or two who are on the border or you don’t feel they’re quite ready, instead of counseling them out of the class, give them time. Because they will build those skills.

Are you using a lot of technology in the classroom?

I use technology in my classroom, but I would not say I use a lot of technology. Part of the reason is that I don’t have certain technology. I don’t have computers in my classroom. I did get a Smartboard as part of my Teacher of the Year package, but I haven’t had a chance to use that yet.

Technology is a tool that enhances a teacher’s instruction. It’s not the anchor of a teacher’s instruction. You hear veteran teachers who’ve taught for 30 or 40 years say things like, “You know, I could teach in a bare room with a piece of chalk.” And they could. Because teaching is an art, and it’s dynamic, it’s human relationships. And technology has advanced to the point where it would be silly not to use it since it’s here. But there is still that good old-fashioned attitude of “I could teach anybody in any situation” that is the philosophy of all great teachers.

You talk a lot about encouraging young women to pursue STEM careers. How do you do this?

Well, No. 1, I serve as a role model. I never had a female science teacher in middle school, high school, or college. All my science teachers were male. But half our science department at Urbana is female. I think that goes a long way. When students can say, “OK, my teacher is a chemist and she also did sports and she also did music and she’s also a mother,” then they can see themselves in all those roles. If you grow up never knowing a female scientist, where’s your role model?

But also just in terms of day-to-day teaching, again it’s back to the relationships. It’s the encouragement piece. It’s the, “You can do this. Science is not just for the boys. You can be a chemist, you can take physics, you can do calculus.” My father had that mindset for me—that I could do anything I wanted.

What are some challenges in engaging struggling learners in STEM specifically?

I teach chemistry. When I got into teaching, I knew it was going to be a hard sell. You know the questions I get asked: “What does this have to do with me? What does this have to do with my life? When am I going to use this?” One thing I’ve learned to do in chemistry is to head that off by putting the relevance out there upfront. Anticipating the questions that I’m going to get, and even starting with that. “Have you ever wondered why we throw salt on the roads in the wintertime? Have you ever wondered why you put antifreeze in your car radiator? Well, what you’re going to learn in this unit is going to explain all that.” I think then they’re much more open to exploring the subject and listening. Even in the end if they decide, well this still isn’t for me, at least they see that there’s a real-world connection.

And also helping students see how STEM applies in different careers. STEM is not just four subject areas. It’s a set of skills, habits of mind. It’s problem-solving, creativity, collaboration, communication—all these skills that are going to apply to any number of careers. In Frederick County, [Md.,] we had what we call the Future Link conference, where we brought in 36 presenters from fields that you would not necessarily associate with STEM—people from art, media, communications, business—talking about how STEM applies in their jobs. That’s another way that you can get students engaged. Show them where they’re going to see it in careers. Give them a reason for learning it.

What tips do you have for teachers who are having trouble reaching all students in their classroom?

The very first thing you have to do every day when you wake up is ask yourself, “Do I really believe that all students can learn?” One of the reasons I put so many pictures of students on my walls is it helps me remember all those faces of students who can learn and do learn. And when you walk into a classroom and you’re struggling with that concept of how to reach all these learners, you have to sometimes take it one student at time. If you try to reach everybody all at once, that can lead to frustration.

Unfortunately, in teaching and education, we’re always looking for that quick fix. But teaching is an investment of energy. There is no quick fix, there is no one strategy that’s going to work for all students. There’s no piece of technology that’s going to solve it all for us. It’s too complex. We’re dealing with human beings.

How can schools improve professional development related to accommodating diverse learners’ needs?

I definitely think strong mentoring programs are essential. It’s so important when a new teacher comes to a school to pair that person with an effective mentor teacher. And I mean not just somebody who’s up with the current technology and understands all the ins and outs of working in the school, but somebody who’s really passionate about students, somebody who’s worked with a variety of different learners, somebody who has a bag of tricks. I don’t think we value veteran teachers the way we should. They know a lot about how to influence learners and inspire learners in very subtle ways that are not taught in a course or communicated in a textbook.

I also think you can really utilize online mentoring. Even if it’s just somebody that you can shoot quick questions to over e-mail. I’m going to be an online mentor for a new chemistry teacher this year. There are all different kinds of ways to go about it—chat rooms, email lists—but every teacher needs a very strong support network.

Teaching is a high-intensity, high-energy profession. It can be very draining. You need the ideas of others. And there are days when you need the inspiration of others.

In addition to STEM and special education issues, what else are you hoping to bring into the public eye over the next year as you travel around the country?

I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to talk about all the positive things we’re doing in public education because I don’t think that gets enough attention. There are so many great things happening, so many great teachers working behind the scenes, so many great students achieving amazing things—things that never hit the newspapers.

Often when people visit my classroom, they look at the students and what they’re doing and they say, Wow, I didn’t know 15-year-olds were doing this kind of work. So this is a great opportunity for me to speak and share and inspire and learn.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2011 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as An Equal Opportunity Educator


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