Amanda Jones teaches high school science classes in Poyen, Ark.—a tiny, rural town about an hour outside of Little Rock with a population of 290.
Her school is so small that she teaches multiple subjects in one year, including chemistry, physics, biology, and environmental science. She can’t know everything, she said. But she’s determined to make sure her students hear from experts in the outside world.
Jones, who was a finalist for the 2018 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, recruited community professionals—including doctors, pharmacists, and many of her former students—to volunteer to be on call during lab days. In those days, her classroom is packed, with about 30 students working on various projects.
“I can’t be every place every time someone has a question or needs help,” she said. But lab activities are critical to teach students how to reason and problem-solve, she added.
Her solution: “Phone-a-Friend” cards. She pulls from her database of volunteers to find professionals who work in a field similar to the lab of the day, and gives each group of students a card with a name and number.
“The kids, they love it,” she said. “Even if they think they have [the experiment] figured out, they pick up the phone and FaceTime whoever it is. They let the mentor watch it with them.”
Mentors also give career advice to students and model opportunities that students might not have been aware of, she said. When possible, Jones, who has taught for 18 years, tries to use people who graduated from Poyen High School to give an extra dash of relevance to her students.
For example, one of Jones’ former students is almost 30 now, and has a career in political science, working for a lobbyist firm. But she was a great science student and loved doing experiments, Jones said.
She signed up to be a mentor volunteer, and the students love her, Jones said: “She makes them feel comfortable; talks them through it. [Even when she isn’t on the ‘Phone-a-Friend’ card for the day], students will say, ‘Hey, Ms. Jones, is it OK if I call her and ask what she thinks about this?’”
It’s great for current students to see that enthusiasm for learning continues after graduation, Jones said.
“People who are successful in their careers are always lifelong learners, and that’s something that’s hard to teach in a textbook,” she said.
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Some professionals also make a short video about their career or an activity the students are doing. For example, Jones planned a lab activity on medical coatings on drugs, and a pharmacist filmed a short video explaining what that means and why the coating is important, which Jones showed in class.
Jones has also asked researchers at Vanderbilt University to Skype, FaceTime, or do Facebook Lives with students to tell them about current research related to diabetes and most recently, about an increase in Rocky Mountain spotted tick fever in the area.
“It’s always more memorable, and it’s a much better learning experience if my students are enjoying what they’re doing and they see a link to real life,” Jones said. “I get to keep learning every day with [my students]. I have the best job ever.”
Many educators have long advocated for more authentic learning in the classroom. A substitute-teacher pilot program in Boston allows professionals in the community to “parachute” into the classroom and teach something they’re passionate about when the classroom teacher is out. And guest opinion blogger Robert Dillon wrote that schools need community partners to engage students in modern learning, with opportunities for both creativity and joy.
“Every student could benefit from having an outside perspective in the middle of the class,” Jones said.
See also: Preparing Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs: 10 Experts Offer Advice to Educators
Image of Amanda Jones (left), students, and the president of the Arkansas State Teachers Association (second from right) working on the enteric coating engineering design lab this fall.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.