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September 12, 2011
Volume 89, Number 37
pp. 48 - 50

Inspiring Students To Achieve

High school chemistry teachers show that the best way to teach is often by example

Linda Wang

Innovative: Garrett (standing) is constantly improving how she connects with her students. Photo Copyright Sandra Steinbrecher 2011
InnovativeGarrett (standing) is constantly improving how she connects with her students.
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This fall, high school chemistry teachers are returning to the classroom to do their part to train and inspire the next generation of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates.

Near the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, for example, Luis Suarez is marking his 23rd year of teaching chemistry in the same school district where he went to high school in the 1970s. But instead of one Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (PSJA) high school, there are now four, each stretched to capacity with several thousand students, nearly all of them Hispanic.

Tiffany Mounts, by contrast, teaches in the small town of Van, W.Va. Her average chemistry class numbers fewer than a dozen students, and most of them, like her, are the children of coal miners.

In Englewood, one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago’s South Side, William R. Harper High School chemistry teacher Linnea Garrett is seeing signs of change at the school, which just three years ago was among the most underperforming in the city.

And in the Deep South, chemistry teacher Shalawn Clark affectionately calls her students at Hattiesburg High School, in Mississippi, “my babies” and nurtures them as if they were her own children.

Despite the differences in their communities, these teachers are linked by a simple, yet powerful, message: The best way to teach is often by example.

At PSJA North High School, in Pharr, Texas, Suarez understands if one of his students needs to miss his chemistry class for an extended period of time. After all, Suarez knows from personal experience how challenging it can be to keep up with studies while working in the fields.

The son of migrant workers who came to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1960s, Suarez remembers going to high school while spending several months out of the year traveling north with his family of 11 to work in the fields. “We went to Washington, and we picked asparagus there. From Washington, we would go to Oregon, and in Oregon we would pick strawberries and raspberries,” he says. “Whatever you can think of, we picked. It was hard work, but if you grow up with this lifestyle, you get used to it.”

His parents taught him the value of hard work and encouraged him to continue his education so he could have a more comfortable lifestyle than they had. “I was brought up to believe that no matter what you do, you’ve got to make your best effort,” he says. “Even though my parents didn’t have too much education, they knew that the only way out was through education.”

Suarez graduated from PSJA High School in 1973 and then enrolled at the University of Texas-Pan American, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He moved to Houston and worked at a chemical company for a year before getting married and returning to his hometown, where a friend convinced him to apply for a teaching position at a nearby high school.

Suarez says his own high school chemistry teacher sparked his interest in the subject. “My teacher was coming from a migrant background himself, and he motivated me,” he says. “You need to have somebody to mentor you.” A high school counselor encouraged Suarez to go to college.

Today, Suarez is giving back to the community by serving as a role model and a mentor to his own chemistry students, many of whom come from migrant families. In addition to teaching in the classroom, Suarez also coaches the science team, which has won three state championships in chemistry. Many of his students go on to major in engineering or one of the health professions, he says. One earned a bachelor’s in chemistry and, like Suarez, is teaching chemistry at PSJA North.

Suarez believes that with enough support and guidance, every student has the potential to succeed. “The toughest students to reach are the ones that have no family support,” he says. “They don’t have a positive role model. But you know what? Those are the ones you are most proud of when you do get through to them.”

Passionate: Clark (left) sees herself in many of her students. Kim Wingo
PassionateClark (left) sees herself in many of her students.

Like Suarez, Mounts also became interested in chemistry early on. “I had a phenomenal chemistry teacher in high school, and I knew I wanted to do something chemistry-related right off the bat,” she says.

But after graduating from West Virginia University Institute of Technology in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, Mounts found that job opportunities were scarce because many of the region’s chemical plants had shut down.

She took a position as a substitute teacher and fell in love with the work. Mounts obtained a degree in education, and for the past six years, she’s been teaching chemistry at Van Junior/Senior High School.

As the daughter of a coal miner, Mounts understands the conflict between continuing the family tradition and getting a college degree. In the past, she says, “the men went into the coal mines” straight from high school, “and the women married a coal miner and stayed home.” Today, however, coal-mining communities place a much greater value on higher education, she says. “Now, a lot of the coal mines require a college education before they’ll even let you do some of the jobs.”

Nevertheless, Mounts says one of her biggest challenges is in helping her students see the relevance of chemistry in their lives. “A lot of the kids don’t see the point in being in school every day,” she says. “A lot of the guys are still saying, ‘I’m just going to work in the coal mines.’

“It usually takes a little work to get the students inspired because most of them haven’t had any exposure to chemistry prior to my class,” she continues. So Mounts tries to develop experiments that help her students see chemistry at work in their community. In one of her labs, for example, her students collect water from mine sites and test its pH. She helps her students make a career connection by telling them that one of the jobs in the mines is to analyze the water.

At the end of the school year, she talks to the students about the various careers they could pursue with a degree in chemistry, and she asks her students to research the careers that interest them the most.

But ultimately, Mounts hopes to teach by example. “They drive by my house all the time,” she says. “They know that I used to live in a trailer right below the school. If I can come from that and be successful, then they can too.”

Influential: Suarez (top row, center), shown here with current and former chemistry students, believes that everyone has the potential to succeed. Armando Rodriguez
InfluentialSuarez (top row, center), shown here with current and former chemistry students, believes that everyone has the potential to succeed.

Growing up in a middle-class suburb outside Chicago, Garrett never thought that she’d end up teaching chemistry at an inner-city school. After all, she planned on becoming a doctor.

But after graduating in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and getting wait-listed for medical school, she decided to spend the following year participating in an AmeriCorps program called City Year. Working with the Chicago Public Schools, she designed a program for high school students to tutor elementary school children.

Garrett found working with inner-city students to be so rewarding that she gave up her plans to reapply for medical school and instead applied for a full-time teaching position at Percy L. Julian High School, in Chicago. “I realized that I really liked working with high school students,” she says. By teaching biology, physics, and chemistry, she was able to fulfill her passion for science as well.

For the past three years, Garrett has been teaching chemistry at Harper High School. She was hired in 2008 when Harper, designated a turnaround school, replaced its entire administrative and teaching staff in an effort to improve student achievement. “The first year I was there, I was shocked at how few parents you can get hold of,” says Garrett. “We have a lot of aunts, grandmothers, and wards of the state.” Security officers and social workers are a constant fixture in the school.

But the students aren’t the only ones to face challenges—Garrett herself has had to climb a steep learning curve. Last year, she focused so much on incorporating all of the state standards that she lost sight of the real needs of her students. “They didn’t see how chemistry related to anything in their lives,” she says. “That was my own fault for not trying to find things that were relevant. You have to know your kids to know what analogies work and how to make things make sense.”

She is also looking for more role models for her students and invites local scientists to come into her classroom and speak to her students about different careers. “This year, we’re trying to have mostly African American scientists come so that not only can kids hear about science, but they can see themselves as the scientist,” she says.

Garrett says she now understands what makes her students tick. In the past, if a student was struggling and told her that they felt like she didn’t like them, she would say, “If you think that I don’t like you, wouldn’t that make you work harder because then you want to show me that you can do this?”

“But that doesn’t resonate with them. If they think you don’t like them, they shut down,” Garrett says. “You have to have relationships with your kids. They have to know they can trust you and that you care about their learning.”

In Mississippi, Clark shares this sentiment. The daughter of a pastor, she has always relied on her faith to get her through tough times. Clark graduated in 1997 from Tougaloo College, in Jackson, Miss., earning a bachelor’s degree in biology. She had dreamed of becoming a doctor, but she knew that as a single parent it would be difficult to attend medical school. Instead, Clark went on to the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, where she earned an M.B.A.

Creative: Mounts (fourth from left) helps her students see how chemistry impacts their lives. Courtesy of Tiffany Smith-Mounts
CreativeMounts (fourth from left) helps her students see how chemistry impacts their lives.

After graduating in 2000, she took a variety of temporary jobs and then decided to try substitute teaching. “I’m just going to be honest,” she says, “the teaching schedule works for single parents.” She taught for about a year before taking a full-time position at a telecommunications company.

Then, a Southern Mississippi chemistry professor who had heard about her enthusiasm for science from another professor encouraged her to join his lab as a graduate student. She enrolled full-time, and in 2005, Clark earned a master’s degree in chemistry.

But she missed working with students, so in 2008, she took a position teaching chemistry at Hattiesburg High School. “I absolutely love teaching, and I like teaching chemistry because the kids come in here with this idea that it’s just so hard,” she says. “I tell them on the first day of school, ‘Guys, I will not lie to you. It is hard. There will be nights that you may cry.’ But the joy that I get out of it is when I see the little lightbulbs go off in their heads and they’re just so happy that they get it.”

She understands how hard it can be to stay motivated, but she also knows the rewards that can come with perseverance. “It’s easy for me to relate to the group of kids that I teach because I didn’t grow up rich, I grew up poor, and despite the financial background, I was able to accomplish my goals,” she says. “I try to teach them that everybody’s life has challenges, but in order for us to be successful, we have to learn how to overcome those challenges.”

Her days don’t end when the afternoon bell rings. In addition to holding after-school tutoring sessions, she attends her students’ sporting events. “I go to basically every sporting event because some of these kids don’t have that support in the stands,” she says. “If that’s going to help them in my classroom to learn chemistry, I’m willing to do that. When you become their cheerleader, you get more out of them.”

“To me, teaching is more than just standing behind the PowerPoint or just standing up there lecturing. It’s so much more than that,” she says. “If God is going to use me to inspire students to go out and be better people, then I’m okay with that.”

Like Suarez, Mounts, and Garrett, Clark is teaching by example. “The greatest part of teaching,” she says, “is knowing that you’ve made a difference in these students’ lives.”

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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