Q-and-A with the 2018 Teacher of the Year
Aileen Sullivan is the Iowa Department of Education’s 2018 Iowa Teacher of the Year. Sullivan, 43, a chemistry teacher, has taught at Ames High since 1996. Passionate about student-centered learning, Sullivan said putting students in charge of their own learning leads to deeper-thinking skills – and keeps them engaged. Here are some of her thoughts about teaching.
What led you to the teaching profession?
Third grade is the first memory I have of really wanting to be a teacher. I loved my teacher and I loved my class. I remember drawing pictures of me behind a teacher’s desk, preparing for my students. I loved going to school! It seemed to make sense to be a teacher since both of my parents and my grandmother had been teachers at one time. As I moved into middle school, I started to have second thoughts as I navigated those three years with my ever-changing self and relationships with my classmates. I wasn’t sure I was up for that challenge. In high school, I was really enjoying science and as a 10th grader, the results of my “what shall I be when I grow up?” test found “chemist” and “flight attendant” at the top of my list. Over the next year or so, I decided I could combine my predicted future professions into one as a “chemistry teacher.” After a somewhat disappointing experience in high school chemistry, I knew that chemistry should be a topic that many students could enjoy and that I could help them learn. My senior year of high school, I spent quite a bit of time helping my middle school science teacher as a teaching assistant. After graduation, I headed to the University of Northern Iowa to fulfill my dream of becoming a teacher.
As a veteran teacher, how do you keep your lessons – and your mindset – fresh and engaging?
Thinking about how my students can be involved in chemistry keeps things fresh in my classroom. Introductory chemistry topics haven’t changed much in many years, but how students learn to think about chemistry is a constant challenge. I always start each class with something for students to think about, a question or demonstration or video that is applicable to what we are learning. I also regularly use open-ended examples and scenarios to really find out what students are thinking. I am continually amazed at nuances that students identify and the depth of their answers when given the chance to respond to novel prompts.
Have your lessons or approach to teaching changed over the years? How so?
Absolutely! As a novice teacher, I was very comfortable with making the outline of notes to deliver to my students each day. I could organize a topic with a logical flow to share in my sleep. Then one day, it dawned on me – literally, I was standing at my white board, providing notes for my students like I was a pro – that I knew exactly where this chemistry lesson was going, but my students did not. As I later would discuss when taking graduate coursework, I was serving as the gatekeeper of information for my students. They were the passive partakers of what I had to give. So, time to change it up and get the students truly engaged in what is going on! It was very scary at first, asking questions of students that not only allowed, but required, them to think and answer in ways that I might not expect. The control in my classroom shifted so now the students were active creators of understanding. It also took some time to adjust to this new mindset, no longer do I blindly give information but instead I plan with student learning in mind. My approach is to continually pay attention to when I should ask and what should I tell. Questioning is extremely important, but not all questions are good or useful for learning. Some ideas are very difficult to develop without help. By deciding what information to share as a basis for understanding and what questions to ask students, they can develop a scaffold for learning.
How has education evolved in Iowa from the time you were a student to today?
My high school provided a solid educational foundation for me and I am grateful to my former teachers for their time and efforts. In the years since I sat behind the desk as a student, I have seen opportunities for students in the state of Iowa increase. There are more post-secondary options for students to choose from. There is more training available for students for different occupations while still in high school. There are more advanced courses available for students, such as Advanced Placement and dual enrollment classes. There is more access to information than ever before, especially in my high school where every student has their own computer. Expectations for students are higher as well. When it comes to the teacher side of this educational evolution, there is more access to professional learning opportunities, from master degree programs to school district-supported events and the state’s new Teacher Leadership and Compensation program. Teachers are able to improve their craft with increased focus on collaboration and increased availability of learning opportunities. The changes that have come about in the last 30 years have been good for Iowa students and teachers.
What is your philosophy about teaching?
Students are always in control of what they learn and teaching needs to be a constant endeavor to allow students to do their own thinking. Teaching is a cognitively demanding profession that requires constant reflection and assessment of student need. But the demand on the teacher is rewarded when the student “gets-it” or when the proverbial “light bulb” goes off and they really understand. Teaching is about giving opportunities to students to figure out what it is they know, how they know what they know, and how to add new things to what they already know. Both teachers and students should engage in critical thinking every day.
What advice would you give an entry-level teacher?
To the new teachers out there I would advise them to love what they do. I would want them to find a star, a shining moment, each and every day because it is so easy to get bogged down in the details of all that we must do. I would hope that they are not too hard on themselves, their students will know more and be more for having spent time in their class than not. The vast amounts of time, effort and work new teachers put in is worth it because they WILL get better at their craft. I would suggest that they spend time reflecting of their classroom and planning for the future because as teachers, we have a fantastic opportunity to start over each year and fix the things that need to be fixed as well as repeat the things that were great. And I would want them to know that there are lots of people out there who believe in them and believe in what they do.