Like most people, the first teachers in my life were my parents, and if I learned anything from them, it was this: Go to school, do well, and the world will open up to you. Deprived of a higher education themselves because of volatile social reforms in China, they had been forced to forsake their dreams and settle into steady but unstimulating jobs. Perhaps it was this dissatisfaction that led them to push me, all throughout my childhood, to pursue my education diligently. By the time I was in middle school, I no longer needed their pushing—I had teachers who captured my imagination through their passionate attitudes towards whatever they taught, whether it was history or science, and their interest in fostering my own potential as a thinker and creative spirit.
Not everyone, however, has such role models in their lives to push them so hard or to show them that learning can be a catalyst for transforming one’s future as well as a fulfilling pursuit in itself. I believe it is my role as a teacher to not only teach knowledge or skills, but to instill in young people a sense of curiosity and agency—a desire to discover and master new knowledge and skills, as well as confidence in their own ability to take on challenges and excel. Nothing in my classroom is met with negativity—if students aren’t doing so well, I believe they can do better, and I give them concrete steps they can take; if students are acting out or missing school, I believe there is a reason for it, and will take steps to learn about and address those issues. All students have lives outside of school; rather than forcing them to leave their lives at the door, I welcome the opportunity to connect with them on a more human level, incorporate their selves into the things we do in class, and communicate openly with families so that school does not seem like an isolated, irrelevant institution. When my students are working in class, I circulate to every one of them to have an individual exchange; when I correct work, I write individualized notes and comments on the paper they get back. This way, I am never simply a face and a voice at the front of the class, but someone who cares about each student’s unique character and development.
In teaching a subject that is at times intimidating in its density and technicality, I try never to forget two things: that science is a process, and that science is full of wonders. I believe it is of the utmost importance to guide students to the point where they not only ask questions, but feel able to answer their own questions through investigation. Students don’t often think of it this way, but they come into my class already possessing a practical capacity for inquiry and problem-solving that in many ways mirrors the scientific method. My role as a teacher is to help students convert this intuition into a concrete set of skills that will aid them both in school and out in the real world. I believe this happens most effectively and enduringly by having students really do science, which at the most basic level means testing their assumptions about the world and critically judging how they know what they think they know. In this way they also create knowledge for themselves that will last due to a heightened sense of ownership.
This act of doing science and constructing knowledge also helps achieve the second thing I try never to forget: that science is full of wonders. Part of my reason for tailoring and differentiating my lessons to meet the needs and interests of all learners stems from my desire to make science relevant and fascinating for my students. Helping my father, who had rarely had time to open a book since leaving middle school, to understand that with a long enough lever, one could theoretically move a mass as great as the Earth with a push of a finger, was a moment of such mutual excitement that I felt as if we were both five years old again, with the world once again a mystical and wondrous place. Just the same, seeing the looks of “aha!” on my students’ faces when they “get it,” or when they arrive at some conclusion that really engages their imagination (“So does that mean I can create my own dog breed?” one student excitedly asked me during a lesson on genetics), is exhilarating for me. More than anything, I want to share with them the mysteries of the world, and help them come to see science not as a drudge, but a thrill, and develop skills of inquiry and scientific literacy that will open the world up to them and enable them to pursue their dreams to the furthest possible extent.
At the same time, sharing my passions will reinforce them for myself, allowing me to more fully understand and appreciate the wonders of nature that have held my curiosity captive for so long. And I am a student as well as a teacher in more than just this way. I learn from my students every day how to become a better teacher. I am not afraid to ask for feedback—I believe students know better than anyone else how good their teachers are and what needs to change so that they can learn more effectively. “Help me help you” is the message I send to my students, as I ask for their perspectives and judge from their work how well my teaching methods have succeeded. Just as I believe that what my students learn inside the classroom should help them continue to grow once they leave, I also believe I should never allow my own growth to stagnate. Every day I reflect on how my lessons went and what I must do to improve, and seek out the ideas and advice of my colleagues and mentors. In this way I am always striving to be the best teacher I can be so that I can pay forward the knowledge and empowerment that I received from my own teachers.
Download my resume here: Helen Pang teacher resume.pdf