Award-Winning Science Teacher Is Living Her Dream
After only a year as a professional educator, Pam Harmon ES ’08 already has reason to celebrate. She recently was selected from hundreds of nationwide applicants as an Amgen-NSTA fellow in the 2009 National Science Teacher Association’s New Science Teacher Academy. Pam has joined one hundred and eighty second- and third-year science teachers from across the country in year-long professional development and mentoring activities, and will attend the association’s 2010 National Conference on Science Education in Philadelphia.
“I’m really looking forward to this opportunity, as I so deeply miss the interactions I had with fellow students and faculty at AUNE,” she said. “With a year in the bag, I can honestly say that AUNE’s environmental studies science teacher certificate program was wonderful. I miss it dearly.”
“But, I’m loving every minute of my work. I could not be happier,” said Pam, who teaches science at the Foote School, an independent school for grades K through nine in New Haven, Connecticut.
At Home in Nature
How can a child whose family moved so often that she attended ten schools before graduating from high school feel a sense of home? Pam found home by heading out-away from the house and into the woods. “Regardless of where we lived, I found solace in nature, where I pulled myself together and connected to a new area,” she said.
Pam’s father took her backpacking, and she climbed onto a horse at every opportunity. Those experiences shaped her life in a powerful way. Now, as a teacher who introduces children to the wonders of the outdoors every day, Pam says her students ask her why she cares so much about the environment. “It’s home to me. I tell them that I found stability in nature-in its patterns and slight variations that make perfect sense to me.”
Connecting Children with Their Own Backyards
The stabilizing forces of nature stand behind a curriculum Pam developed for her students at the Foote School-a program she calls “The Special Spot Project.” Her middle-schoolers are asked to adopt a spot outside their residences that they will visit throughout the school year, gaining an intimate knowledge of it. They map the spot and take an inventory of the flora and fauna. “I tell them that Darwin didn’t know what he was looking at in the Galapagos, so if they can’t name it, that’s okay, just sketch it.” The students choose ways to learn about their spots that suit their learning styles and work on presentations that require them to visit the spots often.
“Over the last two years, children have composed original pieces of music, a huge amount of poetry, beautiful sculptures-all from the standpoint of their special places. They may start out being bored, but they end up loving it. It gives them an excuse to get outside, to really sit, think and enjoy their places, something they don’t get to do very often,” Pam says.
She brings a lifetime of outdoor adventures-as a child, a mother of three children, and a teacher-to her relatively new position as science teacher. “I think kids are natural scientists, and my parents ignited that interest by letting me mess around with stuff. I was always dissecting, whether it was the chickens my mom was cooking or taking apart and assembling the electronics kits my father ordered.” As a mother, Pam took groups of kids into the wilderness for hikes and natural investigations.
After running an outdoor program at her children’s school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she began teaching life science and social studies and caught the teaching bug. “The more I taught, the more I wanted to do it. But I knew I’d need an advanced degree,” she said.
Finding the Perfect School
Pam held a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Trinity University, but hadn’t determined where she should pursue a graduate degree. She mentioned this to some young farmers while tending Community Supported Agriculture fields in Tulsa, and one of them jumped up and said, “Oh, my God! I have the perfect school for you!” She then told Pam what she knew about Antioch University New England’s Environmental Education Program.
“It took a while for me to work up the courage to do it, and I was afraid that I’d been out of school too long. And then one day, I decided to apply and give it a try,” Pam said. That decision set her on yet another adventure.
Once her children were on their own, Pam moved to Keene, fell in love with New England and threw herself into her graduate studies. “I had always been a teacher who thrived on inquiry and problem-solving, although I didn’t have the language for it until I came to Antioch. I’m a kinetic person, and the classes were both active and interactive, plus I’d been an environmentalist forever, always infusing environmentalism into science and social studies. Antioch was the only school I found that so beautifully melded those fields.”
After Graduation, Living the Dream
Pam graduated the week of her fiftieth birthday. “It was my present to myself. All my kids came to commencement, and my parents, too.” She interviewed for teaching jobs at what she called four excellent schools, and the Foote School stood out. “I shouldn’t say this, but I can’t believe I get paid to do this. I love it. I never find coming to work difficult, because every day is different and my students are amazing,” she says.
It’s easy to see how Pam keeps her students riveted; enthusiasm infects everything she says about teaching. But her excitement also rises when she talks about her days as a graduate student. “I loved going to Antioch [University New England]. It was the perfect degree, and I feel lucky to have found it. Now, if I can just manage to keep teaching while going back for my PhD!”