FACULTY IN FOCUS offers a deeper look into what motivates our teachers, what they bring to the classroom, and why they love teaching Brookwood kids. This week, Ms. Shea shares her perspective with us.
Ms. Shea | 8th Grade Science Teacher, Wellness Coordinator
What do you teach, and how long have you been teaching?
I am in my 8th year of teaching and this is my 3rd year of teaching at Brookwood. My first job as a teacher was at a small private high school where I was the sole science teacher and taught all the sciences. Included in this opportunity was developing a health and wellness course from scratch, tailored to students’ needs.
At Brookwood, I teach 8th grade science (chemistry and physics), 8th grade Community Life, and serve as Wellness Coordinator, which is a new position this year. It was created out of the desire to have a designated person that looks at opportunities for wellness and mindfulness for grades 6 – 8. In this role, there is the opportunity to teach students about managing stress and anxiety, to further develop the social and emotional learning curriculum, and to look for ways to continue strengthening these threads across divisions.
Community Life is a social emotional curriculum for the 8th grade. It is meant to speak to and be relevant to the 8th grade experience at Brookwood. So, we not only look at what it means to be 13 or 14 years old, but specifically what it means to be 13 or 14 at Brookwood. We spend our time talking about interpersonal skills, intrapersonal skills, and identifying our emotions and thought patterns. In the fall, we talk about leadership and community, then we shift gears to talk about who you are and what you value, and round out the year focusing on community values - kindness, compassion, etc.
What’s the most rewarding part of teaching at Brookwood?
I think one of the most interesting, and in some ways challenging, parts of teaching in general, is that a big part of the job is planting seeds that we might never get to see grow. In some ways, teachers never know how or if those seeds will germinate, but we strive to plant them anyways and hope that the seed survives the tumultuous years of adolescence and blossoms. We plant seeds of the academic, character development, and emotional variety, and we aren’t always sure what sticks. Plus, we know that no one, especially kids, usually hears something just once, and then forever knows it or immediately incorporates it into their long term memory or behavior. Learning is so often deeply tied to one’s experiences and how one pulls those experiences in and frames them against the current information or world that they know and understand at that moment in their life. So, we all benefit from constant refreshers of important messages, information, and ideas, again and again. As a result, as teachers, we have to believe that our efforts will make a difference. It is a daily intellectual exercise and spiritual practice to have faith in those seeds!
I think the most rewarding part of teaching at Brookwood in particular is being able to combine my passion for wellness with my passion for science. I think they go hand-in-hand, and being able to wear those two hats is professionally satisfying, as I believe both inform and enrich the other. Providing students and faculty alike with the science behind mindfulness and mindfulness practices helps anchor the content in something that can make it feel more valid beyond one’s own internal experiences with it. For example, when we practice deep breathing, it is not just fluffy, “woo woo” talk to cue students to breathe out toxins on their exhale. For us humans, carbon dioxide is a toxin; it’s a metabolic byproduct that must be exhaled.
What’s a moment you’ll never forget from your teaching career?
My first year of teaching I was hired only two weeks before school started and all I had at my disposal were textbooks -- no other typical teacher resources were available. The experience was so rewarding. What struck me about those early years of teaching, where so much of the experience comes down to being willing to mess up and take risks in the classroom, was that pushing my students to also take risks and making them feel valued led to valuable learning experiences.
Since I was studying and training in yoga at this time, I started to connect my yoga learning to my classroom. My students would show up to my class and struggle to be present for lots of reasons. So, it was a profound realization that I could use mindfulness to help my kids connect to the moment and center themselves. To be still for five minutes when they entered class completely changed their energy, grounded them, and readied them to work. Taking that time, those five minutes, instead of endlessly trying to redirect them, was transformative. It really influenced me as a teacher to shift from being curriculum or agenda focused -- which can often feel forced when kids aren’t centered -- to being tuned into where my students’ energy was that day and changing my approach to meet their energy, thus making learning much more organic. I saw first hand, and early on in my career, the power of meeting kids where they are, and how that can transform a classroom, enabling the teacher to be able to accomplish the planned curriculum for that day. It really changed how I thought about teaching. Now, years later, it’s encouraging to see all the research, science, and data behind this practice of mindfulness in schools and how it can change a student’s experience. It’s now embraced by the educational community and the parents.
Do you have a favorite topic or unit that you like to teach and why?
I love teaching chemistry because it has a mystique about it. A lot of students who haven’t taken it yet have this perception that it is a complicated, super challenging subject. Students jump to a conclusion before even forming a hypothesis (see what I did there - corny jokes, that’s one tool I use with my students). Not actually knowing much about it, they often say, “Oh no, that’s not for me,” or decide in advance that they will not be good at it because they’re not a “science person,” whatever that means! I was once that student; I loved science, but I had a couple of unsupportive, unkind teachers, and I translated their behaviors and attitudes into messaging that I wasn’t smart enough to study science. So, I am motivated as a science teacher to rally behind a kid who thinks they aren’t good at science and help them realize that first off, they are way too young to make that decision, and second, science is a really diverse field, so if one part of science didn’t resonate, don’t write off all of the sciences.
Here at Brookwood, we teach the chemistry unit in a way that is organic to the way that students learn naturally. There are great moments of stumbling and fumbling through the learning process, which comes at a time when students really start to shy away from making mistakes in front of their peers. But this unit forces them back into that space of being uncomfortable, making mistakes, and learning from them. Students begin to really trust their own thinking and just as in the real world, where mistakes or incorrect hypotheses have lead to important scientific discoveries, student mistakes lead to greater understanding and “aha” moments!
From your experience, what makes Brookwood unique?
I think that Brookwood has found a really wonderful, really challenging balance between holding kids to high standards academically, offering students opportunities for deep thinking and deep learning, and focusing intentionally on learning how to be a good and decent person. To develop strong character takes time and effort, and sometimes can be a slow process. In our ever-changing, fast-paced world, it is impressive that Brookwood prioritizes social emotional development adeptly in conjunction with academic rigor.
Another thing that really struck me about Brookwood when I began working here was the faculty. I was so impressed by their wisdom about kids and education, their authentic kindness, and their utter humility about their own incredible talents, accomplishments, and intellect. What also stands out is how the faculty are so professional and caring in how they speak about students with one another, as well as in how they communicate with each other. The faculty was one of the biggest draws for me originally and getting to work with all of these incredible educators has continued to be one of the best parts of working here!
What did your five-year-old self want to be when you grew up?
The real answer is that I wanted to be a “Fly Girl,” as in the backup dancers from the 90’s sketch comedy show “In Living Color” (fun fact: Jennifer Lopez got her start as a Fly Girl). I loved dancing and just wanted to dance on stage as a kid. I made up dances every single day with a couple of girls in my neighborhood. And like a lot of 5-year-olds, I also wanted to be a few other things all at the same time. I always loved science and animals, so I thought I might end up as a marine biologist. That love for animals extended to people, too. It was always clear to me that I felt a tenderness towards people and wanting to help them, especially the underdog. As I got a bit older, I began to shift towards wanting to be a psychologist because of this love for people and how much I liked helping people. I feel fortunate that I am in this professional space now where I get the opportunity to bring those interests and passions together as a science teacher and wellness coordinator (and even occasionally channeling my inner Fly Girl dreams at a wedding or celebration). I think five-year-old me would be pretty happy about adult me.