In Conversation: A Both/And from the Classroom

The last year and a half has been a year of both/and. Struggle and strength. Hope and healing. At NGS, we believe that your stories matter. And that all need to be heard.

As many educators navigate a new school year, we want to remind ourselves and our community of the ongoing complexity and nuance that awaits us on this horizon. So we are sharing some of the #BothAndStories from educators who shared with us to create a space for reflection on all that the last year has brought to you, your students, your communities. We hope to honor the past as we all begin to look ahead.

From educator Isabella Liu in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

National Geographic Society (NG): What stories of struggle have you witnessed this past year and a half?

Isabella: While our students are considered academically gifted, they have a wide range of emotional needs, particularly social anxiety. Part of this is due to our school being under renovation for the last two and a half years, and students have been displaced to another temporary campus to learn. In addition to being located in Toronto, a COVID-19 hotspot, many students are unable to attend school in-person due to health concerns or lack of transportation. Coupled with the revolving teaching models, these circumstances have exacerbated students’ anxiety levels. Many teachers have also had to become mentors, coaches, and counsellors. 

The pandemic has changed many parents’ employment situations. Many have lost their jobs or transitioned to primary caregivers, thus increasing the amount of student financial aid. Others have transitioned to a work-from-home arrangement which puts a strain on digital resources, (Wifi) especially when some households have multiple kids enrolled in online learning. These stressors are apparent in my students. During my 1:1 check-ins, I have observed that many have experienced compounding effects of these stressors and changes. They have voiced the stress that they are experiencing at home, and in witnessing these shifting family dynamics during the pandemic. This has changed how I support my students and has added additional considerations that need to be taken into account while teaching.

NG: What stories of strength have you witnessed this past year and a half?

Isabella: I am not only a chemistry/science teacher, but also a mentor and empathize with student’s struggles. This is especially important with the heavy AP Chemistry courses I teach. The amount of material can be overwhelming for students; they find it hard to digest everything at a rapid pace, especially with hybrid online learning.. I endeavour to alleviate students’ stress  to the best of my ability, while also delivering the course material. 

Before the pandemic, I would spend time with students in the library, offering advice to prospective university students. Now with virtual learning, I try to maintain that excitement and engagement in the classroom. Many times I have observed students entering my class discouraged, stressed and exhausted. I try to lift their spirits through games. For example; during the crunch week before the summer break while school was online, students were in a frantic review period for the culminating exam in the following class. I prepared a surprise Jeopardy game for my Grade 11s as a fun activity for review and revision. They loved the game and found it a less stressful way  to review the test material.

NG: What stories of hope have you witnessed this past year and a half?

Isabella: I have also written numerous reference letters to support their university applications, many of which are for Ivy League universities. Most notably, a student of mine has been accepted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study engineering while another student of mine has been accepted to Duke, Stanford and Harvard University. Despite the challenging end to their secondary education career, my students have persevered and carried on to accomplish many great personal goals.

NG: What stories of healing have you witnessed this past year and a half?

Isabella: My community involvement extends beyond the typical school year. During the summer, I am Camp Director for Bright Lights in the Lab, a program that introduces neuroscience to students from grades 6-12. Formerly an instructor myself, I help organize: activities, instructor-led lessons and visits from experts in order to provide campers with an immersive and comprehensive learning experience. I have demonstrated my dedication again and again by putting in extra time and effort to make sure that no camper gets left behind. One such example was modifying a worksheet  for a camper who had a more visual learning style. I had noticed that the camper was not as engaged in the traditional model, and in response,I adapted the material to that camper’s needs. I continually remain flexible and am willing to dedicate additional time to best support a student’s learning style.

In addition, I have been actively involved with tackling the lack of representation of women in STEM by sharing my STEM journey and also mentoring fellow young women. I have been recognized as a role model from See It, Be It, STEM It, an organization that encourages girls and young women to pursue their interests in STEM. I have also been selected as a hErvolution ambassador, working with groups of women across different age groups to inspire others to  shatter the glass ceiling and carve a path for future female generations in STEM fields.

With increasing anti-Asian racism sentiments, I am happy to see organizational and systematic changes that are occurring. Small changes, but they are changes towards the right direction nonetheless.

NG: What advice would you give your fellow educators at this moment moving forward from here?

Isabella: This moment may seem challenging to many, so my advice is to ask for help. As teachers, we’re trained to become the experts in the classroom, to be a constant source in the midst of chaos, to become perfectionists ourselves. The one thing I’ve learned in the past year was to lean on my community. When I’m reaching out for help, the support that I’ve received was tremendous. And it’s something that I’m consistently paying forward as well. Take it one day at a time, take care of yourself, so that you can show up for your students.

Isabella Liu is a science educator and the founder of Rise & Repeat, a professional development organization offering workshops and courses for the 21st-century educator. She has taught students in three different countries, including Hong Kong and Nanjing, China. Currently, she teaches Science and AP Chemistry in Toronto, Canada. She is passionate about personal development and emerging educational technologies (EdTech) to enhance student learning. She is also passionate about mentoring future teachers so they can continue to develop their skills in a rapidly changing educational environment. She is an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Educator within their Education Certified Trainer program. She has also collaborated with National Geographic in implementing their professional development program for educators around the world.

She is a Chinese-Canadian who grew up in Hong Kong; she is a third culture child who has walked both lines of North American and Chinese culture. She is able to integrate her lived personal experiences into her teaching, which better equips her to understand cultural nuances within her classroom. These experiences intersect with her identity as a woman of colour in science. It’s a lens that she brings into her classroom, but also through her role as EdTech Integration Program Coordinator at her school. With technology being a predominantly male-centric field, she actively tries to break down those gender barriers and address implicit biases through her own identity and experiences.

Stay tuned for more reflections on #BothAndStories from the past year and a half and check out the storymap created from the voices within our community. For support and resources during this back to school season and beyond, check out our curated resources.

Header image designed by educator, Wendi Pillars.

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