South Pasadena High School teacher Maryann Nielsen, recently named one of the "best of the best'' by the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE), participated in a Q&A with Patch. Here she shares her teaching insights, challenges and some general background information about herself.
Patch: How many years have you been teaching, and in which different districts?
Nielsen: This is my 16th year teaching high school. I began my career away from home, teaching at South Gwinnett High School and Decatur High School, both in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. When I returned to the L.A. area after living in Georgia for nine years, I was an instructor and field supervisor for the UCLA Teacher Education Program for five years before returning to the high school classroom at SPHS - my alma mater!
1. What is the best thing about teaching? [If you say ''the kids,''what about them?]
The best aspect of my job as a high school teacher is that it's different and interesting everyday. I am never bored at work! I get to wrestle with important ideas and issues all day long with a group of people who are smart, clever and imaginative. My students often teach me as much or more than I teach them. The day goes really fast and at the end of it I'm almost always exhausted but satisfied that I put in a good day's work.
2. How do you look for [and seemingly find] ways to keep lessons fresh?
I am always changing what I do in the classroom to keep it fresh and relevant. I constantly make notes to myself about what worked and what didn't work on a particular lesson or activity, and try to use as much of my own feedback as possible each year. The material is always new for the students, since they've never had the class before, but it can become repetitive for me if I'm not careful. Sometimes I just tell corny jokes or chat with the kids on the side in order to keep my focus on what matters - making sure the students are connected with me and engaged in a lesson. If they're not, I haven't done my job.
3. What has been the biggest challenge of your career?
My mom died pretty suddenly almost two years ago. She was a teacher and the inspiration for my work. It was tough to keep a bright, shining face all day in my classroom when inside I was aching and feeling so lost. But the students helped me through it and gave me something important to focus on.
4. What advice would you give to a first-year teacher?
It gets better! The first year of teaching is just incredibly hard and stressful in so many ways. I remember thinking that I knew I could be a better teacher my first year, but I just didn't know how to get there yet. Lots of practice, experience with the students, and trial and error with lessons definitely makes the road smoother after a while.
5. If money were no object, what trip would you like to take your kids on to highlight any required CA standard?
Since I teach U.S. government, I would love to take them all to Washington, D.C. to see the inside story of politics and government. I do, in fact, take a group of students to D.C. every year on a wonderful trip called Close Up Washington, but it's expensive and a week out of school so lots of students can't make it. Oh, and I also teach World History, so I would definitely take those students to China, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Egypt and lots of other places to investigate the events we've learned about in history!