Only 13 years into her career, second-grade teacher Melissa Collins has become a master of the trade. She has collected several coveted awards, including the 2013 Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence and the 2008 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching. She was also recognized this year as a finalist for Tennessee Teacher of the Year.

While accolades have taken her from the White House to Brazil, Collins feels most at home in her classroom with “her babies” at John P. Freeman Optional School in Memphis. She spoke with us about the innovative ways she promotes science and the advice she has for her fellow educators.

Q | Why the focus on science?
A | I think about myself when I was my students’ age and how there were a lot of missed opportunities. I know that my teachers wanted me to learn, but I don’t remember being exposed to science and math careers. [We had a day called] Career on Wheels, and I mostly saw teachers, postal workers, firefighters, and police officers, never doctors or engineers or architects. Also, I don’t really remember my teachers teaching science in elementary school.

We hear reading and math are important in the primary grades, but we really need to get students to develop their love of science. So often kids say, “I don’t like science.” I was one of those children. I don’t want my students to have that mind-set. We need people who are going to go into the medical profession and work with technology. It’s at this age that ­children have inquisitive minds and are curious about learning. If I’m going to ignite their flame, I need to do it early.

Q | What’s your method for effective science instruction?
A | There’s an old adage: “Tell me and I will forget. Teach me and I will remember. Involve me and I will understand.” We need to turn our classrooms into learning labs. That’s what I try to create. You have to give students total autonomy. At this age, they’re curious about the world around them and ready to ask questions. They’re always asking questions! We need to recognize the importance of them asking questions. They need to be able to pose the questions and then seek out their own understanding. You can use the science textbook as a guide to get information, but you have to think of other ways to test the theory—where they’re able to see and understand why things occur. And they can do it. First, there has to be a lot of modeling. You have to model how to formulate questions. And then you have to be willing to let them go.

Q | Tell us about the budding scientists in your class.
A | I started having them wear science lab jackets in 2010. We decorate them with one or two pictures [that illustrate] what science means. Then they write “Scientist Billy,” or whatever their name is, on the jacket. During science, they wear the lab jackets and I refer to them by those names. I tell them to save the jackets. I say, “When you become a scientist or doctor, you can have your first lab jacket displayed in your office.”

Q | What’s the payoff?
A | I have some students who are going to school to become nurses and biomedical engineers, and I’m not even that old! You see what you spoke about come to life with your students. I just want to leave a legacy—I want people to know that I was here and did my part as a teacher and that I helped change lives.

Q | You have three advanced education degrees, including a doctorate. What’s your secret to constantly learning and improving as an educator?
A | I keep wanting to challenge myself. You have to want more. You have to be willing to grow. The best way to do that is to engage in professional development. Not only is it important for the district or administrators to find you something, it’s also important for you to seek your own professional development. When I ended up doing it on my own, I wanted to get better, to accomplish the criteria that makes me an effective teacher.

Q | One more question—how do you manage to do it all?
A | Number one is to get a support system of like-minded people who want to grow in the profession, just like you. I have friends who are always trying to excel. We encourage each other. We speak life into each other and cheer each other on. You also need to talk to your administrator and let them know where you’re trying to go in your career so [he or she] can support you and offer those opportunities. It’s difficult, but keep your eyes on the prize—the students. 


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