Sonoma County Office of Education

My Father’s Most Valuable Lesson: Teaching with Passion in the NGSS Era

Author: Anna Babarinde
Published: 05.28.15

Anna Van and her Father This picture is of my dad and me adopting pumas last summer—doing our duty for the “family business.” For my entire career, we have both taught at Maria Carrillo High School (home of the Pumas), albeit on opposite sides of the campus. He is in the math building and I am over in the science wing. However, this will change in June as he is retiring after 37 years of teaching.

While working alongside your parents in other careers may be common place to many, my experience has been somewhat unique in the teaching world. My dad has actually been an integral part of all my high school experiences. I still remember going with him to school on “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” and thinking that sitting in a high school classroom was the height of coolness. Little did I know that this would foreshadow things to come!

Later, my dad turned down the opportunity to become a founding member of the Maria Carrillo staff in order to stay at Santa Rosa High while I was in high school, so we shared my high school years in a unique way. My career as a high school teacher has also involved him. When I first started teaching, he was great at striking a balance between giving me the space to develop as an educator while also offering support and advice when I asked for it. In the past few years, particularly this year as we’ve both taught AP classes, we’ve shared a lot of students and have offered each other support and advice. Through all of these experiences, I’ve learned valuable lessons about how to be an engaged and invested teacher.

What stands out to his students
Because I wasn’t in any of his classes, one thing my father and I never shared was the teacher/student relationship. Recognizing this, I recently asked my students what stood out to them about Mr. Van and his teaching. Most of their responses fell into three categories.

First, they said he shares profound thoughts such as, “You’re never actually walking through a door.” (This is some theoretical physics idea that they tried to explain to me, but I still don’t entirely understand it.) Of the quotes they offered, my personal favorite was, “Math isn’t hard. English is hard. That’s why you have trouble with word problems.”

The second thing that stood out to them was his storytelling. They said he loves to tell stories about math history, particularly anything involving a slide rule. He also routinely shares stories about his personal life that gives students a broader perspective about who he is. One of them commented, “First we thought he was just a math guy, but he’s done SO many things!”

The thing about Mr. Van’s class that stood out the most for students was music; he is always playing music and singing for them. Students said he taught them math songs that help them learn. One commented, “The highlight of trigonometry was him singing the Soh-Cah-Toa song while Mr. Fealey (another math teacher) harmonized. That always gets stuck in my head now!”

As is so often the case for those of us in education who work in isolated classrooms, I didn’t know about many of the things the students shared. I kept saying, “Really? He does that?” until a student said, “Ms. Van, we might know Mr. Van better than you.”

What actually struck me was that, while all of the students’ examples were unique to the math classroom, everything they shared perfectly described my dad. He’s delighted to have deep conversations and reflect on theoretical topics. He has always been a storyteller, lighting up as he shares. And my father is incredibly passionate about music—it’s at the core of who he is. So the students’ examples epitomized the most valuable of all the lessons I’ve learned from my dad about teaching: take your passions and incorporate them into your teaching, because that’s when you come alive and students are engaged.

Teaching from a place of passion
This lesson seems so intuitive. Of course, classes are more fun and engaging for you and your students when you teach from a place of passion, but for many people, this lesson wasn’t learned or got lost along the way in the NCLB era. As we now usher in CCSS and NGSS, things are poised to change.

One of the exciting things about the current educational transition, particularly in science, is that it gives space for and encourages educators to teach using the things they’re passionate about. I attended a seminar given by one of the authors of NGSS and he said they designed the standards with flexibility for teacher passions. If you love volcanoes, you can teach a large amount of earth science using them as your focus. A model has come out for teaching an entire year of NGSS-aligned high school biology as a marine biology class. One of my colleagues adores the ocean and hearing this news made her entire face light up. Imagine how incredible teaching this way could be for her and her students. I am passionate about literacy and making connections between science content and fiction and nonfiction texts. I’m so excited that this is emphasized in both CCSS and NGSS.

It was obvious when talking to my dad’s students that incorporating what you’re passionate about hugely impacts a student’s experience in the classroom. They are more engaged and remember more about the class. In true math teacher form, my dad has calculated that, at the end of this year, he’ll have taught approximately 8,500 people. That’s a lot of minds to influence! The added bonus of teaching this way is that it’s kept him enthusiastic and engaged. He’s excited about retirement (or as he calls it “changing vocations”) and the chance to pursue music, but he hasn’t drudged through these last years.

Because teaching this way hasn’t been emphasized for so long, it’s possible many of us need to reexamine the areas of passion we’d like to bring into our teaching. As we finish the long 90 days of May (maybe even longer this year!), and enter a much-needed vacation, I invite you to spend some time thinking about what you’re passionate about and how it might be incorporated or further highlighted in your teaching. Taking this lesson to heart has made all the difference in my life as a teacher, and I hope in the lives of the students! I’m excited to see what happens as it becomes the norm in education!

Happy retirement to all those who like my dad are set to start on a new adventure exploring or digging deeper into areas of passion. Thank you for investing in the lives of students! For the rest of us, have a wonderful summer vacation. May it be a time of rest and rejuvenation, so that we can continue this adventure in NGSS next year!


Blog: Exploring NGSS