Sonoma County Office of Education

Ten Years a Teacher: Pondering Purpose

Author: Anna Babarinde
Published: 05.27.16

annablog.pngOne of my favorite iPhone features is the “reminder” app. Especially in the busy 90 days of May, I rely heavily on setting up reminders with alarms to ensure that I remember all of life’s little details. Most are mundane, such as “buy tissues” (essential this year with many allergy-suffering students). But I also have a few that I schedule to pop up once a month to remind me of important life lessons. And they always seem to show up at the right moment.


Last Thursday I was feeling drained-—it had been a long day and week, I’d been in a series of lengthy meetings after my classes, and I was racing back to school to present four science awards at the senior awards ceremony. I was not in a celebratory mood but instead bone tired and incredulous that I had to keep going. When I arrived, I glanced down at my phone and saw my teaching reminder: “Mission: To help students live the dreams they dream. And to help them develop the knowledge, wisdom, discernment, and confidence to form those dreams.” And suddenly I found energy (at least a little) and purpose again.


This mission statement isn’t unique to me, and the first part of it isn’t even my original creation; it’s borrowed from Jones Elementary in Springdale, Arkansas. I also wouldn’t have been able to articulate it when I started teaching. It’s something I’ve grown into. But after ten years as a teacher, I can wholeheartedly say that this statement embodies the core of why I teach and what I think we need to be mindful of in the context of NGSS implementation and the current emphasis on STEM and STEAM education.


NGSS and the larger umbrella of STEAM both have incredible power to help students live the dreams they dream. NGSS has a focus not just on content knowledge but developing an understanding of the larger picture of science and the practical skills for thinking and acting as a scientist or engineer. All of these attributes make students more marketable in the 21st Century.


STEM, and now STEAM, education similarly represents a chance to acquire the job skills and integrated knowledge that are more and more often desired or required for careers.  John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design points out, The White House reminds us that ‘a world-class STEM workforce is essential to virtually every goal we have as a nation -- whether it's broadly shared economic prosperity, international competitiveness, a strong national defense, a clean energy future, or longer, healthier lives for all Americans.’" Whether they pursue careers in STEM or simply benefit from the innovative work that others do in these fields, our emphasis on integration of subjects, hands-on science, and understanding the big picture will give all students a better chance to live the dreams they dream.


But as an educator, I want more for my students than simply having the ability to pursue any dream. I want them to have dreams with purpose, dreams that are thoughtfully developed and bring together their passions and interests with the needs of the world around them. That is, in fact, what I want for all students everywhere.


Just as with everything else in education, if we desire for students to develop dreams with purpose, we need to give them examples and practice. The way for this is paved in NGSS and STEAM education. We just have to put together the pieces. As we choose phenomena for NGSS lessons, we can select real world issues that students might care about and envision themselves addressing. Within STEM and STEAM, we can give students challenges that address current problems and possibilities and give them a chance to identify their own strengths, thus giving them practice connecting skill and purpose. And we can carefully choose stories and examples of people like our students who had purpose and implemented change to inspire them.  


The good news is, infusing purpose can be done in small increments. It doesn’t mean you have to change the whole structure of your class right away. One of my most successful teaching “experiments” has been a series I developed called “People to Ponder.” Every week, I share with students the story of a person related to whatever science content we’re studying. It takes about five minutes. I started out thinking it would be a fun extra every so often, but based on student feedback it has become integral to all classes I teach.


People to Ponder is universally loved by students- freshmen, seniors, English learners, students with disabilities, and academic and AP students to name a few. Students who I have multiple times remember the stories from year to year and reference them in their work. One common denominator for this success is most certainly that people love stories. But another is that these stories make science real—actual people struggled with the technology, culture, and norms of their time and with physical, mental, and relational challenges while making discoveries that shape our world today. The stories aren’t always happy, nor do they always end well, but these are people who had knowledge and skill and often a sense of great purpose, and with these they changed the world. Students are inspired by this and from these examples see possibilities for themselves. Perhaps the greatest compliment of my teaching career came this year when a student raised his hand and proclaimed to the class, “When I grow up, I want to be a person to ponder.” All of the AP Biology students have now taken this on, referencing it often as a goal.


As we finish the 90 days of May and enter summer, my encouragement to you is to rest and rejuvenate and then spend time pondering purpose, both yours in education and the ways you can inspire and empower students to develop their own. The results can change us, our classrooms, and the world we live in.


This year marks the end, at least for awhile, of my time in the classroom. I will most certainly miss my daily interactions with students, but I’m excited about new possibilities as Curriculum Coordinator for Science. And while my context will be different, as I look ahead to this adventure I find that my ultimate purpose hasn’t changed. I still want to help students live the dreams they dream and choose those dreams well. I look forward to continuing to partner with you all to make this happen.


But for now, as this particular adventure winds down, a word to my students: You, for quite some time, have been my people to ponder. And you’re my favorite kind of people to ponder, because the story isn’t over and there’s so much that you can do in the next chapter. You have talent, creativity, and such great capacity for doing good. You are poised to change the world, and you have most certainly changed me. Keep building your dreams and walk into them confidently, because you have what it takes. In your words, “you got this.” So go out, pursue purpose, and don’t forget to enjoy the ride! I’m very proud of you all.

Blog: Exploring NGSS