It’s official. We just nominated physics teacher Deb Semmler for the Global Teacher Prize, an annual $1 million award to an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession. This award recognizes an individual who practices innovative instruction, models excellence, encourages others to become teachers, achieves demonstrable student learning, and engages young people as global citizens.
Over three-plus years we’ve come to know Deb and other teachers where she works – East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, NC, USA. We’ve had the honor of partnering with East Meck on a variety of programs, including Any1Can, The Global Class, and facilitation of a staff Global Immersion Learning Journey. We’ve witnessed “Eagle Pride” at this incredibly diverse, partial magnet IB school of 2,000 students. If we had the ability, we’d make the case for multiple awards spread far and wide to many teachers. So, why did we nominate Deb for an award that’s informally called the “Nobel Prize for Teaching”?
In an age when Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) education is a global need and opportunity, Deb is an Advanced Placement Physics teacher and co-founding member of East Meck’s National Academy Foundation (NAF) Academy of Engineering (AOE)
In 18 years of teaching, she’s coached 15 Science Olympiad teams that qualified for North Carolina statewide competitions, and since she’s been teaching IB diploma physics, East Meck’s overall score has increased dramatically and is now above the world average
Her spirit is about being “all in” for and “all about” students and teachers, always finding new ways to coach and mentor both
She’s a co-founder of the school’s Global Immersion Steering Team (GIST), which is ambitiously developing materials, frameworks and professional development experiences to incorporate global education in the classroom
These are some of our “just the facts, ma’am” evidence of Deb’s teaching impact in the city of Charlotte . . . But we also nominated Deb for her growing impact on education around the world. In summer 2015, Deb accepted our invitation to travel to Rwanda and learn about challenges of and gaps in science and engineering education in East Africa. She worked alongside teachers at two all-girl’s secondary schools in remote, rural areas, visited eight rural public and private schools overall, and met with the Minister of Science Education. Now, she is building on this experience with Mothering Across Continents as lead project catalyst developing “Pivot Academy,” an approach to helping schools in even the most challenged communities to shift from teaching through textbook memorization to approaches that use the design cycle and hands-on experiments to solve problems: food/hunger, water/sanitation, and environment/sustainability.
With open eyes, beautiful moments are easy to find in Rwanda. That’s often a surprise to first-time visitors. Stories and images of the 1994 genocide from news reels and memoirs are many people’s only reference points. So, we’ve been moved by the distinctly different email updates that we’re receiving from Mothering Across Continents-supported volunteers who are in Rwanda right now. Beautiful flowers, a high school girl sitting under a tree reading, a stroll up a cobblestone pathway. All are reminders that nature’s artistry, opportunities to quietly reflect, and a sense of connection are available around the world. So are examples of aspiration and leadership. A visit to Gashora Girls Academy, not far from the capital of Kigali, inspired US Physics teacher Deb Semmler’s breathless end-of-day reflection: “WOW! . . . Gashora is 3.2 miles down a dirt road on the edge of a beautiful lake. The students run the school. They make decisions on how the school operates, and they have pride. The three girls that we talked and walked around the school with have big dreams and are high achievers . . . We talked about the summer leadership program they are part of. This summer, 123 girls from around the world (50 from the US and Canada) are spending three weeks learning about leadership and girl power.” As Deb has commented more than once on her experience in Rwanda, “A great day in Africa.”
It’s been awhile since we posted a blog on our website. Physics teacher Deb Semmler’s trip to Rwanda makes it worth starting up again. Through Mothering Across Continents, she is guest teaching and providing professional development training for physics, chemistry and biology teachers for nearly three weeks. It’s her first trip to Africa.
I’m at an all-girls high school that we call “Biyimana” for short. The school, managed by nuns, was founded in 1955 with the first class graduation in 1959. The school is very well-established and they raise cows to provide fresh milk for the students, as well as chickens for eggs, pigs, and rabbits to sell to provide beef for students. They have large gardens that provide fruits and vegetables for the students, including carrots, beets, and bananas. They seem fully self-supporting and have men who tend to the livestock and gardens. Nobody wants for food here, and there is no food desert as far as I can tell. I see fresh fruit and vegetable at every meal and available along the “road” as we drive to and from the school. I drank warm fresh milk for the first time ever at lunch (so far, so good, not sick).
The teachers use questioning and have students individually go to the board, do the work, and explain each step of a problem or question to the others. They use science note booking for taking notes and doing problems (two separate books). The students’ notebook are impeccable, using ink and rulers to draw. They don’t make mistakes and have perfect handwriting.
One morning, I did professional development training with 2 biology teachers, 2 chemistry teachers and one physics teacher. We started with the hydrophilic bead that I had left in water overnight . . . with the coin that is invisible when there is no excess water and visible with excess water due to light refraction in the air space.
I made a short presentation using the projector on the newest research on how people learn, not by reading and rereading but by testing themselves overtime. That led me to show them how we use “foldables” so students can take notes and test their knowledge over time. The teachers separated into subject groups and made their own. One bio teacher one a foldable of fungi. The other made one on the difference between DNA and RNA. The chemistry teachers made one on acids and bases. I worked with the physics teacher on some of the physics specific material (FCI and graphing diagnostic) and computer documents that I am sharing. I showed the chemistry teacher the acid/base pH PhEt interactive lab that shows the same thing as doing an actual lab. We did a pH lab with the NaOH and pH paper I brought and transmission of disease lab.
The chemistry teacher asked if I could make the electrolytic cell lab he had in his notes, using a battery and two conducting probes. We made it work with the conductivity tester I brought, and he used it in his classroom along with the pH paper test with salt (NaCl), pure water and a strong base (NaOH). The students did the tests and shared results. These are excellent teachers. They just need resources! Sometimes language is a barrier, so it’s been suggested that students write notes to our students at East Mecklenburg High, and our students write back. I also asked how we could bring 6 to 10 visiting teachers and students here, and transfer them from the hotel to the school along the rough road. transfer many. The answer is to rent a state operated bus and driver.
This is why I am here! These teachers, like most I know, love their students and work very hard to help them be successful. The headmistress watched the whole physics class and was very happy to see the students engaged.
One of the wonders and challenges of service work is that you can’t guarantee where super results will happen. But if you do your best to be strategic and the right people get connected, magic can happen.
If Mentoring Mwiko volunteer catalyst Jerri Hatch had never gone to Rwanda for gorilla-trekking, what would have happened? If, in her trip planning she hadn’t noted that there was an impoverished school near her lodge and visited, what would have been missed? If, after bringing a duffel bag of pencils, crayons and paper, and seeing how inadequate these were for a school of 750 children she hadn’t declared “I’ll be back,” what window would have closed? If she hadn’t reached out to Mothering Across Continents and said, “I want to make a difference, but it seems overwhelming,” what itch would have remained unscratched? What if, when we recruited Canadian Frances Klinck as a guest teacher and trainer, she had responded, “Too busy.”? And what if, when we met with JD Lewis and asked if he’d make a special detour visit on his Twelve in Twelve trip, he said, “Nope. Trip is set.” What potential connections would have been left unmade?
Instead he said, “Can you just assure me that my boys and I will have a place to sleep and someone can pick us up at the airport?” And off he went. It could have been enough to just have Mwiko and its community seen by JD and his sons . . . But JD’s surprising follow through went above and beyond. It also put a critical chink in a harmful habit that sometimes occurs in challenged communities. Strangers come and go – for travel or humanitarian reasons. In contrast, the chain at Mwiko has been getting longer.
Desks Being Built via Twelve in Twelve and Bridge2Rwanda at our Mentoring Mwiko community center.
Yeah to Jerri for being an original voice. Virtual hugs to Frances, Daniel and friends like Tom Allen at Bridge2Rwanda. Thanks to our donors and partners like Oli Dreike and the Dreike Scholarship Fund as, together, we support 18 Mwiko secondary school scholars this year. Super kudos to JD Lewis and his sons for their unique passion, compassion and follow through from a year spent learning about the world.
I sometimes think “seeking sponsors” is the hardest phrase in the English language to write. Our volunteer catalysts and I have visited projects where children are in such extreme need of educational support – Rwanda, South Sudan, Liberia . . . – there’s no doubt that scholarships make a huge difference. But what if you haven’t been there? How do I convey to you that there’s something special, unique and useful about scholarship support in faraway places? Then, I get over myself, just share what I know, and hope for the best. For example:
In Rwanda, the 1994 genocide left behind a population that’s 70 percent female. When the bloodshed stopped, women picked up the pieces to rebuild. Today, there are still more women than men. A Rwandan saying is that a woman is the heart of the house. There are more women in Rwanda’s parliament than any other country in the world. The scholarships that we directly ask people to support in Rwanda go only to girls. At Mwiko Primary School, where our efforts in Rwanda began, 6th grade girls in the Top Ten of their class would not be able to go to secondary schools without scholarships. Their families are too poor. We send every girl who is sponsored to the Institute for Women’s (IWE) Excellence, the only all-girls’ private school in Rwanda that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. We’re also beginning to collaborate with nonprofits Seeds of Hope and ALARM to help make sure that girls who graduate from IWE will be guaranteed access to a specially-designed year-long institute to prepare them for lives as influencers. Today, there are more women in Rwanda’s parliament than any other country in the world.
Okay, writing the above, my angst is gone. If you’ve ever thought for even a moment about becoming a scholarship supporter, let us know. Indeed, write me directly and I’ll personally identify candidates for you. firstname.lastname@example.org