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Southern York County School District science teacher wins award
Teacher Barbara Nealon said she doesn't have all the answers — she only has more questions.
"Students have to learn I'm not the answer to life," the Susquehannock High School science teacher said.
So instead of meeting her students' inquiries and confusions with the solution, she shoots back another question that will help them find the answers on their own.
"The stuff I teach these kids today could change tomorrow. The sciences are changing all the time," she said. "I have to teach them to collaborate and to not be afraid of what they don't know."
And when the lesson plan includes such topics as armines, carboxyls and inter vs. intramolecular structures after only the first week or so of class, fearing the unknown simply isn't an option.
"It's important when you don't know the answer to something that you have learned to figure it out and that you have developed the confidence you require to do so."
Award: It is this part of Nealon's teaching style that inspired former student Usha Baublitz to recognize her as an outstanding educator. As a result, Nealon was one of four educators to receive the Philadelphia University Centennial Educator's Award.
"Over the past two years, (Nealon) has taught me that it's all right not to know all the answers, that I shouldn't be afraid to ask questions, that it's all right to ask for help, and most importantly, that I can't give up when things get difficult," Baublitz wrote in her nomination letter.
Philadelphia University's class of 2019 was asked to nominate someone involved in their education who helped them develop their abilities as students. Nealon was one of 40 to be nominated.
"When I read the letter, I cried," Nealon said. "To me that means that I did my job; as teachers we don't always get that feedback, and I'm humbled more than anything else."
On the inside of a closet door in her classroom, Nealon has posted all of the thank-yous she has received in her 17 years as a teacher so she can look at them whenever she needs a pick-me-up.
"I have kids in all different kinds of places — some are in school, some are in jail, one is a lawyer, another worked on Obama's campaign — and they all mean so much to me," she said. "Being able to teach and reach out to all of these students is something I work for every day."
Roots: Nealon suspects her teaching perspective and style comes from her background in agricultural sciences; her natural love of science and love of the outdoors found a happy marriage there.
Agricultural science, Nealon said, is vocational and an application of science where she was able to learn through principles of the FFA.
"One of their mottos is 'Learning to do, doing to learn,'" Nealon said. "I could stand up there and lecture all day, but they'd all check out."
So Nealon has her students working in groups of four. She bounces from table to table and helps them riddle through their uncertainties.
After taking a few years off from her work as an agricultural science teacher to spend time with her daughter — who is now a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical research — Nealon decided to shift her career focus to be able to spend more time with her family.
"I decided I wanted to teach biology because I thought — thought — ," she said, emphasizing "thought" with a laugh, "that I would have more free time."
Instead, her passion for the courses she teaches follows in and out of her classrooms.
"Above all else, though, Mrs. Nealon dedicates not only her professional time but also her personal time to benefit her students," Baublitz wrote of her teacher.
The notion is illustrated in the AP Bio Coffee Club Nealon hosts before school to go over challenging material and answer questions.
"I could stand up there and breeze through and kill the topics for the day, but students will shut right off," Nealon said. "I really want to break it all the way down. It's just my style of teaching."
— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at firstname.lastname@example.org.