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"Make Your Environment What You Want:" Advice from an Elementary Educator

Meet Dr. Ryan Nixon! Dr. Nixon teaches the science methods course during the elementary education practicum. He explains that, "my purpose is helping students to see that there are a lot of reasons why science is important to teach to children."

The reason Dr. Nixon wanted to become a teacher wasn't based on your classic inspirational teacher story, in fact it was quite the opposite. He was inspired to become a teacher because of the terrible example that his own teacher was. He explains, "I have kind of a weird story. It was one of those things where all of my friends hated physics, but I walked out of there thinking, 'this could be so cool. This could be so great, but it’s not!' I find I’ve been inspired through bad experiences."

Dr. Nixon actually really wanted to teach AP physics to high school students, but he had a hard time finding a job during the recession so he ended up teaching science to eighth graders at Dixon middle school right here in Provo. He taught there for three years before receiving a PhD and getting hired here at BYU. He explains "my public school experience was all middle school, but I teach the El Ed class. I visit a ton of elementary teachers. I do research with elementary teachers. I’ve run some summer programs with elementary teachers. So, I have not had my own elementary class, but I do a lot of stuff with them."

When asked what his favorite part of teaching was, he responded with a recent example of a passionate debate that his students were having in class. "There were a lot of people disagreeing with each other. At the end, I saw some students having a great discussion. I loved seeing students being open to new ideas that they had never considered and being open to expressing what they think, but also willing to listen to others."

Dr. Nixon believes that there is value in becoming a teacher. In addition to the academic support teachers provide to their students, he explains "as a teacher you are a steward over them. They (the students) have someone to keep an eye on them and take care of them and help prepare them for things in the future that they’re not thinking about yet."

One of the "tricky things about education" as Dr. Nixon describes, is "knowing the actual impact" that teachers have had on their students. Dr. Nixon continues, "as I’ve thought about that a little bit, I thought back to the eighth graders I taught. As a teacher, you don’t connect with every student, but there are those few that you do, and one I think back to often was a guy who had been failing school for a few years. It wasn’t because he was dumb, it was because he was trying to prove he was a tough guy. I feel like I was able to figure that out about him and found ways for him to still preserve his identity while still learning. I don’t know what happened to him or where he’s gone with his life since then, but I feel like I was able to be a good influence on him."

Although teaching is a valuable and necessary profession, it often comes with negative stereotypes and criticisms. Dr. Nixon reminds us that "part of the trick with this is that there are some hard things about being a teacher. But two things that you have to keep in mind with that are there are hard things about every job. They wouldn’t pay you if there weren’t. They call that a hobby. And also, frankly, it depends on where you are. I think your principal makes a huge difference. There are some hard things, but there are lots of good people in education and being around good people, colleagues, and administrators can make it a lot better."

Dr. Nixon describes how easy it is for people to notice that teaching is hard and that there are challenges, however, he says "I think one benefit that people don’t often notice about teaching is that to some extent, when you’re in your classroom, you’re kind of in your own world. You’re the king or queen of that world, so for the most part you can make that environment be what you want. You can change things, of course not everything, but you have a lot of power and control in the classroom."

"When you're in your classroom... you're the king or queen of that world, so for the most part, you can make that environment be what you want."

When asked about his experience being a male in education, he describes the importance of having diversity. He says "males bring an important perspective and can connect with some kids in a different way." In fact he even claims that "you do have some advantages as a male in the classroom. You stand out. You get noticed."

"Males bring an important perspective and can connect with some kids in a different way."

For students on their path to becoming teachers, Dr. Nixon gives a few pieces of advice. Firstly, he explains that "I think we overemphasize the value of things being graded. Yes, we need to give students feedback, but we don’t need to give feedback on 20 things a day on everything they do." He explains that "one of the big lessons that I had to learn my first year was to stop assigning so many things that had to be graded because I was spending my whole life grading. Then I realized I’m in charge of this! If I stop assigning so much I won’t have to grade as much!"

The other piece of advice Dr. Nixon offers is to "find people that you can get advice from on different things. Build your own 'board of directors' so when you have questions about classroom management you can go to one person and when you have questions about science content you can go to another person. Don’t always go to the same person. Get your team of experts." Lastly Dr. Nixon recommends that "as you are applying for teaching jobs, remember that principals are not just interviewing you, you get a choice here as well. So, pay attention and decide as you’re talking with them, whether you actually want to be in this school environment."

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