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Teacher of the Month: Jen Pfannerstill

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Jen Pfannerstill
North Shore Country Day School, Illinois

Background: Pfannerstill is the scientist-in-residence and a member of the Upper School science department at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Illinois. She currently teaches Introductory Biology, AP Biology, and Advanced Open Research. Along with her teaching responsibilities, Pfannerstill is co-chair of the AP Biology Test Development Committee, chair of the Science Academic Advisory Committee of The College Board, and a member of the Introductory Biology Taskforce of the National Association of Biology Teachers.

Question 1: What do you do to remain current and bring the latest science into the classroom?

Answer: Read. Read. Oh, and read! And have my students read! And read together!

Question 2: Do you have a lab or demo that students find particularly compelling? What makes it so interesting for them?

Answer: On the first day of AP Biology, I ask students whether an apple is alive (because Gordon Uno, botany professor at University of Oklahoma and former co-chair of the AP Biology Development committee, once asked me if an apple was alive). I walk out of the room and stay away for 20 minutes. When I go back, there is a great discussion happening about whether the apple is alive (they never agree!) and students pleading to go into the lab. Three weeks later, students have done a whole lot of biology, have found failure and success, and have been excited to come to class because they defined what their day would be, not a teacher, not a textbook, and not an exam.

Question 3: What topic do you find hardest for students? How do you teach it?

Answer: The answer to this changes year-to-year, class-to-class, and student-to-student. If we’re really digging into something worth digging into, there will always be hard questions, whether it’s evolution, cell signaling, or ecology. And we don’t know how hard something is until the students tell us. The “how do you teach it” is the art of teaching. So many times, I’ve gotten up from a group of students to go and find some pipe cleaners or who knows what else to teach it. Other times, I’ve taught it by letting those same students go down the wrong road so they figure it out on their own. Sometimes, it takes minutes to teach it and sometimes hours. But never do I teach it by simply telling them the answer. 

Question 4: In three words, what would your students say they learned from you?

Answer: Curiosity. Confidence. Perseverance.

Question 5: What fuels your passion for science and teaching?

Answer: Every day there are things I wonder about. A long time ago I asked a colleague a question and he responded by asking me, “Why do you let yourself ‘just’ wonder? Why don’t you go and figure it out?” This was a watershed moment for me. Passionate and passive don’t go together.

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