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Science Superhero Michelle Shearer

This veteran teacher and 2011 Teacher of the Year reaches out to students who have been underrepresented in STEM fields—and hooks them on chemistry.


By Lance Fuller

“I never tire hearing of the personal and professional accomplishments my former students have achieved beyond my classroom!” says Michelle Shearer.

A chemistry teacher at Urbana High School in Ijamsville, Maryland, Shearer was honored by President Barack Obama as the 61st National Teacher of the Year on May 3, 2011, National Teacher Day.

Shearer’s ability to awaken the “aspiring scientist within,” apply real world concepts to her lessons, and establish outstanding teacher-student interactions in the classroom earned her the recognition.

Over the course of her teaching career, Shearer has built a reputation on reaching out to students who have traditionally been underrepresented in scientific fields such as minorities, young women, and students with special needs and disabilities.

She has taught students with low vision, dyslexia, dysgraphia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Asperger’s syndrome. Shearer even taught Advanced Placement Chemistry in American Sign Language at the Maryland School for the Deaf for the first time in the school’s 135-year history.

“Ultimately, the classroom is my mirror,” she says. “The energy, determination, and sense of purpose my students display reflect what they see in me.”

“High school students demand to know, ‘What does chemistry have to do with me?’ I display a collection of random household items — sunscreen, laundry detergent, motor oil, shampoo — across the tops of cabinets as a constant reminder to my students of the practical role chemistry plays in their lives.”

A 1995 graduate from Princeton and Delaware native, she is one of only 30 people from her class to have graduated with a teaching certification along with her B.A. in chemistry, graduating Magna Cum Laude. She also attended the Graduate Program in Deaf Education at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and earned her Master’s in Deaf Education at McDaniel College in Maryland.

“When my students question their ability to succeed, I respond, ‘You can do this. Give yourself time.’ When they debate dropping the course, I look them in the eyes and say, ‘You are an important part of this class. I want you to stay.’ Such simple words have great power.”

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As passionate as Shearer is for education and helping children, she is fully aware of the current challenges — such as negative media reports on education, mass teacher firings, and underfunding for key programs — teachers and public education face as a whole.

“We need to continue to work to achieve attractive compensation packages for teachers so that education is a viable career for college graduates with other lucrative options,” she says. “For those who choose to teach, we must create schedules with manageable class sizes and workloads to ensure a successful start to their educational careers.

“Teacher accountability for student success cannot be tied solely to test scores. I am accountable not only for my students’ AP scores, but also for fostering habits of mind such as creativity, innovation, problem-solving and skills essential to success in college careers . . . and traits essential to success in life.”

A longtime supporter of technology in the classroom, Shearer believes that children still need the personal interaction with a teacher to be able to succeed in the classroom and in life.

“I hope that when I reach my 30th year of teaching in 2027, whatever the new technology or instructional strategy of the moment may be, I still remember that the human connection I have with students contributes the most to their educational success.”


Quotes in this article are taken from Shearer's application for the National Teacher of the Year Program.


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