By Ingrid Schnader
When Vestavia Hills High School biology teacher Mary Busbee got off a plane this past summer, she couldn’t believe the notification that popped up on her phone.
She had been in Missouri grading AP biology exams. Before the trip, she had been nominated for the 2018 Outstanding Biology Teacher Award for Alabama. She didn’t think she would win though; she had been nominated before and hadn’t gotten it.
But this year was different.
“I got off the plane in June and turned my phone off airplane mode, and I had an email,” she said. “And the email said, ‘Thank you for putting in an application, and I am pleased to tell you…’ And I had found out that I won. … And all I did was reply back and say ‘Shut up! It can’t be true.’”
The award is presented by the National Association of Biology Teachers. Each year since 1961, NABT gives the award to one biology teacher in each of the states and in Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, Canada and overseas U.S. territories.
When it comes to effective teaching strategies, Busbee said it’s not always about what the students enjoy.
“It’s about what’s going to get out of them what I need,” she said. “And they generally tend to enjoy it.”
Students in her classroom do lots of modeling – with models and with their own bodies. They also have lots of conversations, which Busbee said students don’t always enjoy.
“I ask them questions about things that they don’t know,” she said. “So they really have to think and dig.”
Last year, she tried a strategy that she called “Think Time.” She would ask the students complex questions, but she wouldn’t let students raise their hand to answer the questions. Instead, they had to sit and think.
“I was asking some really deep questions,” she said. “It wasn’t just naming a fact, but they had to make connections in concepts.”
Busbee said she appreciated something a student wrote about this strategy on a feedback card.
“She wrote, ‘That was really hard for me, but I think I did so much better than I expected to. And I really appreciate the challenge,’” Busbee said.
“It’s great to hear, ‘You’re so great! You’re so funny! You’re my favorite!’ That’s great. But to hear that I’ve impacted someone’s learning, that’s what makes my little heart happy,” she said.
Busbee also gets good feedback from her students after they’ve gone to college. She said she gets lots of emails from previous students saying how easy their college biology class was after taking Busbee’s class.
When students and faculty found out about Busbee’s winning the Outstanding Biology Teacher Award, they made her a banner offering their congratulations. It hangs on the wall outside of Busbee’s classroom.
“To hear that what I’m doing is touching lives,” Busbee said, “to get that affirmation that this is something that’s important – it’s really, really nice.”