Presidential Award Nominee
- Major: Behavioral Sciences, Education
- Class Of: 1978, 1988, 1991
“ I went into education to try and make a difference in people’s lives ”
Susan Barkdoll has her own special test to tell her how her third-grade students are doing:
“I can always measure the amount of learning they’ve had by how dirty they are,” she said, standing in the decades-old school garden at North Verdemont Elementary School. “Because they’ve had the experience.”
Barkdoll and eight other elementary mathematics and science teachers were recently announced as state finalists for the 2016 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the nation’s highest honor for math and science teachers.
Students in her classroom are surrounded by an array of glass tanks, containing fish, lizards and spiders. The classroom’s pets have prompted more learning outside the classroom, with one girl informing Barkdoll that the lizards in class were going to mate soon, but the first eggs wouldn’t be viable — things the student had gone home and researched on her own after having watched them in class.
Like all third-grade teachers, Barkdoll does her fair amount of teaching reading, division and history. But science is the 30-year veteran teacher’s passion.
“I like to blow things up, grow things, go outside,” she said. “You don’t do a lot of that in language arts.”
The garden has been shaped, literally, by student ideas and desires, including the design of a pond or the addition of a greenhouse to grow tropical plants.
“This is the children’s garden,” Barkdoll said. “We try to get them invested in it. Everything here has a story.”
Often, teachers with a passion for science aren’t working at the elementary school level. Instead, they pursue single-subject teacher credentials and teach science at the middle or high school levels, instead of all the various subjects an elementary school teacher goes through in a day, or they go into higher education.
Not Barkdoll, though.
“I know when Michael’s having a bad day. I know when he’s happy and he’s sad. I went into education to try and make a difference in people’s lives. When you have 300 students a day, you don’t even know their name, much less ‘oh, they have a fever today,’ or ‘their parents are getting a divorce.’ ”
Barkdoll’s students don’t call her “Ms. Barkdoll” or “Mrs. Barkdoll,” but instead call her “Dr. Barkdoll,” as she’s got a Ph.D. in science education. She wants to normalize higher education and post-graduate degrees and women in science for her students.
Barkdoll’s passion for science has benefited more than just her students: Last year, she brought $200,000 in grant money to the school and has brought in more than half a million over the years.
And it’s paid an unexpected dividend for her as well: Earlier this month, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced her and eight other elementary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2016 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching,.
“I congratulate these remarkable teachers whose dedication and innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college,” Torlakson is quoted as saying in a press release issued by the California Department of Education. “These teachers are among the best of the best in their field and an inspiration to their students and colleagues.”
National Science Foundation runs the PAEMST program on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Each fall, 108 awards are awarded to math and science teachers from all 50 states, along with Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, the Department of Defense schools and U.S. territories.
“She is such an easy educator to support, because of her dedication and her energy,” Verdemont Elementary Principal Dan Durst said Friday. “Despite the rigor of the Common Core State Standards that she’s charged with teaching, she has remained diligent about making education enjoyable for our scholars. … Sometimes we lose track of that as educators: ‘Hey, the kids have to enjoy this, too.’ ”
Being a finalist for a PAEMST award puts Barkdoll into rarified company, but she’s modest about the honor and her chances.
“I had heard rumblings, but there are so many qualified teachers in California,” Barkdoll said.
Barkdoll didn’t intend to be a teacher. She and her husband attended Cal Poly Pomona, where she got a degree in psychology. She was considering a degree in the law, and took the LSAT test necessary, but was convinced to try education instead because her two sons were preparing to start school.
“My sons were the bouncy boys, very energetic, wouldn’t sit still in their chairs,” she said. “I wanted to be the teacher who understood those kids. I love the bouncy boys.”
Barkdoll paused to examine a handful of snails mixed in with dark wet soil in the palm of a student, eager to discuss the shape of the snails’ shells with her teacher. After her student ran off, Barkdoll stood back up again.
“This is my pride and joy and probably the reason I’ll never retire,” Barkdoll said, surveying the school’s garden, bustling with more than two dozen students watering plants, peering at wildlife hiding under leaves or hauling gardening equipment. “They joke that they’ll find my body out here.”
Story originally published in the San Bernardino Sun
photo: Rachel Luna