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My Teaching Story...

               As a child, my fearless fascination with all things that crept, crawled, and flew was a passion that often kept my teachers in a state of paranoia. The snake I brought to school in first grade escaped; the bat in the jar was intimidating; the tarantula that I held for show & tell caused my teacher to suffer from lockjaw and my salamanders created a desperate situation when they became lodged in the pipework of the sink in the 6th grade girls bathroom as I attempted to change their water.   As the offspring of a dedicated biology teacher who indoctrinated his children in genetics at the dinner table, zoology on frequent camping and fishing outings, and botany in the perennial planting of the garden, I grew up living and breathing science.  The wonder of living things and the curiosity of why living things behave as they do was instilled in me by my father, Dale Cole.  Not only by his patience in answering the questions, but by making the quest for further knowledge accessible in the form of field guides, museums, people and adventures. My trips to the Richard Schmidt Museum at Emporia State University and the Natural History Museum in Dyke Hall at the University of Kansas are some of my earliest memories.  The disconnect that I discovered in my elementary experience is that not everyone has been given that opportunity to wonder and be inspired by life and matter on this planet.  That became my first mission – to reawaken and inspire creative thought and appreciation of how and why the natural world works .                                                                                    










I began teaching in Oklahoma after successfully completing tests for every topic area.  I passed 7 certification areas including chemistry.  Little did I know how that test would change my life.   Much to my surprise, the department head left the next year as well as the other science teacher. I found myself as the department head in my 2nd year of teaching, pregnant, the newly anointed cheerleading sponsor, science fair director and I was teaching biology, advanced biology and chemistry. While juggling my busy schedule and trying to wade through my intimidation of chemistry, I discovered that chemistry wasn’t nearly as hard as I first believed.  I found the missing pieces of understanding that had so frustrated me in college and mission #2 was born…making chemistry understandable and loveable to my students because of the relevance of chemistry in the everyday problem solving of their lives.   Field biology is my deepest love because that area builds on my natural bent but chemistry has become my greatest challenge.  Being successful outside of my comfort zone, built confidence and allowed me to grow personally and professionally.  That is the encouragement I try to give to my students.

               In 1990, family circumstances dictated a change of location and after five years at high school, I found myself teaching 8th grade earth science.  During the next six years, my classroom management skills were honed because middle school requires more positive leadership than any other level.  After two years, another change of location to Liberal, Kansas occurred and this time, although I was still teaching earth science at the middle school, my students had changed:  from middle class, caucasian kids with an agricultural background to mostly low socioeconomic, hispanic city kids with a heavy gang influence. However, kids are kids to me.  The basic rules are the same…1) ) Treat with respect 2) Develop a relationship 3) Use humor 4) Demonstrate passion…it’s contagious!  Sometimes challenging children would be kept after school for working detentions like cleaning desktops or fish tanks.  I utilized this time to build some common ground and just talk to my students.  Many were just begging for adult attention and encouragement. Some were so caught up in the negative drama of their lives that they were hopeless and discouraged about their future.  During this time, Mission #3 was identified… dream building.  Having someone help a student identify individual strengths and talents, in turn, gave that student encouragement to dream of their positive future.

               In August of 1996, I moved to Liberal High School and I have taught primarily chemistry from that time until 2008 when I became an AVID elective teacher.  I have tracked with AVID 2012 for 4 years and they will always be a part of my family.   Some of them have persevered through the toughest of times while my family also went through the toughest situation we could imagine.  My AVID students taught me the single most important thing I need all teachers to know - All of us have challenges in our lives but our attitude is what determines whether we perceive these challenges as obstacles or stepping stones.

Melisa Westerman

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