October 27, 2013

High school chemistry teacher honored as state finalist for prestigious national award - By Elizabeth Richards

Lisa McLellan inspires students at Windham High School to love learning science. Her enthusiasm and hard work has earned her recognition as a state finalist for the national Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
After being nominated for the award by assistant principal Kelli Deveaux, McLellan chose to go through the rigorous application process. The application included recording a classroom lesson, and writing a paper on that lesson explaining how it demonstrates all the dimensions of good teaching, said McLellan. She also had to gather recommendations from parents, students and administrators. “It was an involved process, but it was really pretty enlightening. I learned quite a bit about myself. It made me think about what I was doing and why I was doing it, and resulted in me improving some of the lessons that I was doing within that unit,” she said.

A state committee met and reviewed the applications. Up to five finalists for the awards can be selected from each state. In Maine this year, four finalists were chosen, one in mathematics and three in science. The application materials of each finalist is then sent to a national committee which reviews materials from all the states and US jurisdictions, and can choose up to two from each to receive an award. Those who are selected will go to Washington DC to attend professional development activities and awards events. They each receive a certificate signed by the President of the United States, as well as a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation. 

The state finalists came together last week in Gardiner to attend a day of professional development and to be recognized. McLellan said that was a nice experience because she was able to talk with the other finalists and share ideas. 

Teaching at Windham High School was McLellan’s first job after receiving her teacher certification, and she has now been teaching at the school for ten years. Initially, she taught physics and chemistry classes. Now, she concentrates on chemistry, teaching Honors Chemistry, AP Chemistry, and an independent study designed for students who have completed two years of chemistry and want a third, more advanced year in the subject. 

The development of the AP Chemistry program is one of McLellan’s teaching achievements. When she began at the school, it had been a while since they had offered AP Chemistry, she said. Wanting to teach honors classes, McLellan struck a deal with the department head. “He told me that he would give me a shot at the honors classes if I would develop an AP chemistry program and recruit enough students to make the program viable. I’ve definitely done that,” she said. There were so many students wanting to take the class this past year that they considered running two sections. In the end, the budget wouldn’t allow for that, and they had to cut several students who wanted to take the AP course. 

But even if students aren’t able to take every course they want, there are other opportunities to dive into science at the high school. McLellan runs several extracurricular activities available for students who want to go more in depth with their studies, including Science Olympiad (co-coach), Science Bowl, and the ACS Chemistry Olympiad.

Those activities outside of school offer chances for students to compete, build things, and solve real world problems, said McLellan. “There’s a lot about it that is really exciting and really relevant to kids lives and to the world. It’s really important that we give kids really high bars, and we make it relevant, and we keep it fun and exciting,” she said. 

McLellan said the most rewarding part of her job is when she hears that former students, either in college or beyond, are successful. “It’s really exciting to know that we’re providing them those tools that they need, and then it’s also really nice that they want to come tell me about it,” she said. “It’s those connections with kids that last into their adult lives that means that I’ve done something that made a difference in somebody’s life.”

McLellan appreciates Windham High School and its science department. She said the way that the team meets weekly to collaborate with one another is special and unique. “Everybody’s always coming up with these new things that they want to do and there’s enthusiasm for it. We don’t just work in our own separate classrooms.”  She said that the department can only work that way because of the people there, and the support of the administration. 

McLellan feels supported not only by the school administration, but also by the parents. “In Windham, the community has been really open to trying new things and being excited about science. In order to be able to go for this award and have some success with it, I had to be in a place where it would work. The community has been really great. It is really a nice place to be,” said McLellan.

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