The College of Sciences and Humanities boasts many successful alumni who are using their skills to contribute to professions within their field. We celebrate their successes and the preparation of a Ball State education in our Cardinal Directions series.
Shannon Wenning is 2008 graduate of Ball State, who returned to Ball State for her MA in 2011 and is currently pursuing quantifications to teach Dual Credit courses in secondary education. While she began her Ball state journey in Biology and Chemistry with a pre-veterinary focus, she used her skills and passions to discover teaching, where she is influencing the next generation of scientists. Shannon is a teacher at Castle High School in Newburgh, IN where she teaches a wide variety of science classes. Her typical teaching repertoire includes: Organic Chemistry (Juniors & Seniors), Genetics/Zoology (Juniors & Seniors), and Biology (freshmen). I have also taught Adv. Biology (Freshmen) and Integrated Chemistry & Physics (Juniors).
Shannon shared her journey from Ball State to the classroom in the following interview transcript.
When did you decide you wanted to become a teacher? Was there any particular moment or other “thing” that helped you decide? Did anyone inspire you?
I did not go to school to be a teacher. I never planned on being a teacher. I went to school to be a veterinarian, and then decided I wanted to be an animal trainer at a zoo. I spent four months as an intern at Dolphin Quest Oahu in Hawaii. One of my jobs as an intern was to help run the sessions for the little kids each day. We would spend an hour on different “units” with the little kids teaching them about a variety of topics, and I found that I really enjoyed that time. I loved getting to know more about the information personally and then sharing that with the kids. I also really enjoyed talking to the guests that were around the enclosure. As I realized that a career in Marine Mammal training wasn’t going to work out for me, I decided that I really enjoyed the educational aspect and that it might be fun to teach.
Tell us about your time at Ball State. We’d love to hear about your experience with the classes, opportunities, teaching experiences.
While I did not start as a teaching major, I was initially pre-veterinary and I added a minor in Chemistry, after I graduated I realized later that I wanted to go back to school for teaching. Ball State’s MA program in Secondary Education offered a Masters to people who had a background in STEM fields who wanted to be teachers. It was a fast tracked program that allowed me to earn a MA in Secondary Education in a little over a year.
It was a fantastic experience and extremely intensive. We spent the entire school year in our placements, I was student teaching at Anderson High School. We also took more traditional pedagogy classes, we spent time at a variety of schools, and we spent time volunteering in the community. I really enjoyed the track I took because it allowed me to emphasize my science background and work with other adults that were in similar situations (returning to school and transitioning to teaching).
Why did you choose your content area and age group? Were you drawn to the specific subject area or grade level?
I thought that I wanted to be an elementary school teacher at first. I knew that I enjoyed working with little kids during my internship. When I came back to Muncie, I started substitute teaching to get experience and I realized that elementary education was not for me. I also knew that it was going to be substantially harder to get a job as an elementary school teacher vs. high school. Science/biology was an obvious choice for me because it has always been my passion. It would give me a chance to incorporate the real world experience I have into the classroom. I have found that I really like teaching the juniors and seniors. They are old enough to really appreciate the experience that I have, and they like to have discussions about serious topics. The freshmen can be fun, but they can also be a little harder to connect to on some topics.
Tell me about your current career as a teacher. What’s it like being a teacher? What is your day-to-day like in a typical year, and what’s it like currently due to the pandemic?
This is my 10th year teaching and this year is obviously a huge challenge. One thing about teaching is that it is never the same. Some years you’ll change what you teach, and even if you don’t change what subject you’re teaching you have new students every year. I have years where I connect with the students easily and some years where it is a real struggle to connect with them. Being a teacher also means I’m constantly changing things. What worked really well last year, may not be a good fit for the current year. You also tend to find problems with activities every year and you have to update. I have yet to have a year where I could just reuse the majority of my material. It is constantly updating, tweaking, and changing.
Teaching can also be really lonely depending on how you look at things. You spend your day with your students, but you often don’t see other teachers. There may be days where you don’t leave your classroom at all. A typical day for me is 6 classes that I teach, one planning period, and lunch (this year my schedule is Organic, planning period, Genetics, Genetics, lunch, Biology, Biology, Biology). I typically have 20-30 students in each class depending on the class, and our classes are 50 minutes long.
This year we started the year in a “hybrid” model, where we were in person but students were allowed to opt to be virtual. The percentage varied throughout the semester, but it would range from 5%-60% of my students virtual compared to in person. It has been a huge change and teaching in a dual-modality like that is extremely difficult and frustrating. We have just transitioned to fully virtual and it is very different. I am enjoying getting to see my students faces, and having them all in one place. But it is lonely to be in a classroom all day without them here. The random conversations are harder to have and that is one of the best parts of teaching.
Do you feel you have a certain teaching style? What kind of teaching philosophy guides you? How do you hope to make a difference for your students?
I don’t have a certain teaching style, and I try to be flexible and willing to try new things. I don’t believe that I am a perfect teacher or that I know the best method of teaching. I think that it’s important to be constantly updating/learning/changing, not only to stay current with new ideas but also to better fit my students. I also try to focus on building relationships and confidence in my students.
I try to emphasize that regardless of background, any student can be successful in science if they are willing to try. I want my students to get to the end of the year and realize that they can be successful and hopefully to look around them with a greater appreciation of how the world works.
What makes teaching a fulfilling career for you? Would you recommend others consider STEM education also?
I really enjoy teaching. I love that I get to know and connect with all of my students every year. Sure there are difficult students, but there are some really amazing kids as well. Watching them grow over four years and beyond, seeing them mature is fantastic. I love having a student as a freshman and then again as a Junior or Senior. Getting to share my experiences and history with them is so rewarding. These conversations help to build stronger relationships and give them an opportunity to learn about future opportunities that they may not have been aware of before.
I also love teaching because it works well for my family. I have never wanted to be a stay at home mom, so I love that teaching allows me to work but still be home with my family at a reasonable time.
If you are passionate about your STEM subject, but also about forming relationships with hundreds of students then I definitely recommend teaching.
Lastly, what advice would you have for current Ball State students who are majoring in teaching right now, or are considering becoming teachers?
Get out into the schools as much as possible, substitute teach, volunteer, anything. The more time you have in the classroom, the more you can see a variety of teaching methods the better. It is tremendously helpful to see how other people run their classrooms to help you get ideas for your own classroom.
That being said, I also suggest pursuing other activities and interests as much as possible. The more you have to share with students the more enjoyable it will be. It is also good because you can potentially bring that into your classroom and school. If you are really into mountain biking, continue biking, talk to your students about it and then maybe start a biking club at your school! Those are great opportunities to get involved with the school and students on another level.