Every once in awhile, an email pops up in Lakeridge Middle School science teacher Michele Chamberlain’s inbox that brings her to tears.
The most recent one was sent by one of her former female students, who took Chamberlain’s environmental science class in eighth grade before moving onto high school.
In her email, she thanked Chamberlain, telling her than she never would have thought to continue taking science classes in high school without Chamberlain’s encouragement.
“When you get emails like that, you realize that you’re making a difference for kids,” said Chamberlain, 52.
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When you get them emails like that, you realize that you’re making a difference for kids.
Michele Chamberlain, science teacher at Lakeridge Middle School
Chamberlain was recently selected as a state-level finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST), a program that recognizes teachers making a difference all over the nation. It’s the highest honor that math or science teachers can receive in the state for K-12 education.
“Michele is a dynamic teacher who is masterful at engaging students in STEM-related activities in a classroom environment that provides opportunities to develop life-ready skills,” Sumner School District Superintendent Laurie Dent said. “She is relentless in helping every child reach their potential and see the value of science in relation to their education and future career path.”
“I’m humbled and I’m excited,” Chamberlain said. “I tell my students you can do whatever you want and I think it’s important for them to see that with their teachers.”
Chamberlain started her teaching career only 13 years ago, but she always loved science. She grew up in Aberdeen, and at 7 years old her parents moved her to Idaho, where she lived in a log cabin until she was 13.
“That experience influenced my love of nature,” she said.
She eventually moved to Spokane, where she encountered an enthusiastic science teacher who would enrich her love of science even more.
“She had this way of explaining science that I really understood — it was really hands-on,” Chamberlain said.
After graduating, Chamberlain joined the U.S. Army in 1983 to pay for school. She was a translator; her job was to sit on the borders of Germany, intercepting Russian transmissions and translating them to English.
When she returned home got her degree in microbiology, graduating in 1992. She married and had two kids. She worked several jobs, but there was one thing she always came back to.
“When I had the opportunity to train or teach someone, I realized that’s what I loved,” Chamberlain said.
When I had the opportunity to train or teach someone, I realized that’s what I loved.
She decided to pursue her passion, and earned her master’s degree and teaching certificate through City University. She worked as a paraprofessional, and found that she liked teaching middle school the most.
She said it’s a critical point in a student’s learning — right before they develop their four-year high school plans.
“I started getting a sense of the ages I liked working with,” Chamberlain said. “This is the age where I feel like I can have the most influence on what they do later on ... I just sort of gravitated toward eighth-graders.”
Chamberlain worked for the Kent School District before taking a job with the Sumner School District at Lakeridge Middle School to be closer to her family and her home on South Hill.
It turned out to be a great decision, as she got the chance to develop her own classes, like her environmental science class, which she developed in 2015. There’s nothing like it in the state for middle school students.
Now, she’s working on a intro to biotechnology class, where students can learn more about DNA and RNA strands and nanotechnology.
Students may find they like learning science in a different way.
“Offering them these kinds of classes gives them that opportunity to be successful in the STEM field,” Chamberlain said. “I don’t expect all my students to love science when they walk out the door, but a lot of them do.”
Offering them these kinds of classes gives them that opportunity to be successful in the STEM field. I don’t expect all my students to love science when they walk out the door, but a lot of them do.
Chamberlain often takes her students out to the fields around Lakeridge for hands-on environmental activities, and said she’s not afraid to have fun and be silly in the classroom.
“If I don’t want to be a student in my own class, I’m not doing it right,” she said. “Sometimes (student) engagement looks like play, but it has to.”
Chamberlain was nominated for the award by a former fellow science teacher at Sumner. It took her about 40 hours to complete the application, which included 13 different segments, but said it was well worth it.
Chamberlain is one of four teachers in the state — two science teachers, two math teachers — chosen to receive the award. She’ll find if she’s been selection at the national level in the spring.