Q&A: Recipient of top biology teaching honor has WashU connection

Chuck McWilliams, co-director of Washington University’s Master’s in Biology for Science Teachers Program, has been named the 2018 Missouri Outstanding Biology Teacher of the Year by the National Association of Biology Teachers. The master’s program is offered through the university’s Institute for School Partnership and University College. For the past 24 years, McWilliams has been a teacher-leader in the  Maplewood Richmond Heights School District, where he has taught a range of life science courses, including biology, AP biology, human anatomy & physiology and zoology. McWillaims will receive the NABT Missouri Outstanding Biology Teacher Award plaque at a special presentation during the NABT National Convention in San Diego in November.

Q: What led you to the teaching profession?

For as long as I can remember, I have always had a passion for science. It was always the most interesting subject for me in school. While growing up, I thought I might go into medicine or maybe become a paramedic. During high school I spent a lot of time lifeguarding and teaching swimming lessons to children. I always felt a sense of pride watching a child go from being scared to put their face in the water to being able to swim. When it came time to choose a major as I entered college, I checked the box “Biology Education.” I was fortunate to have the support of family and friends as I progressed through the program. With every course came different sorts of challenges. But each was exciting and held my interest. I never strayed from my original choice to study science education. I am not sure I fully realized what I was getting myself into at the time though. Teaching is more than a career choice, it’s a lifestyle choice. My determination to help students grow combined with my natural curiosity and interest in biology is probably what made me into the teacher I am today.

Q: What does being the NABT Missouri Biology Teacher of the Year award mean to you?

I feel honored and privileged to receive this recognition. Over the course of my career I have worked with and met a number of amazing teachers. Being recognized by NABT is very humbling. While at times I know teaching feels like a lonely profession, none of us are very successful without the support of others. Teaching is truly a collaborative effort. Many award recipients surround themselves with amazing and talented people. I am no exception. I know the award that I will be receiving will have my name on it, but I want to use this award as an opportunity the shed light on the amazing educators I surround myself with at MRH High School and Washington University. I want to thank them for all of their continued support and inspiration.

Q: You have experienced WashU’s Ms in Bio program as both student & teacher. Please share that experience.

I am in the unique perspective of being able to lead the current MS in Bio program while also having experienced it as a student. Many years ago, I was a member of cohort 3 in the NSF funded “Life Sciences for Global Community” program (LSGC). This program is now called MS in Biology for Science Teachers. When I applied, I had just finished two years working towards a PhD in science education. At that time, my two children were very young, and it was overwhelming attending classes while working full time. My experience with the LSGC cohort was much more aligned to the lifestyle of a full-time teacher. Everything about the program made it successful for me. From the accommodating schedule to the talented and amazing professors and staff, everyone worked hard to help me learn and maximize my leadership potential. Most noteworthy, however, was being able to experience what we now call the “cohort effect.” It was very rewarding getting the chance to meet and learn from other teachers in the program. Now, as I enter into my fourth year as co-director of the MS in Biology program, I hope to continue building on the strengths of this wonderful graduate experience.

Q: How do you keep your lessons – and your mindset – fresh and engaging?

Over the past 25 years, I have stayed fresh by continuing my own learning. Sometimes I feel like I have been in school as much as I have been teaching. After two master’s degrees and a graduate certificate, last year I finally decided to finish my doctorate. Currently, I am on track to complete this work by the year 2020. In addition to taking classes, I also attend conferences and workshops as much as possible. I try to stay curious and read as much as I can about advancements in the field of biology, teaching pedagogy, and curriculum and leadership.

Q: Have your lessons or approach to teaching changed over the years? How so?

My teaching style has certainly evolved over the years. Early in my career my teaching style focused heavily on my own role in the learning process. Most of these lessons were primarily teacher-centered. Today, I am much more dedicated to creating a student-centered learning environment. I employ many more reading and writing, real-world application, and critical-thinking strategies than I used to. I also use a lot of cooperative learning and team-building strategies. Teaching high school in a lower-socioeconomic and diverse community has taught me the importance a high-quality curriculum plays in deepening the learning experience for all students. To this end, I have authored my own curriculum and many learning and assessment activities using an understanding-based and backwards design approach. Each year I work to revise and improve my lessons. I am always searching for a better way to make biology accessible to all of my students.

Q: What is your philosophy about teaching?

To borrow a phrase my principal often uses, “one size fits each.” Not all of my students learn the same way, so why I should I teach them all the same way? I strongly believe in creating a positive, student-centered learning environment in which all students feel safe to express themselves and have the opportunity to grow and succeed. This can be accomplished by building a positive classroom culture and differentiating relevant and current content material to individual learning styles using a variety of effective teaching methods. But teaching is a lot more than writing effective curriculum and lessons. In the end, a large part of teaching is helping people understand they are capable of being successful at learning.Students need to feel heard and be a part of their own learning. Developing positive relationships and modeling how to treat others is as important, if not more important, than a quality curriculum.

Q: If you could share just one thought with fellow teachers, what would it be?

My advice to fellow teachers, especially teachers entering the profession: be yourself and be flexible. As a teacher I am my “real self” around my students. I openly share my inner nerdiness, curiosity and passion for science. I am hopeful that they will see that they can also learn and get excited about biology. While my goal is that some of my students view biology as a potential field of study after they graduate from high school, I hope all of them will see how understanding biology can help them appreciate how topics like cell biology, genetics, and ecology really do relate to their everyday lives. Flexibility is also a key to your success as a teacher. Sometimes things will not goes as planned. Learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward. There is what you plan and what actually happens. Sometimes these are not the same things and that is OK. Encourage your students to be creative, learn from their own mistakes, and enjoy the process of learning.

Q: What’s your No.1 highlight in teaching?

I think most teachers want to feel like they make a difference. We invest a lot of time and personal energy into our work. Sometimes to the point of exhaustion. However, it is always great when students tell you, “that was a good class today Mr. McWilliams.” It’s wonderful when recent graduates send you notes of appreciation from college thanking you for helping them feel prepared for success. It’s enjoyable when you bump into a former student at a grocery store and they share memories of experiences they had in your class. These forms of appreciation are often random and usually catch me off guard. But they always make me smile and remind me why I keep doing this. I want to feel like I am making a difference by helping students become who they want to be. It’s really nice to be reminded now and then that I am.

November 2018 | by, Chuck McWilliams