By B.C. Manion
Amy Jordan, a science teacher in the Upper Division at Academy at the Lakes, has a lengthy list of accomplishments.
But for this teacher the goal of a true education goes beyond achievement – it aims to prepare students for what they will encounter after they leave her classroom.
One of the hardest lessons, she said, is to learn how to deal with failure.
That’s particularly challenging for high-achieving students, she said.
“It’s really hard for those kids. It’s very hard for them not to be looking for the right answer.
“Those kids, in particular, need to have a few big failures in their life. The younger, the better. It’s a little bit harder when you have a family and you have a big failure in your life.
“If failures happen earlier, then it’s easier to get through them and realize they’re not such a catastrophe,” she said.
“In science, we fail all of the time. Most of our experiments don’t work.”
What’s important, she said, is “how do you get up from that – what do you do? What do you learn from that failure? What do you learn about yourself? That it wasn’t the end of the world. Most people who do anything in life have failed,” she said.
Jordan also promotes the notion that creativity and innovation can be much more important than being at the top of the class.
For instance, a student who comes up with a big idea can hire someone to do the math if that’s not one of his strong suits, she said.
Jordan didn’t set out to become a teacher, but she believes that teaching is part of her DNA.
“I heard somebody describe it as becoming part of the priesthood,” she said.
“I loved researching and I loved writing, but what I really enjoyed was teaching. All through my Ph.D., I supervised undergraduate research projects. I went and worked at a local school.”
That was when she discovered she could help students who want to pursue Ph.D.s.
“It’s very difficult to start at the low level where students come in. Of course, they’re at the low level because they haven’t been educated yet. But people at the really high level have a really hard time bridging that gap, because you forget what it’s like to know nothing.”
Jordan won the Derek Bok Certificate for Distinguished Teaching Award at Harvard for her efforts.
It was based on undergraduates ranking her teaching. “I was ranked in the top 5 percent of teachers at Harvard. It was a surprise to me.”
Student Alex Stark, who has taken Biology 1 and AP Biology, currently serves as Jordan’s assistant for AP Chemistry.
Stark praises Jordan’s ability to adapt her teaching style to suit different students.
“She is aware of what they do or do not know, how much work they are willing to do, what methods of teaching relate to them best, and what their motives are in being her students.
“She is honest and likes to explain her thought processes thoroughly,” Stark noted in an email response to a series of questions. “I have learned almost as much about teaching from her as I have about biology.”
Jordan credits her background for contributing to her teaching abilities.
“I like that I’ve had a lot of experiences,” Jordan said. She’s been a competitive fighter in the martial arts, has written test questions for the Educational Testing Service, has been an observer on accreditation teams, is a writer, has a family and has a pet.
“It’s good to have a teacher in the classroom that’s done a lot of things because they (students) can sort of see themselves in some of those roles,” Jordan said.
“They first need to be able to relate to you on some level.”
Jordan said she teaches students how to approach a professor if a problem arises.
“Being intellectual and sitting at a table and answering questions is not going to cut it.”
She also gears her tests to prepare students for what they might face in college.
“I make sure my testing is consistent with what they might see in college. In the sciences, testing can be brutal.”
Jordan believes students need to develop logical skills and have a basic knowledge of science, whether or not they plan to pursue a career in science.
“The world is becoming so much more technical,” she said.
One of her classes, Advanced Scientific Research, allows students to select an area of interest and delve deeply into it.
“Normally, they have their last two periods in that class and they go to USF and do research.
“They take notes on everything that is said, because again, it’s very hard for someone who is in the field to put themselves back in the shoes of the students,” Jordan said. “That’s what I do for them. I translate what it means.”
Jordan recently was honored by the Pasco County School Board for promoting high-level science experiences for high school students.
Her students have worked with the Southwest Florida Water Management District on aquifer recharge and with USF professors on a variety of projects including making nanofilms, relating nutrition to diet through isotope analysis, and plotting biochemical pathways related to hearing loss.
Her students have earned grants to support their research, given poster talks at professional meetings, and won numerous science fair awards.
Last year, one of her students – Sophia Sokolowski – won two awards at the 2011 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles. Sokolowski’s project, “Audio Perception: Plotting the Pathway of the BK Channel” competed against the top 1,500 projects from around the world this year.
After winning her international honors, Sokolowski, who is now a senior, said much of her success was due to Jordan’s willingness to translate complicated scientific concepts and terms into language that the high schooler could understand.
Jordan, who has been at Academy at the Lakes since 2006, said she enjoys teaching at the independent private school because she is given a great deal of freedom. There are no artificial boundaries, she said.
“At first, I would have to make a proposal and justify it,” she said. Now, when she makes a proposal, the main question is whether she thinks she can do it, Jordan said.
If she says that she can, “they just let me do it,” Jordan said.
On one hand, she can appeal to student interest, she said. On the other, she must double-check herself to be sure she’s on the right path.
Jordan said the United States must improve in preparing its future scientists.
“We’ve got to produce somehow. You can’t be the most expensive country in the world and be a service economy. Those two things don’t add up.”
In search of excellence
We are looking for people for people of all walks of life who enrich our community through their commitment to excellence.
In this case, we profiled a teacher, but the people we would like to showcase can work in any field. If you know someone who routinely goes beyond the call of duty, who helps make life better for others, please send your suggestions to or call B.C. Manion at (813) 909-2800.
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