Treasure Mountain teacher finalist for national honor
Meghan Zarnetske teaches acceptance first, science second
Meghan Zarnetske is not your typical junior high science teacher. On the first day of class, she teaches about social identities and how they change the way people see the world. Every winter, she takes a group of students up to Wyoming to do field work in snow sciences. This uniqueness is why she was chosen as a finalist for the 2017 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching for the state of Utah.
Zarnetske, an 8th grade integrative science teacher at Treasure Mountain Junior High, was chosen by The Utah State Board of Education along with three other finalists in the secondary mathematics and science categories. Her previous co-worker Melissa Perry nominated her, then Zarnetske finished the application in May. A few weeks ago, she received an email.
“Initially I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I had forgotten about that,’” she said. “And then it was, ‘Well that’s cool. I’m a finalist.’”
Now, her friends, family and even a past Chemistry teacher — who inspired Zarnetske to study science — are congratulating her. One student’s mom came in the other day to personally thank her.
“[She said,] ‘This is amazing that you are getting the credit you deserve for being an amazing teacher for my son.’ It wasn’t just about ‘You taught him science,’ it was ‘You cared for him,’” Zarnetske said. “Having that kind of impact makes me feel so wonderful.”
Her application is now being reviewed by a national committee looking at finalists nationwide. If one of the two selected from the state, she will receive the most prestigious award for K-12 mathematics and science teachers in the country, complete with $10,000 from the National Science Foundation and a paid trip for two to Washington, D.C. The national committee will announce the winners in the summer/fall of 2018.
While it is nice for Zarnetske to get recognition, she is glad that the teaching profession at large is being celebrated as she feels it should be. Teachers can have a profound impact on their students’ lives, and not just to teach them about a subject like science.
“Too often we jump right into the learning aspect and we forget about kids as individuals,” she said. “For 13-year-olds, sometimes all they can do is come in the room and sit down. Sometimes that’s enough. And if I can get them to smile at the end of a period, that’s a success.”
In her 11 years at the school, Zarnetske has had countless students come back to tell her that she inspired them to choose careers in science, but also inspired them to be who they are, whatever that is.
“The thing I am so lucky to get to do is to know each of the kids on an individual level and to let them know that whoever they are, no matter what their identity is … they’re loved and I will do my best to keep them safe,” she said.
Once students feel safe in the classroom, Zarnetske’s goal is to allow them to think critically and share their opinions about what they are learning.
For example, while teaching about natural resource management, she showed students two different aerial views of cities. One showed an industrial park in Chicago next to a river and the other showed Park City in the fall. Students then discussed the environmental qualities in these two areas and applied them to an in-class debate on economic and social issues related to the environment.
This was the class Zarnetske recorded and submitted, along with a 10-page paper and her resume, to the state committee. Watching herself in the video and reflecting on her teaching methods was something she took away from the application experience.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to say ‘Why did I do that in this lesson?’ ‘Why did that kid have success with this and this one didn’t?’ and ‘What can I do better next time?’” she said.
The award does not mean that Zarnetske has reached any type of climax in her career. If anything, she said she is even more compelled to improve. For her, each class means new students, new needs and new opportunities to learn.
“Focus on the data outcomes, on the academic achievement outcomes, on the rankings that we have. The school board is happy with the direction of the district,” said Andrew Caplan, school board president. “We can always do a better job, especially with things that aren’t our core expertise like building and land management.”
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