Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Liz Landes (PA ’19)

January 2, 2020

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Science teacher Liz Landes encourages students to stretch and take risks: “Staying in your comfort zone is not conducive to true learning.” She won Pennsylvania’s 2019-20 Milken Educator Award at Marple Newtown High School in Newtown Square on October 3, 2019.

Milken Family Foundation: How did you land in education?

Liz Landes (PA ’19): I have wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. In first grade I wanted to be a first grade teacher. In second grade I wanted to be a second grade teacher, and so on. When I graduated high school I wanted to teach AP Biology. I thought I would realize that I wanted to be a college professor when I went to college, but I didn’t.

Much of what I enjoyed about my high school experience involved my participation in numerous extracurricular activities. Teaching high school allows me to get to know students on a more personal level both in the classroom and as the adviser of after school activities. I decided to teach because I have always enjoyed learning and I want to share this passion with my students and help them identify their passions.

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MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.

Liz: It was challenging. It definitely took me time to get into the groove. One day a student sealed dry ice in a water bottle. As I rushed to remove the cap, it popped off and injured my hand. I totally lost my cool. I have come a long way with classroom management since that day.

What helped me get through that year was time. It took time to reach a level of comfort in my own shoes and my own classroom where student discipline stopped being a problem. Now my students comment that they can never imagine me yelling. My advice to new teachers would be to give it time. As you settle down, so will the students.

On a positive note, I remember teaching transcription and translation, an abstract concept, early in my career. A student in the back of the room had an “Aha!” moment and yelled out, “Wait a minute—all of this is happening in me? Right now? In me?” I often reflect back on his excitement and try to help my students come to the realization that the real-world applications of biology are very personal.

MFF: What do you like about high school students?

Liz: They are the perfect audience for demonstrating that being smart can be cool. They understand my corny jokes and at least pretend to be entertained. I also really enjoy teaching higher-level science content. While the content is much the same from year to year, no two cohorts of students are the same. They keep me on my toes. Interacting with a hundred teenagers a day will never get boring.

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MFF: You’re known as a masterful differentiator. What’s the secret to making sure all students’ needs are met?

Liz: I use formative assessment strategies to informally collect data about my students and use this data to inform instructional decisions. I also teach my students to self-assess and encourage them to advocate for themselves based on their self-assessment. I group and regroup students and provide them with learning activities to meet their needs. There is a saying in differentiated instruction: “Fair isn’t everything being equal—fair is everyone getting what they need to be successful.”

MFF: Who are your role models?

Liz: My role model as an educator is my ninth grade Honors Biology teacher, Mr. Bottjer. He was a real no-nonsense kind of guy with high expectations for his students. He always taught us to read the textbook “once for fun, once for frolic, and once for comprehension.” About five years ago, I started using a Cornell Notes–style note-taking strategy in my classroom which is modeled after this mantra.

MFF: Tell us about the Project10 sophomore service project.

Liz: A colleague and I started Project10 after identifying a need for sophomores to have a unifying class event. One day I asked the students in my sophomore homeroom to make colorful cards for a local teenager who was in the hospital. I was disappointed with what the students turned in, but as one student handed in a piece of paper with “Feel better” and his name scribbled on it in pencil he told me that he felt so good about himself because he’d never done anything nice for anyone before. When I shared this story with my colleague, we knew that the focus of the class event had to be on service.

We designed Project10 with the help of a small leadership team of students. Each year, the sophomore class gets together to vote on a charity to support. They fundraise and participate in a walkathon and a class unity carnival. Through the years, we have also added a “random act of kindness” requirement; to participate in the walkathon, we challenge students to engage in 10 random acts of kindness. The effects of this are noticeable in the classrooms and hallways as students learn how good it feels to act kindly and to be on the receiving end of kind acts.

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MFF: What went through your mind when you won your Milken Award?

Liz: I was completely surprised. I don’t think I was able to string together a coherent sentence for the rest of the day. “Why me?” kept running through my mind. I am so fortunate to work with an incredible team of educators. During our common planning time we share resources and ideas. I would not be the teacher I am today without their constant influence. It is hard to accept being set apart when you do not work alone.

MFF: How did students respond?

Liz: The best part of receiving the Milken Award has been the response from students. Not only have I enjoyed hearing from former students, but a number of current students have reached out and echoed the sentiment of the Award. It is impossible to quantify the impact that teachers have on their students. It was so fulfilling to hear that I am making a difference and that it is recognizable to students both while they are in the throes of it and years later.

MFF: Any plans for the $25,000?

Liz: I’ll put the Award money back into education for my children. Saving for my daughters’ future college expenses has always been a priority and this will definitely help. I also want to provide them with experiences they can learn from without reservation over minor costs. I want my children to grow up visiting museums, experiencing the city, picking peaches on a farm, or simply tasting fried pickles from a food truck. The pressure to save money for college and retirement while also covering mortgage and daycare expenses has caused me to pass on too many opportunities. I want this Award to change that for my family because experiences add up to an authentic education.

MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?

Liz: For myself, it’s being able to make a difference in the lives of my students. At the end of each school year students are given the opportunity to write “POP” (Positive On People) awards for their teachers. Last year a student wrote that I deserved the POP because I always believed in him. I am extremely motivated to prepare my students for state and AP exams, and their scores are usually fantastic, but it is this less quantifiable feedback that truly makes me feel that it has been a successful year.

For my students, I define success as doing their best. Every student has different interests and abilities but I encourage my students to take pride in their work.

MFF: What do you hope your students carry with them from their time with you?

Liz: I want my students to remember that it is okay for them to take risks and make mistakes. I believe that the greatest learning experiences come when you don’t get things right the first time. Staying in your comfort zone is not conducive to true learning. I take risks regularly and I celebrate my mistakes in the classroom. I hope that modeling this encourages my students to feel safe taking risks.

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