Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Rebecca Missler (AK '19)

February 24, 2020

1000w 2019 AK Rebecca Missler classroom2

In addition to her science classes at North Pole High School, Rebecca Missler (AK ’19) has taken students to Belize and Costa Rica with the International Club. “Many students in Alaska have never left the state,” she says. “I love seeing them step outside their comfort zone as they embrace different cultures.” Rebecca won her Milken Educator Award on December 17, 2019.

Milken Family Foundation: You’re known for hands-on science learning. How do hands-on activities help students understand and appreciate science?

Rebecca Missler (AK ’19): I believe that incorporating hands-on activities, especially in science class, is paramount. Many concepts, particularly in chemistry because it deals with tiny atoms and humongous amounts (the mole), are hard to comprehend without models. Inquiry labs, where students are designing and testing their own experiments, need to be done in the lab so they can see the results and learn how the lack of constants and controls affect their results. Students need a chance to make mistakes in the lab instead of just reading and interpreting someone else’s research. Experiments foster their natural curiosity and are the best way to get students to love science and learning.

MFF: What do you like about high school students?

Rebecca: I like their sarcasm. I like their sense of humor, and I like their emerging independence.

MFF: Tell us about some of the trips you have chaperoned with the International Club. Why is it valuable for your students to travel abroad as part of their high school experience?

Rebecca: We’ve taken students to Belize and Costa Rica, and we have had an absolute blast each time. Many students in Alaska have never left the state and it is exciting to accompany them on their first flights to other places. I love seeing them step outside their comfort zone as they embrace different cultures and try new foods and activities. I also love to hear them planning future trips because our group trip gave them the confidence to travel on their own.

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MFF: How did you end up in education?

Rebecca: I was pursuing a master’s degree in geology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) when I realized I loved being a teaching assistant (TA) and teaching the geology labs. I was also a TA for the amazing Jeff Drake, who was teaching a geology class for elementary education majors. He had so much fun doing experiments and science labs with them, his love for teaching science was contagious!

MFF: How did your first year of teaching go?

Rebecca: Mary McFetridge was the English teacher next door and we shared the roughest bunch of freshmen (we each had five classes of 30+ students). She is the only reason I am still here. I was in tears countless days that year and I swore I’d make it through the year and then quit. It is only because her door was always open after school for me to vent that I am still teaching now. The science department at that time was very closed-door and she was the only teacher I felt I could talk to. I felt very isolated that first year. I am so grateful for Mary McFetridge.

MFF: Who are your role models?

Rebecca: So many! Dr. Kate Doran and Greg Kahoe were my chemistry mentor teachers, and they were phenomenal. Jeff Drake taught science to pre-service elementary teachers at UAF; he was so exciting to be around. Dr. Ute Kaden taught science to pre-service secondary teachers at UAF—every class was full of too many labs and we always ran out of time. Dr Patrick Druckenmiller is a paleontologist at UAF, and an amazing educator. Chele Bifelt, Colin Topp and Renee Parsley are fellow chemistry teachers who continue to answer my many AP Chemistry questions. Elizabeth Beks, Mary McFetridge and Kelly Snider are experienced fellow teachers at my school and are all phenomenal teachers in their fields.

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MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?

Rebecca: I was totally shocked. I was trying to guess whose name they would call and I did not believe it when they called mine. I got tunnel vision and it felt like a dream. I was telling myself, “Don’t stand up, it’s not you, don’t stand up, you’ll look like a fool!”

MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?

Rebecca: When I returned to my class that day the students cheered and clapped and the substitute had hung up the giant check on the board. I still get students in the school hallways—most I know, a few I don’t—congratulating me. Even at the grocery store and around town, former students recognize me and congratulate me.

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MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?

Rebecca: Some will go toward neglected home maintenance: replacing the cracked and moldy windows, as well as the unsafe woodstove stack that has caused two different chimney fires. And fun stuff: Attending a paleontology camp in the summer and the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP). Visit some old friends who are spread across North America. Plan a trip overseas!

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

Rebecca: For my students, success is leaving high school with a love and curiosity for science and learning. For myself, it’s continuing to improve, pushing myself with AP Chemistry and Paleontology, trying new labs and incorporating more inquiry labs into my classes.

MFF: What lessons do you hope your students take away from their time with you?

Rebecca: I hope my Chemistry students learn how exciting chemistry is through all the different labs we conduct. I also push them with stoichiometry so they realize that they can learn things that seem impossible at first. In Paleontology I hope students learn that anyone can do scientific research if they have an interest and are motivated to seek out opportunities. I want them to see scientists as everyday people in our community who are learning exciting things every day, and that someday, that could be them.

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