Spotlight: 10 Questions for Tami Lunsford (DE '17)January 3, 2018
When a graduate school colleague convinced her to bring a bucket of organisms into a local middle school, marine biologist Tami Lunsford (DE ’17) knew she had found her purpose: “My heart kept calling me back to the classroom.” She won Delaware’s first-ever Milken Educator Award at Newark Charter High School on October 25, 2017.
1. What went through your mind when you heard Mike Milken call your name at your surprise notification?
Tami Lunsford (DE ’17): Shock. I was still confused as to what was going on at the assembly. I was sitting with a substitute teacher I hadn’t met and telling her how many of my colleagues I could see being the ones they were talking about. When I heard my name, I was just so surprised I couldn’t think clearly!
2. How did your students respond to your Milken Award? What impact has it had on them?
Tami: The biggest joy of all of this has been the response of my students. I received so many emails from families and past students telling me they were not at all surprised it was me, telling me how much of an impact I have made on them, and how much I am loved and respected as part of the school. It has been overwhelming and so heartwarming. My current students also seem to walk a little taller and argue a little less when given assignments.
3. How did you end up in education?
Tami: I tried hard not to be a teacher. My mom was a teacher and growing up she often had two or three jobs so we could get by. I did not want to work that hard for so little money and respect.
But in graduate school Susan Haynes, a colleague who then worked for Sea Grant and now coordinates NOAA’s Office of Ocean Education and Research education programs, convinced me to go into local middle schools with a bucket of marine organisms and teach one day a month. I quickly realized how much I loved it.
I tried a few more times to do other education-related jobs: coordinating internship programs, teacher development, even as a University of Delaware faculty member. My heart kept calling me back to the high school classroom. When Newark Charter’s director Greg Meece called me about starting up a new high school, I knew where I was meant to be.
4. Who are your role models as an educator?
Tami: My biggest role model is definitely my mom. As a teacher, she was always striving to learn more, stay on top of the most current and best pedagogy, and also keep up with the latest in her content area (art). She earned her master’s degree in educational technology in her forties and taught at Wilmington University for over 20 years after a successful K-12 teaching career. She is amazing.
Another huge role model for me was Barbara Emery, my high school mentor. From her, I remember the conversations and support outside the classroom. As I work with high school students, I try to be an adult at school who can talk to them and offer advice when needed.
Finally, I also aim to emulate Dr. David Smith, my mentor at University of Delaware. I worked as his teaching assistant in microbiology and learned so much from him—about content, and about motivating students to work harder by showing them your love for science.
5. What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?
Tami: Mostly I remember being stressed and tired. I had a previous career and was not certified, so I was teaching all day, taking classes at night, and grading, prepping, and studying all weekend. I had no idea how to manage a classroom with challenging students, no idea of the kinds of struggles many of my students would have. My first year was a blur of trying to stay a page ahead of my students, learn with them, and let them see that I respected them and deserved their respect.
6. What are students most likely to remember about their time in your class?
Tami: I believe students remember that I love what I do—that science is something that you do, not something you just study and memorize.
7. What’s your biggest challenge in the classroom?
Tami: Balancing all the content I need to teach (for state testing, standards, prep for AP courses and exams, etc.); what they actually need to know for life (I teach biology and there is a lot about their bodies and lives that would help them as adults!); and the depth to which I want to cover everything. I love project-based learning and allowing students to deeply explore things that interest them and are relevant to their lives, but I can’t use it as broadly as I would like due to the other constraints.
8. How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Tami: I spent some on my house getting a few luxuries I have wanted for quite some time (a new gas stove because I love to cook and bake). I donated to a few education causes that mean a lot to me, like the National Marine Educators Association. And I am taking my family on a trip to Iceland next year!
9. What would you say to a student who expresses interest in a career in education?
Tami: I would say that it is the most amazing career one can choose if it is really what you want to do. Following your heart and doing what you love is incredibly important: We spend too much of our lives at work to do something meaningless that does not fill our hearts and minds. Teaching is different every day and every year, and it is the best chance to truly make a difference in the lives of others.
I would also tell them not to give up in the first two or three years. They are exhausting and stressful, but it does get better.
10. What’s your definition of success?
Tami: Leaving something after me that helps make the world better. For me, that is a program and a high school, but mostly it is the students I have taught. I will consider myself successful if they go on to live good and successful lives. I want them to live their dreams and their passions, and if a few find their passions in science, all the better.
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