By Nick Kaye
Special to The Weekly
Susan O’Brien, a fifth grade teacher at Hampden’s George B. Weatherbee School, isn’t a golf fan. She was surprised and honored, however, when she learned that she’d been invited to attend the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy, a week-long, all-expenses-paid development program conceived by pro golfer Phil Mickelson and his wife, Amy.
O’Brien was accepted into the program, held July 21-25 at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, after a student nominated her. She was the only Maine teacher in a group of 150 third- through fifth-grade teachers from around the country.
The academy’s focus was STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — but beyond that, it was about “teaching children how to think,” said O’Brien.
Each day consisted of a combination of lectures and interactive workshops facilitated by educators from the National Science Teachers Association and Math Solutions, a branch of Scholastic dedicated to improving math instruction in kindergarten through eighth-grade.
“In many cases, we were put in the shoes of the children,” said O’Brien.
She participated in science experiments that she plans to bring directly to her classroom — improving the speed and acceleration of model cars racing down an incline to teach the laws of motion, for example.
“Instead of using a gradual release method to teach, [we learned to] use a discovery-, inquiry-based method where the students seek out answers before receiving content,” O’Brien said.
The academy placed an emphasis on teaching students that it’s OK, and even good, to be wrong sometimes, she added.
During the week-long program, O’Brien was able to network with teachers from across the country. They compared the presence of STEM learning in different states, shared experiences, and swapped tips and ideas for teaching.
In the time not occupied by lectures, workshops and meals, O’Brien enjoyed a view of the Manhattan skyline and the Hudson River from her hotel room. She even ventured into the city to catch up with a friend and see two Broadway musicals, “Jersey Boys” and “Rock of Ages.”
At the end of the program, O’Brien had a chance to meet Phil and Amy Mickelson, whom she felt were genuinely invested in the academy.
“They were lovely, lovely people. They really value education. Their children are the moving force behind this whole program,” she said.
O’Brien also found that she was the winner of a raffle for Math Solution’s K-5 library, a collection of 83 books and resources to support educators in teaching elementary school mathematics. The collection is valued at $2,100.
Upon returning home, O’Brien had a single mission in mind: sharing her newfound knowledge and resources with teachers at the Weatherbee School and throughout the Hampden school district. She already has arranged a meeting with a curriculum coordinator to begin looking at ways to bring what she has learned into Hampden classrooms.
O’Brien recounted listening to Cathy Seeley, the former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, deliver a speech to the crowd of 150 teachers. Seeley said, “It can’t be about covering content. It has to be about finishing learning,” and the words stuck with O’Brien, who looks forward to exploring this fresh approach to education.
Parents and teachers are now able to nominate teachers for the 2015 Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy online at sendmyteacher.com. The deadline for submissions is Friday, Oct. 31.