Ryan Lacson, a 2013 graduate of the Master of Science in Biology for Science Teachers program at Washington University in St. Louis, has been named the 2017 Missouri Outstanding Biology Teacher of the Year by the National Association of Biology Teachers. Lacson is a science teacher at Galena High School in Galena, Missouri. He also sponsors Galena High School’s Beta Club and is an assistant volleyball coach. He’s currently in his 10th year of teaching.
(Answers have been edited for clarity and length).
What led you to the teaching profession?
My AP Calculus teacher predicted this when I was in 11th grade. She told me I would be an excellent teacher, and I laughed at her and thought, “No way do I have the patience to be a teacher.” Little did I know that, just like so many other things, the adults in our lives often know better than we do. I had known since 2nd grade that I was going to become a doctor; however, as I approached the end of my undergraduate career, I realized that, although I had a passion for life science, I really did not have a passion for practical health care. Upon reflection, all the extracurricular activities I was doing to make myself a competitive medical school candidate: coaching volleyball, orientation leader and University Ambassador for Missouri State, New Member Educator for my fraternity, volunteering at our local science center all involved education. So, I thought to myself, why not get paid to do what I was gladly doing for free?
What does being the NABT Missouri Biology Teacher of the Year award mean to you?
As humbled as I am by the honor, I do not view myself as different then my other biology teacher colleagues. To me, awards are a means to an end. There is so much wonderful professional development and networking out there, but it can get expensive. Teachers are not wealthy, and school districts do not have extra funds. Awards like these are excellent ways for us to get professional development. With this being said, teachers are naturally humble and do not like being put in the spotlight. But when you readjust the lens and look at awards more like professional development grants, it makes them easier to apply for.
You earned your MS in Biology at Washington University. What was that experience like?
I absolutely LOVED my MS in Biology experience at WashU. It was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted something heavier in science content than an MA/MS in Education, but with my busy schedule, I did not have the time to devote myself to a thesis-based MS in Biology. Additionally, I was hoping for something that could work around my busy schedule, but that wasn’t 100% online. As luck would have it, my older sister works at WashU Medical School, and forwarded me information on the program. As soon as I could, I jumped at the chance. Being from St. Louis, WashU was always my end goal based solely upon its reputation. Once I got there, the experience turned out to be better than I could have imagined. The professors and staff were, and continue to be, amazing. I networked with so many awesome teachers who I continue to collaborate with. The content was presented in a way that I could either apply the concepts directly to my classroom or slightly tweak to make fit in my classroom. It has had a bigger impact on my teaching than any of my undergrad and post-baccalaureate experiences, to the extent that I’ve made it a point to visit WashU every year since I’ve graduated.
How do you keep your lessons – and your mindset – fresh and engaging?
I have found that the key to maintaining a fresh mindset is to attend as much professional development as possible and to constantly surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. My beliefs, my lessons, and my mindset are constantly challenged, but such is the nature of science. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, education, and life, are like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.
Have your lessons or approach to teaching changed over the years? How so?
Absolutely. As teachers, we begin teaching how we were mostly taught: mostly through “chalk-and-talk” lectures and memorization. Since then, so much of my approach has changed. Now, I approach assignments as a way to grow knowledge, as opposed to a way to enact compliance. I have a better understanding of how to scaffold a lesson for students who aren’t college bound all the way up to students who are headed to prestigious universities like Wash U. I’ve attempted to replace low-level depth-of-knowledge lessons with more lessons that encourage critical thinking. I have attempted to increase overall engagement in my lessons, while trying to eliminate opportunities for students to hide. Most importantly, as the old saying goes, the more I learn, the more I realize that I don’t know everything. This is all just one big experiment that we tweak and re-run from year-to-year.
What is your philosophy about teaching?
As Margaret Mead said, “Children should be taught how to think, not what to think,” and that is how I try to approach teaching. I don’t care about arbitrary grades, standardized test scores or other measures of compliance. We should be teaching our students how to be creative and innovative, and in doing so, we should expect the same of our teachers.
If you could share just one thought with fellow teachers, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to fail. As I said earlier, teaching is just one big science experiment, tweaked and repeated from section to section, year to year. Just make sure when you fail, you fail forward by learning from your mistakes.
What’s your No.1 highlight in teaching?
Hands down, my favorite moments as a teacher are when my former students come back to visit me. I love catching up with them, learning whether what I did was helpful or not, and using that information to adjust my approach. More importantly, I love learning that I made a difference in their lives that went beyond content knowledge. That is probably why I loved my time at WashU so much. As much as I enjoyed getting the content and learning different ways to apply it, it was the non-academic experiences with my classmates, faculty, staff, and campus overall that made the program so amazing.
The Outstanding Biology Teacher Award program recognizes an outstanding biology educator of grades 7-12 in each of the 50 states; Washington, DC; Canada; Puerto Rico; and overseas territories. Candidates for this award do not have to be NABT members, but they must have at least three years of public, private, or parochial school teaching experience. A major portion of the nominee’s career must have been devoted to the teaching of biology/life science, and candidates are judged on their teaching ability and experience, cooperativeness in the school and community, and student-teacher relationships.
Note: this post was originally published on WashU's Institute for School Partnership website.