San Jose teacher Michelle Steever instills scientific literacy

Michelle Steever was a materials and process engineer for a decade before she found her true calling as an educator.

"I tried very hard not to be a teacher – my mom taught elementary school and had to work really hard, so it seemed – but it must be in the DNA," said Steever, who has spent the past four years as a physics teacher at Pioneer High School in the San Jose Unified School District.

"When my own children came into the picture, I found that I was channeling their curiosity and thirst for knowing, and just how much setting the stage for discovery was a rewarding challenge – and still is the best part of teaching," she said. "I guess I can blame this career on my own children."

Steever has worked for more than two decades in the San Jose Unified School District, including 10 years at Hoover Middle School and three at Lincoln High School. She also worked for three years at San Jose State University as teacher-in-residence.

One of the greatest challenges she has faced is the precarious balance of guiding and helping "just enough" so that students don't quit. She said they need to feel challenged but not overwhelmed, supported but not smothered – and, ultimately, be proud of themselves and their accomplishments.

"It varies so much from student to student, and it's tough to get it right all of the time," Steever said. "A student in an essay once said, 'Mrs. Steever inspired me because she gave me my first F and then taught me how I could fix it.' Students need to be taught how to fail and recover and not give up. That's what the real world is about."

She takes pride in the opportunity to be a part of the bigger picture.

"I once sat around a table full of teachers – some new to the profession, some veterans and many in between," Steever recalled. "I had interacted with most of them in a variety of roles as a mentor, collaborating colleague, committee member, coach, methods teacher, student teacher adviser — and got to see that I have effected change in small and even bigger ways. That's pretty amazing."

Her ultimate goal is to instill scientific literacy so her students can make informed decisions when they vote. 

"I want them to know that stem cells are not parts of a plant, that data can drive good decisions not emotions or social pressures," she said. "I want them to argue and burst into song about their world and use science as their orchestra."

Looking toward the future, Steever will embrace her constantly moving profession.

"Most importantly the learning never stops from student to teacher and back again," she said.

"I had a sample of going viral with the things I felt were important when I got to teach pre-service teachers about the parts of teaching that I felt truly passionate about. I suspect there is more of that role in my future. It's a big world outside my classroom. Maybe I take the inside out? Whatever it is, I don't want to be a bystander."

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