Ms. Dorsey reflects on a year student teaching with science department

Ms. Dorsey is excited to teach science for many years to come.Photo: Caleb Ireland

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels recently reached 415 parts per million this year for the first time ever in recorded history, according to the magazine Scientific American.

Those rising CO2 levels, the subsequent threat of global climate change, and other environmental problems mean that environmental science teachers are needed more than ever.

Who would be a better addition to these vital educators than Sara Dorsey, this year’s  student teacher for science and engineering teacher Nathaniel Woodruff?

Whether battling through rapids on a whitewater kayak with cold spray and dangerous rocks all around her or teaching a lesson about population dynamics to a rowdy 9th grade ecology class, Ms. Dorsey is a strong and committed individual.

“She’s just driven. She is an extreme whitewater boater and that defines her,” said Mr. Woodruff.

Ms. Dorsey went to Williams College where she double-majored in biology and environmental policy, a concentration within the interdisciplinary environmental studies major.

After working for an outdoor education organization, she eventually she went to the school of education at UMass Amherst for graduate school while simultaneously student teaching in ecology and environmental science classes at ARHS.

She has recently graduated, earning a master’s of education  from UMass and an initial licensure in teaching.

Formative life

As a kid, Ms. Dorsey enjoyed hiking and wandering around the woods. She was really interested in animals since she went out looking in ponds for frogs and under logs for salamanders. “I lived near a lake so I could go collect freshwater mussels there,” said Ms. Dorsey. “Growing up, I had a lot of access to the outdoors which was super helpful for building a love of that space.”

Ms. Dorsey’s love of the outdoors goes hand in hand with her love of science. She enjoys learning about many kinds of subjects, but she found as she was growing up that science called to her more than other subjects.

Ms. Dorsey likes how science combines many different aspects of learning. She added, “I loved that I had a science teacher who would have us do lab reports that involved quantitative skills, writing, and drawing.”

When Ms. Dorsey went to Williams, she brought her adventurous spirit and love of the outdoors to the college’s Outing Club. She participated in it all four years, becoming heavily involved with managing their paddling gear and leading trips.

“I taught people how to kayak [and] how to canoe. We also did some off-trail navigation,” Ms. Dorsey said.

Her experience as a teacher grew through her time in the Outing Club since she taught outdoor skills to many Williams students and was given a lot of responsibility by the club’s advisor.

“I had a great mentor who was the staff person in charge of the Outing Club,” said Ms. Dorsey. “They were perpetually enthusiastic and inspiring, giving me a lot of responsibility and expecting a lot, but supporting me as well.”

Another important mentor during Ms. Dorsey’s undergrad years was her ecology professor at Williams.

She loved all the opportunities she had in her classes to go outside and conduct labs. “She was this lovely little old lady who was so enthusiastic and unashamedly nerdy,” said Ms. Dorsey.

Teaching at ARHS

For Ms. Dorsey, teaching ultimately felt like the perfect path. “I’ve been a teacher for most of my life even if it’s been more related to outdoor skills,” she said. “I was a swimmer and I taught swim lessons to both kids and adults, so I’ve always liked teaching.”

After college, Ms. Dorsey worked at a place in West Virginia that combined leading outdoor trips with some science education.

She enjoyed teaching the participants on her trips about the environment and how their lives were impacting the natural world and their community. “I loved teaching them; I loved their ‘ah ha’ moments and getting them really connected to the natural environment and each other,” said Ms. Dorsey.

Although she enjoyed her time working for this organization, Ms. Dorsey began to realize that she only got to teach people for a short time, which was hard because she wanted to witness their growth over a longer period.

“I wanted to see [their progression] over a whole semester or year,” she said. “I’m the sort of person that likes building connections over a longer period of time, which I think is true for many folks.”

Now as a student teacher at ARHS for the entire 2018-19 academic year, Ms. Dorsey is happy that she has the opportunity to watch students grow and to develop long term connections with them. “I think getting the whole year here was really good because I could experience everything from day one,” she said.

Ms. Dorsey enjoys many aspects of her work as a student teacher, but she accurately predicted that she would not love grading. However, she is excited to look at students’ work and see in what unique ways they’ve grappled with the course material.

“I hate having to hand someone a number that defines them as a student,” said Ms. Dorsey. “All I want students to care about is learning. Not all people are good test takers, for example.”

Ms. Dorsey has also learned a lot during her time as a student at ARHS. She developed what she describes as “a strategy of spiraling upwards rather than downwards” when she feels frustrated about how a particular lesson went.

“I have to remind myself when I feel as though I’ve totally botched a lesson that I just need to take a step back and ask myself what parts of that worked, what parts didn’t work, and how I can make it better,” said Ms. Dorsey.

Mr. Woodruff’s take

Mr. Woodruff admires Ms. Dorsey’s inner drive to improve and how hard she works. He likes how deeply she thinks about her lessons and how much she cares about her students.

“She doesn’t just stop at ‘teaching.’ She’s one of those teachers that concerns herself with customizing her approach to each class and thinking about what’s interesting,” said Mr. Woodruff. “She really tries to make the material meaningful for the students.”

Mr. Woodruff especially liked an activity that Ms. Dorsey orchestrated for their ecology classes on different feeding strategies of birds. Students had to jump around and act out the birds.

“I think it was for the competitive exclusion principle where one type of bird would win out based on their strategy and the rules they had for feeding,” said Mr. Woodruff. “It was amusing in an educational way and it taught the concept really well.”

Students speak

Ms. Dorsey’s students also love her engaging lessons and enthusiastic personality.

Celia Douville Beaudoin, a senior in AP Environmental Science, loves how Ms. Dorsey’s enthusiasm keeps her engaged and interested. “She is the kind of teacher that obviously loves the material being taught,” Beaudoin said. “She is always excited to share fun facts with the class.”  

Beaudoin also noted how helpful and caring Ms. Dorsey is. “She is such a useful resource in the classroom and she’s always ready to go out of her way to help us absorb the material,” she said. “And whenever I have a question or need help with a calculation, Ms. Dorsey is more than willing to spend timing figuring it out with me.”