Extra-Curricular Activities — It’s easy to take the number of extra-curricular opportunities that many students have available to them for granted, but it’s important to note that students in many other countries don’t have access to so many sports, clubs, and organizations through their school.
As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator”, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Patrick Marti, who teaches middle school science and math at Villa Academy, a Seattle independent school with a 31-acre campus that provides an exceptional array of outdoor and experiential learning opportunities.
From life science in 6th grade, to earth science in 7th grade, to physics and chemistry in 8th grade, Dr. Marti stresses the importance of students learning to think like scientists: developing cognitive skills rather than memorizing facts, applying science in a hands on way, solving real life problems, and demonstrating teamwork and leadership in the process.
Dr. Marti completed his BS in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, and subsequently earned a fellowship to Cambridge University where he completed his PhD in Natural Sciences. In 2020, Dr. Marti was one of only 10 teachers across the U.S. selected for the National STEM Scholar Program, run by The Center for Gifted Studies at Western Kentucky University (WKU).
After teaching science to middle school youth in inner city London as a volunteer, and through working with students in Jamaica and Zambia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Dr. Marti decided against becoming a research professor as he wanted to inspire and empower youth to use science to make a difference in our world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, spending much of my childhood outside playing in the woods. I always loved science and math in school, and decided to pursue a degree in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. While I was there I got involved in biomedical research, and I was excited by the idea of using science to improve the lives of others.
I earned a fellowship to complete my PhD at the University of Cambridge in England, where I developed and tested a novel coating for metal hip replacements. My plan was to become a research professor. However, while completing my PhD I started volunteering to teach science and engineering workshops with middle school youth in inner city London. It was through this experience that I realized the power and importance of working with youth and inspiring them to make a difference in the world.
This shift led me to join the U.S. Peace Corps, where I spent two years in Jamaica and one year in Zambia teaching youth and working with farmers and fishers. It was so inspiring to get to see science being used to improve the lives of others!
When I returned to the U.S. after my years abroad, I hoped to combine my desire to work with youth with my passion for making the world a better place. I moved to Colorado and ran a youth program for an environmental nonprofit, organizing service learning projects where students acted as stewards of their local environment while learning about ecology and developing leadership & teamwork skills. I loved my days working with students and quickly realized that I wanted to teach full-time.
I entered the classroom and spent three years teaching 6th Grade Life Science at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, CO, where I was privileged to have an incredible team of colleagues and mentors who helped me translate my informal teaching experience to the classroom. I moved to Seattle to be closer to my family in 2018, and have spent the past three years teaching at Villa Academy. It’s been incredible to be part of such a dedicated and passionate staff, and Villa’s commitment to providing teachers with freedom in the classroom has been invaluable.
It’s certainly been a circuitous and nontraditional path to becoming a Middle School teacher, but I couldn’t be more grateful for every step of the journey.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In an effort to incorporate my life experiences into the classroom and help students connect their learning to the real-world, I ‘theme’ my classroom around the different countries I’ve lived in around the globe. For example, we spend a couple of months each year in Jamaica. I decorate the classroom with photos and souvenirs from my time there as a Peace Corps Volunteer, students are given an opportunity to use the scientific knowledge they are learning about to address real problems facing Jamaicans (e.g. developing solutions to address the invasive Lionfish), and I teach short lessons about Jamaican culture.
During my first year in the classroom, as part of this unit I had students write a letter to a Jamaican that I worked with explaining what they learned about Jamaica and asking any questions they still had about life there. I sent the letters to Jamaica just thinking they would be fun to read, and was blown away when three months later I received I giant envelope back in the mail. My Jamaican counterparts had taken the time to individually respond to every single student. The looks on my students’ faces when I handed them back a personalized letter from a Jamaican were priceless. It was immediately evident how meaningful this experience was for everyone involved.
For me, this experience reinforced the importance of relationships and connection in the learning process. Ultimately, great teaching is about relationships. It’s about building relationships with your students and helping your students build relationships with the content, their peers, and the world. Helping students connect their learning to real people or real applications empowers them to make an actual difference in the lives of others.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
This past summer I had the privilege of participating in the National STEM Scholar Program at Western Kentucky University. In addition to an incredible week of hands-on professional development, I received a grant to design and implement a challenge project under the mentorship of a professor.
We have an amazing campus at Villa Academy that includes a large forested area on the shores of Lake Washington. Through my project, students will learn to use GPS technology to construct digital maps of our campus, highlighting topics such as invasive species or erosion that connect directly to content we are covering in the classroom. Students will then use the data collected from this process to design and carry out service projects to help protect and care for the local ecosystem. Over time, students will be able to directly track the progress of their efforts and experience the results first hand.
My hope is that this project will allow our students to experience how science can be used to better the world and inspire them to give back through service. It will also help to preserve a beautiful natural area in Seattle. As part of the project, I will be developing lesson plans and a project template that will be presented at the National Science Teaching Association Conference and shared publicly with teachers across the world. Hopefully the project will be replicated at other schools!
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
There’s so much disparity when it comes to the experiences of students that it’s really difficult to rate the US education system as a whole. There is no doubt that many students in the US have access to an incredible education, and there are passionate teachers and administrators who do an amazing job of setting their students up for future success. Unfortunately, not all students have access to the same quality of education. It would be wonderful if all students in the US had access to the same educational opportunities regardless of their background or where they lived.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
- Teachers — I’ve had the privilege of working with and meeting incredible teachers from across the country, and there’s no doubt that many of our teachers are passionate, dedicated, and innovative.
- Innovation — In situations where schools and teachers are given the opportunity to innovate, the results are amazing. This ingenuity and creativity leads to unique and effective learning environments for many students.
- Higher Education — The US higher education system is diverse and well-respected around the globe.
- Use of Technology — While this is certainly not true in all schools, many teachers and administrators are employing technology to greatly enhance the learning that takes place both inside and outside of the classroom.
- Extra-Curricular Activities — It’s easy to take the number of extra-curricular opportunities that many students have available to them for granted, but it’s important to note that students in many other countries don’t have access to so many sports, clubs, and organizations through their school.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- Equity — Every child in the United States deserves access to a great education, but there is significant disparity between the experiences of students based upon a number of factors. This needs to change.
- Class Sizes — The large class sizes found in many US schools stack the deck against the teacher and the students. In order for teachers to be able to build relationships with every student, meet students where they are, and create a learning environment that is supportive for each and every student, class sizes need to be reduced.
- Teacher Recruitment and Retention — At the end of the day, teachers make or break the effectiveness of a classroom. It’s vital that we invest in bringing talented teachers into the field and provide them with the support and resources they need to be successful and sustain their careers.
- Focus on the Whole Child — The traditional approach to education prioritizes academic subjects, grades, and testing. There are important initiatives taking place around the country focused on developing what we call ‘the whole child’ at Villa Academy. School is not just a place for learning history or math; it’s a place where students learn how to be themselves, understand and regulate their emotions, and develop and maintain healthy relationships. A focus on social and emotional learning is crucial for preparing students for their future.
- Moving on from Antiquated Approaches to Education — Our education system was founded upon many principles that are no longer applicable. From the schedule to the restrictive nature of teaching subjects separately, it’s vital that we shift the focus from the acquisition of knowledge in specific subjects to the application of skills and knowledge in a dynamic environment. Project-based learning, interdisciplinary teaching, and a focus on 21st Century Skills (e.g. teamwork, critical thinking, digital citizenship, and creativity) are vital if we are going to genuinely prepare students for the future.
Super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” Please share a story or example for each.
- Foster Relationships — It goes without saying that strong relationships cultivate a learning environment that is safe, supportive, and productive. While this obviously applies to the student-teacher relationship, it also relates to each student’s relationships with their peers and to the subject.
One of my favorite pieces of feedback I’ve ever received came from one of my 6th Grade classes in my first year of classroom teaching. They said that I “…treated them at the appropriate age by not expecting them to do more than 12 year-olds should but also not treating them like little kids.” I couldn’t have met their needs so precisely had I not taken the time to get to know them as individuals and as a class. I think about that often as I’m working to establish a culture in my classroom.
- Embrace the Wildness — When I think about the moments in my classroom where student learning has really come alive, students are having fun and using their creativity in a situation where they are not afraid to fail. I call this the ‘wildness’ of education. It harnesses the best aspects of childhood — playfulness and imagination — and allows students to let their creativity drive their learning in a safe environment.
For example, students in our Earth & Space Science class are given the task of designing a building from a limited set of classroom materials that will be able to withstand a simulated earthquake. The buzz that is generated on testing day is palpable, as students make last-minute modifications to their designs. By creating an environment where it’s ok for their building to fail, students are able to have fun and utilize their creativity to apply the knowledge we’ve learned in the class to a real-world problem.
- Develop Real-World Connections — It’s vital that students are provided with opportunities to connect their learning to the world that exists outside of the classroom. In science, we challenge students to apply their knowledge to tackle real-world problems from around the globe.
- For instance, as part of their study of astronomy students participate in an engineering challenge focused on landing a rover on Mars. Students investigate the logistics of planetary exploration, draft a blueprint, and then make and test a prototype of a rocket or rover landing system. This work is complemented by a presentation from an engineer based at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory that works on the Perseverance Mars Rover, deepening student connection and allowing students to discuss their work with a professional.
- Prioritize Student Curiosity and Choice — Learning is so much more rewarding when students are invested in it. By allowing student curiosity to drive the curriculum and providing students with choice about how they access new material and demonstrate their understanding of important concepts, students are empowered to take control of their own educational experience.
One of my favorite examples of student-driven work takes place during our study of ecology, when students participate in an Earth Day-themed Innovation Fair. Working in groups, students decide on an environmental issue that is important to them and are free to employ their creativity to address it through any medium they please. Student projects have ranged from video games that teach others about carbon emissions and novel designs for bee boxes to art made from recycled materials and plans for a school-wide composting initiative. Students take ownership of their learning and find meaning in producing something that addresses a problem they care about.
- Be Yourself — I once heard a teacher say, “Anyone can teach a class, but no one can teach it the way that you can.” I couldn’t agree more. Every teacher’s journey informs who they are in the classroom, and I am intentional about incorporating my own personality and experience into each and every class.
When I think about this I’m reminded of a drive to school in my first month of teaching during which I found myself replacing the lyrics to a popular rap song with commentary about teaching science. I thought it was fun so I started my first class of the day by jumping on my desk and sharing my new rap with my students. While I have no doubt many of them thought I was crazy, the response was overwhelmingly positive and students expressed their desire to join in. I started rewriting the lyrics of songs to explain scientific concepts, reinforce classroom expectations, and provide motivation to students, and before long we had a whole catalog of songs, raps, and dances. What started as an expression of my own silliness led to enhanced student engagement, and none of that would have happened had I been unwilling to be myself with my students.
As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?
In many countries around the world, teaching is considered one of the most well-respected and noble professions. While many Americans respect teachers, on the whole the field of education isn’t valued nearly as much as it could be. This trend is evident in poor compensation relative to other fields, challenging working conditions (e.g. large class sizes), and a lack of resources to teach effectively. In order to have the best and the brightest say “I want to be a teacher when I grow up!”, we need to value the profession in the same way that we value doctors, lawyers, or engineers.
As someone who entered the profession through a non-traditional route, I also think it’s vital that there are better systems in place to help professionals from other fields bring their expertise to the classroom. Depending on the state, it can be incredibly difficult to actually become certified to teach even if you are well-qualified and could make a huge impact in the classroom. I was very lucky to start teaching at a school with an excellent induction program to help support my transition to the classroom, but those programs aren’t nearly as abundant as they could be. I believe more talented people would be drawn to the field if there were effective systems in place to help them make the transition.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In Jamaica, a common response to the question “How are you?” is “I’m giving thanks.” It literally just means that you’re grateful for life and appreciate having the opportunity to live it. It’s such a simple response but it’s so powerful, and it’s stuck with me over the years. It’s so easy to get caught up in life and forget to appreciate the present. Practicing gratitude is such a great way to bring yourself back to the moment and remind yourself that life is rich and meaningful.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I’d love to sit down with Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. His books started as lectures that he delivered to his students, and I admire the way he takes complex concepts and distills them down to make them digestible. In many ways, that’s the heart of teaching. Anyway, I love to think about the big picture and discuss how science and technology are shaping our world, and that is at the core of what Harari does.
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Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!