Ypsilanti teacher reflects on COVID-19 pandemic lessons in receiving teacher-of-the-year award

YPSILANTI, MI – A career in teaching was the last thing on Aly Thompson’s radar when she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Eastern Michigan University in 2004.

When she married her husband, Nik, however, the two decided to move to China to teach English while they determined their “next steps,” leading to an unexpected fulfilling introduction to a career path Thompson has followed ever since.

“I was hesitant at first – extremely scared – but was also very trusting of his idea and ultimately we went for it,” Thompson said. “The year we spent in Zhangjiagang showed me that teaching was something I was passionate about – and something my husband found out is not his passion – and so when we returned to the US, I went back to Eastern to get my certification to teach. ”

Fourteen years later, the Washtenaw International High School teacher and biology department chair is the 2022 Science/Math Teacher of the Year, an honor awarded by the University of Michigan Chapter of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honor Society.

Being back in person with her students this year after disruptions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been “invigorating,” despite all of the uncertainty it has brought, Thompson said,

“We are all still adjusting to this new normal, even this far into the current school year, and learning how to get back into an academic environment that in many ways looks the same as it was when we left it in March 2020 but has been altered in that time as we have made this return from a remote/virtual experience,” Thompson said.

“I think that engaging students and helping them to feel connected were and remain some of the biggest challenges during this pandemic,” she said, “Even this year, being back in person, there are still major disruptions and stressors that we are all dealing with with because of the pandemic that impacts our abilities to focus on what is in front of us.”

Despite the challenges faced during the pandemic, Thompson, who has taught at WIHI since 2011, has been one of the “most engaging, inspiring, passionate, knowledgeable, and caring” science teachers Principal Nhu Do has had the chance to work with.

“She makes it a priority to show every student that she genuinely cares about them and believes in their success,” Do said. “Through creative, skill-based, and student-centered lesson plans that offer students meaningful choices, Ms. Thompson exudes joy and passion that inspires students to love learning and thrive in school. She pays particular attention to historically marginalized students and makes every effort to engage, encourage, and inspire students to persist.”

Her biggest goal as a teacher, Thompson said, is to instill a sense of confidence in her students to get them to “recognize the scientist in them.”

Teaching has allowed Thompson to think creatively about how to make a subject come alive for her students, she said, while collaborating with her colleagues to develop ways to best approach a problem and best support students.

Students come to my classroom with varying degrees of trepidation for a subject that they may see as ‘too hard’ or ‘not for them’ because they don’t identify as ‘a science person,’” Thompson said. “My goal is to help students to approach problems like a and develop a scientific literacy that will help scientists to become better citizens, allowing them to engage within their communities in more meaningful ways.

“I am a kid at heart – always will be and I feel energized by my student’s discoveries and ideas and I love sharing my passion for biology with them.”

UM Sigma Xi will honor Thompson with a $750 gift during a virtual ceremony at a later date.

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