CHATHAM – Ask Monomoy Regional Middle School science teacher Nancy Gifford what makes science awesome and her answer is simple: everything.
Recently, her enthusiasm for teaching earned her the Massachusetts Association of Science Teachers State Educator of the Year award, about which she's still more than a bit surprised.
“I didn't see it coming,” she said.
As it turns out, Gifford, who began teaching in Harwich in 2008 after 16 years with the Mashpee Public Schools, had five different nominations. Among those who nominated her were Mary Spruill, the executive director of the NEED (National Energy Education Development) Project in Virginia, Dorian Janney, the Formal Education Specialist for NASA's Global Precipitation Measurement Mission, colleague Annie Haven, now a teacher at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School, and Carolyn Jacobs, who handles senior manager training and educator engagement for WGBH.
Gifford has worked with each of her nominators in varying capacities, including spending a summer writing lesson plans on the water cycle and global precipitation for NASA.
“It was a really great project and a great experience,” Gifford said. “I applied on a whim. I didn't ever expect that a teacher from Cape Cod would get a job working on a NASA mission, but it happened, and I think if my kids can see that, I'm not really any different from them. I grew up on Cape Cod and you can do these things.”
Writing lesson plans for the nation's renowned space program is just one of many accomplishments in Gifford's career. She has also worked with WGBH on Bringing the Universe to America's Classrooms, is a member of the NOVA Teacher Advisory Board, currently serves as a Teacher Liaison for the Space Foundation, Flight 12-15, and is an educational consultant specializing in curriculum alignment, particularly for students with autism.
The Educator of the Year Award is also one of many, with others including the MAST Science Educator of the Year for Barnstable County in 2013, the Maitland P. Simmons Memorial Award for New Science Teachers, and the NASA National Educators Workshop, Marshall Space Flight Center in 2010.
While the awards and experiences have certainly enriched Gifford's teaching, what inspires her each day are her students.
“I love the kids,” she said. “They're the best part of the job, absolutely, and seeing that moment when they get excited about things, and making it exciting, is the best part.”
Gifford graduated from Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School. It was her early learning that instilled in her a passion for teaching her students about the wealth of scientific offerings the Cape provides.
“I realized that there's so much out there that our kids don't know about,” she said. “I want to try to bring as much to them as I can. There is so much out there that kids can learn about, especially being here on Cape Cod where we've got awesome ecosystems and habitats that we can go out and explore right here in our backyards. I feel like I have the best job in the school.”
But Gifford also realizes the value of connections beyond the classroom, locally and globally, which is why she encourages fellow educators to share best practices and ideas.
“You can only do so much locally, so you really need to look to the national organizations to learn more and find more, and talk to teachers across the country to find out what else is out there,” Gifford said. “So that's what I've been doing the last few years. I've met teachers from all over. I actually have a global network of teachers...that I communicate with and share ideas with.”
Gifford has also applied for a number of programs, through which she's gotten to travel and gain valuable professional development. She also teaches teachers innovative ways to approach their own teaching, which she feels has made her a stronger teacher.
“I think when you are presenting to teachers and teaching teachers you are thinking about teaching in a different way, and thinking about teaching as a craft,” said Gifford. “And that has helped me a lot to improve my teaching. I've gotten so I love just going out and working with teachers. That was a surprise to me.”
Gifford said that receiving the Educator of the Year Award has been an honor.
“I feel like I'm surrounded by these amazing teachers from all over the state, and all over the country, but to be recognized as State Educator of the Year is just such an honor,” she said. “To be recognized by my peers and have them say 'You're doing great work' is just incredible.”
The win has inspired her to reflect upon all the people that helped her achieve her success, including fellow teachers such as Melinda Forist, with whom Gifford teaches at MRMS, as well as teachers Gifford had when she was a student.
“I was thinking about the teachers I've had along the way. I've been trying to reach out to some of them,” she said. “I want them to know they had a part in this. As teachers we're always planting seeds and you don't know where those seeds will go, so to hear back from a student and hear that somebody is remembering what you taught them is really exciting.”
In the end, though, it's not about the accolades or the awards.
“It's all about the kids,” said Gifford. “My main goal is to keep being the best teacher here that I can be for my students and inspire them as best I can.”
Gifford hopes that her success will be a part of that inspiration.
“I feel like I'm really lucky to be working where I am because I'm surrounded by great organizations where I can get my kids out into the field and have them learn in these hands-on environments,” she said. “I would say don't let yourself be limited by something that sounds a little scary. Jump in with both feet and see where it goes, because that's what's happened with me and it's led to some amazing experiences.”