By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor
Mary Buckwalter grew up in the small town of St. Johns in the center of Michigan. During school, she lettered in vocal music and theater. and was proud to be president of the Drama Club for the highest-rated drama program in the state. Growing up in a family of six was a true joy, she recalls, noting that she had a great time with her three siblings, running around their 15-acre property. She learned to love nature from her dad who always fed the birds and she learned to love kids from her mother, who became the favorite substitute mom for many teenagers over the years.
She says her mother taught her to love kids for who they are and to talk to them on their level.
After graduation, Buckmiller attended Michigan State University to earn a biology degree—despite her mother’s frequent question: “Why don’t you become a classroom teacher?” Instead, she focused on outdoor education, working for nature centers and bringing her love of science and the outdoors to students in Richmond, Virginia, Kalamazoo, and to many guests of the Michigan state parks. Working for those places gave her experience taking care of wildlife, training birds-of-prey and creating exciting exhibits all while teaching others to enjoy and appreciate the natural world.
Wanting to spread an appreciation for the natural world led Buckmiller on her next adventure. Finally taking the advice of her mother, she returned to school after 10 years to become a classroom teacher. She attended EMU for her teaching certificate and while student teaching at West Middle School in Ypsilanti, she impressed the staff there so much, they made a position for her. She spent the next 14 years teaching in Ypsilanti.
Buckwalter lives in Ypsilanti with her husband Michael and their three children, Belle, Nick and Abby. She says Michael is “the best teacher husband” because he can stay home with sick kids and save her from having to get a sub. She likes living in Ypsilanti because she loves getting the occasional bear hug from a former student at the grocery store.
Buckwalter came to Ann Arbor three years ago to bring her joy of science and love of middle schoolers to Forsythe Middle School, where she enjoys finding new ways to teach and keeping up with what kids are interested in. “The students at Forsythe are so much fun and have made teaching here a true pleasure,” she says.
In your two and a half years in AAPS, what’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the district?
After my time here in AAPS, I am most surprised at how much time the district gives to departments to really teach their subject well. I really like the Next Generation Science Standards and how they are much better at teaching kids to be thinkers and to analyze information for themselves.
What reaction do you get when you say you teach middle schoolers?
I laugh about this because most people who meet me and find I teach middle school think I must be a little crazy. Maybe I am. I chose this age after subbing for two years during college and trying out all the grade levels. I love middle school students because they have a natural passion. This passion is mostly put toward music, friends or even YouTube videos, but if you can tap into this passion with your subject area, then they will latch on and own it as their own.
How have your own kids impacted your career?
My kids have been such a blessing to me as a teacher. When they were young, it was really hard. I remember staying up nights, grading papers, nursing a baby and writing my graduate thesis. Now that they are older they are so amazing. My oldest daughter, Belle is a freshman at Lincoln High. She has Down Syndrome and she has taught me how to be patient with students, recognize their different cognitive abilities and let them learn in their own time. She loves being part of regular classrooms and I try to open my room to all students who want to participate in science. She has also given me such a great insight into being a parent at an IEP. It’s tough, and I have a great deal of compassion for parents of my special ed students because of it.
Nick, my middle child is a sixth grader and he does a superb job of keeping me up to date on the culture of young people. Music, videos and phone apps are shared with me from my sweet boy and so I can keep up with my students any day.
My baby, Abby is eight and she is the one to keep reminding me that home sometimes has to take precedence over school life. She is my mini-me and loves to hang with her Mom, playing, cooking or just snuggling on the couch.
How do you keep your students engaged?
Some days are better than others of course, but I try to really get to know my students. I work very hard at this and take time out each week to do a community circle to give all my students a voice. If they know that I am aware of who they are, what they have going on in their lives and that I genuinely care for them, then they will come to the content. I also try to incorporate music, active learning and examples of science from around the world and include lots of scientists of color. Students will engage when they feel that the information is important to them personally.
If you could stop doing one part of your job, or hand it off to someone else, what would that be?
I would love to pass on the lab set-up and clean-up role to someone else. It can take a lot of time to do these things and I would love to just come in and find all my equipment returned to where it belongs.
What advice would you give to a first-year teacher?
The best advice I could give is to recognize your own emotions and reactions, then learn to control them. Students will misbehave, drive you crazy and be mean. All you have to do as a teacher is to learn to not react, to not demand or push. I would tell them to see the behavior as communication that something is wrong with the child. Look at it not as them “doing” to you, but trying to get your help. Most behavior is rooted in larger trauma in the lives of kids and learning to control yourself will keep everyone safer and cool down the situation faster.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
In the beginning, I wanted to help kids understand the importance of the natural world. Now it’s changed. Now I really feel the need to help kids understand their worth and to make sure all kids feel valued.
What’s the best compliment anyone could give you?
My heart is happy when I hear that I am doing a good job at what I love. I particularly love hearing from former students about a great lesson they remembered and loved.
Describe an average workday.
For me, an average day begins with about 20 minutes of “me” time followed by getting kids up and ready for school. Making breakfast and lunches and getting my big kids to the bus stop. Then it’s a long drive down I-94 to work. I feed my turtle first thing when I arrive, then it’s plan-time. On a good day I get ahead, most days I have what I need for just that day. Then it’s kids until 3:07. There are always problems to solve, hugs to give, attendance to take and then it’s on to the next hour. Then it’s back home for dinner and kid time. Then bedtime followed by some grading on my part. If I can stay awake that is.
What’s the happiest part of your day?
I love hanging with my family in the mornings before school. We eat together and work out our days.
Favorite websites: I love Youtube of course. It’s got so much awesome science content. After that, I spend too much time and money on Amazon.
Apps you can’t live without:
Well, I like to keep up with friends on Facebook. I also love my Amazon Music.
If you could know the definitive answer to any one question, what would that question be?
It would be: “What’s for dinner?”
If you could talk to your middle school self, what would you say?
I had great family support and good friends in middle school. Still, I felt inadequate and never enough. I would tell myself to stick to the things you love and just have fun with it.
What do you know about teaching now that you wish you’d known that first year?
I have really learned to understand the brain better. I also love teaching kids to question and think for themselves. I didn’t really do that in the beginning.
What is the most rewarding part of teaching?
The best part is the relationships I build with kids who have struggles in their lives. I worry about them in the future so I want to bolster them for things to come.
How do you recharge?
Summer is my recharge time. I can forget names and issues for a few months before diving back in.
How do you spend your summers?
I take summer seriously and I am full-on Mom. We go to the beach, we swim every day. We hang out in our PJs. It’s wonderful!
What’s most exciting about your professional life right now? Your personal life?
The most exciting thing about my professional life is that I have a couple of leadership roles. I took on the science department chair position this year and I am part of the school’s leadership team. I am excited as Forsythe implements restorative practices and really feel our equity work is vital.