Elizabeth Hicks teaches more than biology to her Hancock High School students, she teaches them about life.
From elementary to high school, she says she struggled. So, having a hard time is a topic she knows a thing or two about, too.
“When I was going through school, it just wasn’t a good time for me. I was not a good student. I was constantly in trouble,” Hicks said. “I was just not a happy person. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t like my situation. And I was angry all the time.”
Her father died when she was young, and she said that sometimes she felt her life was “really terrible.”
“I became a teacher because I had a really rough childhood. I was raised by a single mom, and it was tough,” she said. “I had two particular teachers look me in the eye and say, ‘You’re worth something and life doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to live in a trailer with no food. You can go to school.’”
And that knowledge and desire for a better life is what she strives to pass on to her students, in addition to helping them understand biology on their way to graduation.
“I get in there with my kids. I get into the group and I talk to them. ... I’m real with them, what they’re going through and what my life is like. And I don’t give up on them,” Hicks said. “That’s what I tell them the first day, I will be the most annoying person you have ever met. I will hunt you down, but you will pass my class.
“You will work every day. You will pass. I love you enough to spend all of my time annoying you so that this graduation requirement is out of the way, that my class isn’t what stops you from graduating.”
In the last two years, she has only had one student fail to meet the biology graduation requirement of passing the state test, and that was because the student dropped out, she said.
Hicks, who is in her fourth year at Hancock High teaching 10th- through 12th-graders, is being honored for her success and hard work. The Mississippi Science Teachers Association, which is holding its state conference in Biloxi on Sunday through Tuesday, will present her with the 2017 Herb Handley Award for Outstanding New Science Teacher. The award is one of the top honors that MSTA hands out to educators from around the state.
“I’m only this successful because here at Hancock, the science department works as a group,” she said. “We have lunch together every day and we’re able to sit down at a table and problem-solve with each other about the lesson or even about a particular student. If I’m not doing well at teaching a particular subject, I’ve got a whole table of other people who are teaching that subject and we can bounce ideas from (each other). So, when I’m successful, it’s because I have resources and I have support.”
Ditching the PowerPoint
Nothing against Microsoft, but using PowerPoint slide shows to teach a roomful of high school students was not working for Hicks — or her students. They would drift off or fall asleep, get on their phones or create a distraction. Discipline was an issue.
Hicks said she asked herself, “Why am I doing this if it’s just a waste of classtime?”
She said she knew she had to try something else.
“A PowerPoint is normal, that’s how you teach, that’s what we were taught. That allows you to tell the kids all the information, and for your motivated learner, that works really well,” Hicks said. “But now I feel like the group of kids we’re getting in, they lose attention so quickly that you can’t keep them involved in a PowerPoint.
“What we’re doing in education is a little outdated if all we’re doing is standing up there and making them copy some notes.”
She is in her second year of teaching biology without using PowerPoint or guided notes. Instead, she came up with the idea for an “interactive notebook.” In essence, students build their own textbook.
At the beginning of each unit, students get an outline. Hicks will lecture for a short time, and students take notes. They’ll have a class discussion, with students asking questions that often lead to deeper conversations. Throughout the unit, students will have reading assignments and other tasks that they will record in their notebooks. Much of the work is visual. And with each unit, students will participate in a lab to expand their understanding of the topic.
“In that interactive notebook is everything they need to pass their unit tests and then to pass that state test, because this is going to be a yearlong process. And that student is responsible for making their own textbook that they will constantly refer back to,” Hicks said. “So I hunt them down and make sure it gets built in the classroom because they are the ones reading the information and putting it down on paper. They are not just listening to me.
“I know when little Johnny is not reading or not working because the page is blank. I know he didn’t meet the objective that day because I can visually see it. His notebook typically stays in my room and I can pull it to say, so-and-so, so-and-so, so-and-so didn’t learn today’s objective. I know they didn’t learn it because they didn’t put it down in that notebook. So I can pull them and make sure that they get the objective for the day, even if it’s like a one-on-one type of situation.”
Her students appreciate her, too.
“If you need help with anything or you’re having family problems, she goes out of her way to help,” said Kiely Haynes, a 10th-grader. “She’s always helping. She makes sure your grade’s up. She makes sure you’re OK at the end of the day. She puts others before herself. ... She’s another mom to most of the people at this school.”
Passing it on
During a lab Wednesday, students used colored straws and a cup to understand the concept of gene pools and how DNA is passed on. Each straw represented different genes. The cup is the gene pool. They used those simple materials to compile data.
“Other schools may have state-of-the-art labs, and if you give students a hands-on kit, they get the results and their brains don’t have to be ‘on,’” Hicks said. “But when I’m throwing them straws and a cup, they have to use their imagination. Oh, that’s why it’s a cup.”
The concept of passing along, especially in terms of professional development, is a common theme in the science department at the school.
Department chair Shani Bourn, a life science teacher for 20 years, is the one who nominated Hicks for the MSTA honor. Last year, Bourn was honored as the Fred W. Brown Outstanding Science Teacher by the MSTA. She has earned several other honors, also.
A fellow teacher inspired her.
“She really instilled in me that being a teacher and being on school grounds was one thing, but that we also had a professional responsibility to keep abreast with what’s going on with your colleagues and continue learning,” Bourn said. “You become a better teacher if you continue learning.”
Hicks, who started her career teaching at the college level, said she is happy with the choice to work with high school students instead. And she is where she wants to be, helping the students who need the most help.
“I couldn’t imagine teaching anywhere else,” she said. “I always think to myself, if I hadn’t had those teachers during my school years, where would I be right now? What would my life be like?”
About the series
Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.