Mary Ellen Durham: Teachers “give up a great deal of themselves so that others can succeed”

Mary Ellen Durham, a professor emerita of education at Campbell University, has received the N.C. Science Teachers Association’s highest honor, the Vi Hunsucker Award. A peer-nominated award, it goes to the most outstanding science educator in North Carolina and recognizes a life-time achievement in science education. The release about the award and her reaction to it can be found at Campbell.edu. Here, Durham talks with We Are Campbell about the teaching profession, her love for science, and what keeps her going.

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On how she ended up in science

I grew up in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. My brothers and I were raised at a place called Camp Cabarrus, a Boy Scout Camp. Yep, I grew up on a Boy Scout camp. My father, Hubert Powell, was the most incredible naturalist ever. My earliest memories are walking with my father, being outside and embracing and being surprised with the incredible beauty of the world.

On the encouragement of her parents

I was a child of the 1950s and 1960s. At that time women weren’t really encouraged to go into the sciences – except my parents encouraged me, particularly my mother, who convinced me I could do anything I wanted to do. I went to Greensboro College, and I was one of the few that studied biology. Upon my graduation, I started my career working lab tech jobs.

On how she ended up teaching science

It’s funny because my dad and mother would both say, “Maybe you should be a teacher. You’ll enjoy that.” And I’d say, “Nah, I’ll never be a teacher.” I got married, and we moved to Europe. While in Europe, I thought maybe I ought to go ahead and get my teaching credential. There might be some job opportunities with that. When we returned to the U.S., my husband was stationed at Fort Bragg. Pretty serendipitously, we visited a church in Fayetteville, St. Patrick’s Church. The principal of the church-related school turned around to me and said, “I’m so glad you’re here. This might interest you.” She handed me the church bulletin. On the back was a job announcement for a science teacher. It haunted me for a week. I applied for the position and from that point on, I have been a teacher.

On why she accepted the position

What really led me to teaching is that I love science so much. I was so fascinated with anything science — not just biology, but anything — and I was astounded by how little people knew about scientific phenomena. I wanted to share it with others.

On her philosophy of education

Everyone brings something to a learning situation, but most are reluctant to express what they know or think. Most people are reluctant to ask questions and share their thoughts. They feel like they are not supposed to have ideas or be awed by what they might be studying. As a teacher, if I can move learners past these assumptions; if I can create situations where intellectual exploration it is fun in an engaging environment where everybody can contribute, then students are empowered to open up their minds to all kinds of wonderful discoveries.

On why she moved into higher education

Dr. Clinton (Jake) Brown, who has served as an adjunct at Campbell and who has been a dear and wonderful friend of mine, told me maybe 20 years ago when I was a classroom teacher, “Mary Ellen, you want your students to enjoy and understand and engage in science. You want your students to have a good learning experience. Have you ever thought that maybe you’re going about it in too small of a way? What if you helped other teachers give kids a better science experience? Then you would be working exponentially.” It was the exact motivation I needed. With his encouragement I went back to school. What he did for me is basically what I hope to do when I work with college students — to help them finds way to use their talents to teach well and to improve the lives of the children they come in contact with.

On what it means to be a teacher

There’s this myth that floats around out there that anybody can teach, and there is this myth that teachers don’t work hard. Most educators are extremely smart people. They could do well in any career, but they choose to teach, not as a fallback, but because they are altruistic and they want to help others. They are very much like other individuals in service fields. They give up a great deal of themselves so that others can succeed.

On what keeps her going

I am a scientist, but I am also a deeply spiritual person; and every day I encounter something in this natural world of ours that totally fills me with awe. I appreciate the beauty and the complexity and the problems that emerge from my “world,” and it keeps me mentally engaged and excited. When you see something that is absolutely beautiful or you see something puzzling, you want to share it and you want someone else to understand it with you. Also, I enjoy engaging in enterprises where people are free to think and am challenged to motivate one another.

On working at Campbell

Working with the young men and women who have been both my graduate and undergraduate students at Campbell has been profoundly rewarding. There is something about these students. For the most part, they really want to be there taking classes. At the beginning of each course, I tell my students that we’re not going to take notes and we’re not going to be reading from books; instead we’re going to take information and wrestle with it, discuss it, and critique it. Then we’re going to determine what we need to do to find out more. At first they are resentful and try to be passive non-contributors. But it never fails; these students are resilient. They become willing to pick up the mental challenges and start talking, sharing, and analyzing the topics studied. And because they want to know more, I have had students willing to give up their own time to go up on a trip to see something, to go outside to muck around in the mud with me, to stay inside, and to spend hours looking at slides to see a single organism. They are willing to talk about the children with whom they are working with to try to find out how to meet their learning needs rather than just tell them a fact. Campbell has given me a setting to work with phenomenally bright and talented people, as well as the opportunity to truly engage in science and good instruction. 

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