Biology teacher returns to teach at her alma mater after 16 years

September 10, 2018 — by Elaine Toh and Jeffrey Xu

When Jennifer Lee, an alumna from the Class of 2002, began her career as a teacher, her mother asked if she would ever be interested in returning to Saratoga High. Lee’s answer was a simple “no way.”

During her previous job at the Santa Clara Unified School District, Lee was a math and science teacher at Cabrillo Middle School (2007-2014) and the program director of the 49ers STEM Leadership Institute (2014-2018), a program in which selected students from across the Santa Clara district are placed in advanced math and science. She helped to oversee the progress of the program, supported staff and teachers, guided students and parents, and coordinated with partners and sponsors.

However, after 11 years with the district, Lee decided to return to her roots.

“I really loved that job, but I was kind of missing being with students every day,” Lee said. “So, when this opportunity came up at my old high school with teachers that were my teachers when I was a student, I couldn't pass it up.”

Lee said she is still getting acquainted with life back on her old high school campus, even as she is seeing many familiar faces: among them, biology teacher Lisa Cochrum, chemistry and physics teacher Jenny Garcia and world geography and economics teacher Todd Dwyer.

“They have really welcomed me by making me feel at home, answering questions I have as I settled into the campus and making it clear that they are excited to have me as a colleague now,” Lee said. “We've also had some good laughs over funny past stories and done some reminiscing as well.”

Sixteen years ago, Lee contemplated becoming a doctor and going to medical school, but by the end of her senior year at Stanford University as a Biology and Physiology major, she changed her mind: She knew she wanted to be an educator.  

So, she applied for a masters in education program and received her teaching credential right after college. Eventually she was in front of the classroom.

“I did not plan on becoming a teacher originally,” she said. “It was not something I thought I would be interested in or good at. I realized last minute that all of my passions — my hobbies and all my volunteer work — was actually related to education and mentoring people.”

In the meantime, her love of biology never changed. Since she was young, she has loved science: a quality that would lead her to pursue biology in college.

Lee said she took inspiration from her oldest cousin, who is 13 years her senior. She and her cousin would always go on hikes and read magazines together.

“He was around a lot when we were kids, and he used to really take me under his wing,” Lee said. “So, him as a role model was a big part of why I think I stuck with science the whole way through.”

Knowing that not all her students will become biology majors, Lee hopes that her class will help students to learn not only science, but also organization, communication and leadership.

This school year, special education teacher Brian Elliott is working alongside Lee in her classroom in order to facilitate the mainstreaming of students from the special education program into general education classes. Having spent hours in her classroom already, Elliott said that Lee is a “kid magnet.”

“She’s a real dynamic addition to our staff; she’s very smart and has a lot of experience in the STEM program,” Elliott said. “When she’s teaching, she brings in a lot of personal stories and makes the content really relatable to students.”

In this so-called team teaching environment, where there are two teachers in a classroom, Elliott said that while Lee is the content specialist, given her major in biology, he has been mainly focused on helping out students with multiple learning modalities, different abilities and just being a resource in general.

He said that Lee has been supportive and open to the team teaching environment and is also big on “the growth mindset: not just teaching content but also lifelong learning skills.”

Lee said she hopes that her past experience as a student at the school will help her relate more to her students.

“I know things have changed since I was a student, but I do know that students here care a lot about school,” Lee said. “And sometimes, that means a lot of pressure on themselves. I also know it's difficult for students to balance everything. And I’m hoping that as a teacher, I can support the students here that way.”

 

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