Growing up in the small town of Scotts, Michigan, Sarah Simmons was that person who “loved to learn” in school. She graduated from Climax-Scotts High School and enrolled at Albion College as a pre-med major but after taking her first chemistry class, she quickly discovered her new love for the subject.
“Chemistry opened up an entire world of creativity and excitement,” said Simmons. “I had great chemistry mentors at Albion, and they are the reason that I am teaching today.”
Simmons was selected as the recipient of the 2016-17 E. J. Shaheen Teaching Excellence Award. The announcement of the award was made by Glen Oaks President David Devier during the 49th Glen Oaks commencement ceremony on May 5. The award was initiated in 1984 with a generous donation from E. J. Shaheen, one of the original Glen Oaks board members, a college professor, lawyer and business owner, who placed a high value on education and spent much of his later life promoting high quality education.
Viewed by her peers as a person of great integrity, it is said that Simmons’ passion is to actively engage students in the learning process. She continuously looks for ways to bring chemistry to life for students, often using quirky analogies to help students better understand difficult material.
As an undergraduate student, Albion sent Simmons to Wales to do chemistry research through a National Science Foundation grant. There she researched ways to make pharmaceuticals in a more environmentally friendly way.
Following graduation from Albion in 2007 with a Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry, she enrolled in a master’s program in chemistry at the University of Michigan. “I was actually leaning toward continued research in pharmaceuticals,” said Simmons, “thinking that I would someday end up in research and development in the pharmaceutical industry.
Simmons had never seen herself as a teacher and she claimed at the time that she didn’t have the personality for teaching. But graduating with a focus in organic chemistry in 2009 and toward the beginning of the economic recession, her professors encouraged her to teach a General Chemistry freshmen class at Albion.
“They trusted me and knew my abilities,” said Simmons. “I took on the challenge and felt like I was a terrible teacher at first. I had to learn to connect with the students and break down the material into concepts that they could understand.”
This turned out to be a wonderful experience for Simmons after all, and that summer she took on two more adjunct faculty roles teaching Intro to Chemistry classes at both Jackson and Washtenaw Community Colleges.
During that summer, she began an active job search and applied at Glen Oaks. “I got the job in August and had to quickly put together the course materials before the start of the semester,” said Simmons. “The pressure was on – I was a 24-year old chemistry teacher replacing Wayne Moss, who had just retired after teaching chemistry at Glen Oaks for 42 years.”
“It was overwhelming at first,” said Simmons. “I relied on my mentor and friend, Jeff Hucko, biology professor, who had also just been hired by the college, but who had 11 years of teaching experience.”
Simmons appreciates the very nurturing and professional relationship of all of the Science department faculty. “Even today, we continue to challenge each other and help each other grow,” said Simmons. “They are all amazing people.”
Simmons is said to be uncompromising in her pursuit of helping students succeed. When asked about a “shining moment,” she says that taking on the challenge of developing the “Student Success” class was that moment. “This was an eye opening experience that helped me to see the students from a holistic view. Clearly, students’ lives—their life situations and their support systems help determine how they will do in their classes. It’s so important for them to believe in themselves.”
Simmons cares deeply for her students and says her favorite part of teaching today is seeing the moment when everything clicks for them.
For the future, Simmons continues to make her classes more engaging and more student centered by getting the students to make the connections with one another. “Not only do they challenge one another in chemistry, but also in their lives,” said Simmons. She recently “flipped” her classroom, which shifts instruction to a learner-center model in which class time explores topics in greater depth while online videos and other types of instructional content are delivered in a variety of formats outside the classroom.
Simmons looks forward to doing more research on student learning and the role fear plays. “Fear affects how students learn in the classroom,” says Simmons. “It’s critical for students to free themselves from these fears and discover how their emotions play into their success.”
Along with Tammy Russell, director of institutional research/effectiveness, and Tonya Howden, assistant dean of students, the trio presented on “Learning Outcomes Using the SMART Approach,” and they have recently been asked to present on this topic at Mid-Michigan College. More recently they presented at the Annual Higher Learning Commission Convention in Chicago on “Student Learning Outcomes in Student Services.” “The presentation was about capturing student learning in co-curricular areas,” said Simmons. “This is vital to understanding the student experience at the institution. In order for students to be successful, they must learn to navigate the college experience. If students are prepared academically, but do not understand financial aid, college policies and procedures, or how to ask for help, they will not be successful.”
Is education in Simmons’ future? Perhaps. She has considered going back to school to broaden her teaching – possibly in theology. Simmons is currently in the process of becoming a woman religious with the Congregation of St. Joseph in Kalamazoo. She is working with high school students to develop service projects within their communities. She recently led a group of high school students to host Healthfest, an event for children living in lower income levels in south Chicago.
Outside of the classroom, Simmons enjoys her nieces and nephews, taking walks in nature and she is an avid reader sometimes reading three to four books at a time.
Simmons is a member of the American Chemical Society and currently teaches Introduction to Chemistry, General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry at the college.