The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System, announced that Taylor Whisenant has won the 2020 Alumni of Achievement Award for the College of Education. The selection was made by the Board of Directors of The UAH Alumni Association to recognize alumni for their outstanding accomplishments in their career and community.
Whisenant earned her BA degree in education at UAH, majoring in elementary education with a minor in collaborative special education experience. She went on to earn her Master of Education degree with an emphasis on differentiated instruction and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). She has been a science, collaborative and robotics teacher at Arab junior high school where she taught earth and space science courses to sixth-grade students. She currently works with third grade students at Lynn Fanning Elementary School where she teaches math, science and social studies.
It has been an interesting educational journey for this young educator right from the very beginning. She approached each new crossroads in her path with logic and optimism.
“I originally planned to go into engineering,” Whisenant says. “That is how I ended up at UAH. I spent my first four semesters majoring in civil engineering before discovering my ‘call’ to teach. Many teachers say they experience this. Basically, I had a moment of feeling like teaching is what I am meant to do and felt that it would be a really meaningful and rewarding career. I did some research into the teacher education program at UAH and changed my major. The rest is history!”
Whisenant displayed the same deliberation when considering what to focus on in her academic career. One intriguing choice was “collaborative special education experience.”
“The teacher education program at UAH was set up to have Elementary Education majors choose a minor: collaborative special education or English Language Learners. The special education minor allowed me to get an additional teaching certificate. I chose this option because I had a special interest in teaching students with special needs, and I felt like this would make me more marketable when searching for a teaching job. I did extra coursework and field experience specifically in special education, and this minor really set me up to be a successful special education teacher during my first four years of teaching.”
Whisenant’s MS focused on differentiated instruction, a mode of teaching that addresses nuturing the differences in the ways a diverse classroom community learns.
“Differentiated instruction is all about planning instruction around student readiness, ability and interests,” she says. “Students are so vastly different, and effectively teaching them means using information about all of those differences to make instructional decisions. Looking at student readiness forces teachers to consider students’ educational backgrounds and home factors that may impact learning. Considering student ability gives teacher’s information about the pace at which students can learn. Student interests give teachers information about what may be engaging or motivating for them. All of this information together gives teachers ‘profiles’ of their students, and this information should influence how teachers group students, pace instruction, present information and assess learning. This really is the way to effectively meet the needs of all students and help them all be successful in their learning.”
Choosing to teach children with ASDs brings with it its own set of challenges and rewards. But deciding to go down this academic path proved to be another logical goal.
“I chose the Autism Spectrum Disorders track for a couple of reasons,” Whisenant explains. “First, I already had a background in special education. Second, in my work with FIRST robotics programs, I noticed students with autism spectrum disorders tend to be drawn to our programs. I wanted to learn more about how to support these students in my classroom and across the state in my volunteer work. Some key differences are additional structure, visuals and hands-on learning. These are all helpful practices in the classroom anyway, but consistently implementing these with students with ASDs will make a huge difference in their learning.”
Over time Whisenant has discovered a natural passion for teaching science as well.
“Two years ago, I switched over to teaching sixth grade earth and space science. I am a huge space nerd!” she says. “I have always had a passion for learning about space and the American space program. After my first year of teaching, I was selected by my school district to attend the U.S. Space and Rocket Center’s Space Academy for Educators. Basically Space Camp for teachers! I got to do a lot of the Space Camp activities that students would normally do, and I was able to participate in professional development sessions that included lessons I could bring back to my classroom.”
Middle school has a reputation as being the most difficult for students and their teachers. Whisenant takes a positive approach to engaging this special age group.
“Middle school is such a big adjustment when it comes to changing classes and having more teachers, but students are also gaining more independence and responsibility. They are forming new relationships and connections with other students, and they get to participate more in school-sponsored sports and clubs. Teaching middle school is definitely challenging, helping them navigate through all these changes as they are shifting into adolescence. It also is so rewarding! Getting to be a part of this significant shift in their lives is really amazing.”
One particular passion she loves to share with her students is in teaching Lego and Tetrix robotics where Whisenant has established an admirable record of success and giving back.
“I often tell people that I teach during the week and then my (unpaid) job on the weekends is robotics,” she says. “In high school, I was a member of a For Inspiration and Recognition of Science Technology (FIRST) Robotics Competition (FRC) team in Athens, Alabama. I fell in love with FIRST, a nonprofit organization created by inventor Dean Kamen. One of my team mentors was the FIRST Lego League (FLL) Partner for Alabama. I volunteered at her events for several years, and in 2014 my husband and I took over FLL for Alabama. We run all official FLL competitions in the state and promote team growth and sustainability. We love FIRST and stay involved with the other programs by mentoring other local teams.”
And lastly, what has it been like as a teacher carrying on all this vitally essential work in the midst of a pandemic?
“My last day teaching in Arab was March 12,” Whisenant says. “March 13 is when everything sort of blew up and the quarantine began. I was supposed to start at Lynn Fanning Elementary on March 16! I never got to start in the building, set up a classroom, meet coworkers or meet students. It was a really strange transition. I worked as a special education teacher online for the remaining nine weeks of that school year, then I was moved to a third grade position that opened up. I am teaching third grade math, science and social studies this year. I taught my students online for the first few weeks of school, and they have been back in the building for the last couple of weeks. Teaching new subjects, in a new grade level, in a new school, in a new district, during a pandemic is definitely challenging! I am incredibly lucky to have supportive administrators and an amazing grade level team to help navigate through all of this.”