Elizabeth A. Finkel
Excellence in Teaching
Associate Professor of Education
College of Liberal Arts
Right: Liza Finkel on the rocky coast of Maine.
"My measure of a person who knows a lot about a specific area is someone who can ask a lot of thoughtful, probing questions."
During a summer stint as a graduate teaching assistant in Wyoming, Liza Finkel's interest as an educator surfaced while she was perched next to rocky outcroppings, listening to her students enthusiastically describe their discoveries. That's when Finkel began to change her career from geologist to teacher.
When an opportunity to teach earth and physical sciences to eighth and ninth graders at a small, private school in Finkel's hometown of St. Louis, Mo., emerged, she took it. While teaching middle school, Finkel met Scott Fletcher, a colleague, who later became her husband. She also participated in a mentoring program for new teachers that re–energized her desire to pursue a Ph.D., but this time her focus was science education.
Finkel describes her experience in the doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison as her “best educational experience.”
“Part of it was my readiness to be there,” she says. “I knew what my questions were and what I was interested in.” In just three years, she earned her Ph.D. and was offered and accepted a position as an assistant professor of science education at the University of Michigan.
Soon after, her husband accepted a position at the University of New Hampshire. The move east led to Finkel's teaching position at Noble High School in North Berwick, Maine, and, three years later, to a faculty position at the University's Department of Education.
Finkel's teaching experience spans a wide range of ages and interests, from middle and high school science students, to undergraduate and graduate education students, to experienced teachers looking for professional development. She is what one colleague calls a “teacher's teacher.”
In her course, Educational Structure and Change, a requirement for master's degree students in the Teacher Education Program, Finkel writes the syllabus for the first half of the semester. Then, she and her students jointly write the syllabus for the second half. Says Finkel, “It shows I value their ability to make good decisions about what they should be learning and models a democratic community of inquiry.”
She encourages her students to write questions about the topics discussed in almost every class. Her intent is to build a lifelong habit of questioning, as opposed to answering. Says Finkel, “My measure of a person who knows a lot about a specific area is someone who can ask a lot of thoughtful, probing questions.”
To represent their yearlong experience in a public school, Finkel's interns each create a portfolio that includes a collection of artifacts. One year, interns presented Finkel and a cosupervisor with mirrors as symbols of the act of reflection. Finkel notes, “I carry that mirror to remind me of those interns and that I should reflect, too.”
Finkel is also concerned about the ways that schools can become places in which teachers and students work together to create a more just society. “If we want to work for social justice, what better place to do that than in public schools?” she asks.
Of course, one area of interest for Finkel continues to be science education. She acknowledges the research showing that girls need an environment that supports their interest in science. And, she is an advocate for science teaching that is more cooperative than competitive and more oriented toward inquiry that engages authentic problems or issues. “Young kids love science, girls, boys–it doesn't matter,” says Finkel. “They are interested in the world around them. How things happen, why they happen–they don't know it's called 'science.'”
Helping students understand the world around them requires putting lessons into context. “I'm a geologist and I know a lot about earth science,” says Finkel. “As a teacher, I help my students clarify what they're interested in and then relate it to the content of the lesson.”
Finkel's gift as an educator is that she can teach others to understand their role in making these connections.