Alumna Profile: Mallory Nickel ’12 teaches on the move

Mallory Nickel is always moving.

Nickel, who in early August launched into her second year teaching at Lee Early College High School in Sanford, down U.S. 15-501 just south of Chapel Hill, knows a thing or two about holding teenagers’ attentions.

One of them: You can’t sit still.

“Basically, all education research says that students like to nod off after five minutes no matter what you’re talking about,” Nickel said. “And I know that I can’t sit still for that long.”

So, Nickel doesn’t give long lectures. And, she makes her students get up and move around, even sometimes tossing bean-bag animals to each other as they shout out lessons learned.

Nickel, who was a North Carolina Teaching Fellow at Carolina, is a 2012 graduate of the UNC-BEST program, in which she majored in environmental geology while also taking education courses needed to secure a teaching license. She taught at a Chapel Hill middle school as a long-term substitute teacher for a year before taking the job in Sanford.

Nickel teaches four different courses at Lee Early College High School in Sanford, North Carolina. They are mainly 9th grade classes, including earth and environmental science and a community college-level geology class. In addition, she teaches classes in study and life skills.

Making fun out of ‘organized chaos’

Barbara Chapman (Ph.D. ’81), who works as an instructional coach with early college programs, has observed Nickel running her classes.

Chapman said that while recently watching Nickel teach she became so enthralled that she forgot to take notes.

“She brings so much energy and enthusiasm to what she does,” Chapman said, “She does an amazing job at engaging her students.

“She’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of teacher,” Chapman said.

Working to keep students engaged, Nickel seeks to make learning fun. In her science classes, she has labs she describes as “organized chaos,” in which students learn about topics such as erosion using paint trays full of dirt and water.

Nickel says she has found an advantage from teaching in a small school. Because she teaches several courses to approximately 50 students, she can seek out and help her students explore the connections between various topics and activities.

To help her students stay on track, she maintains online blogs for her classes, where she posts assignments and links to information to review ahead of class. The blogs include instructional videos and embedded Google maps for the students to “tour” different places around the world at different times.

And, because she’s working in a small school, Nickel gets involved with her students outside of class.

She serves as the advisory professional learning community leader for the freshman class and as the site coordinator for the AVID — Advancement Via Individual Determination – program. She also teaches yoga after school, pushing desks out of the way and rolling out yoga mats in the middle of her classroom.

She describes all the work as “intense” but that it give her opportunities to grow. “For me, I learn the most when I jump into things and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to jump into things here.”

The payoffs sometimes come in small, but meaningful, ways.

“It can be really exhausting,” she said, “But every single day there are a billion little awesome moments.”

She described one of those awesome moments.

Nickel said one of her students used to come into the classroom angry every day. He disliked the math program he was in and was having trouble understanding his lessons. Nickel worked with him each day until one day he came into her classroom, excited to tell her he made a perfect score on his math test.

“Seeing his smile was the best thing ever.”

The BEST path for Nickel

Like many students, Nickel was at first undecided about her career path during her years as an undergraduate. She loved science, but she loved to teach as well. Graduating with a bachelor of science in environmental geology and a teaching license in hand, Nickel got the best of both worlds, and the UNC-BEST program gave it to her.

Nickel started at Carolina with the intention of teaching middle school. Then, she took a geology class and everything changed. She loved it.

The UNC-BEST program allows students like Nickel to get a bachelor of science in a math or science program as well as teaching certification.

“The whole goal of UNC-BEST is to get highly qualified math and science teachers into the classroom,” Nickel said.

And sure enough, just two years later, she is in the classroom and able to share her real science experience with her students.

In addition to learning all she could about geology, Nickel said her education classes gave her useful tools that helped her a lot in the classroom. She learned how to create lesson plans and organize the classroom. She was able to throw herself into being a science major and at the same time pursue her passion for teaching.

“I loved that I had options,” she said.

Story courtesy of Michael Hobbs, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education