My name is Toby McDonald Chou and this is my 21st year teaching middle school science at The Waverly School. Teaching science is my passion! I want to help students learn how science is a process that allows us to understand the universe, how to use evidence and data to make good decisions, and be informed and active citizens.
I’ll never forget the first time I walked into the Waverly School in April of 2002. At the time I was working for Teachers on Reserve, which is an agency that places substitute teachers in Los Angeles area independent schools. That day, I walked in and met Heidi the Head of School, who directed me to the first and second grade classroom next to her office. I met the lead teacher, Lisa Ann, who introduced me to her class, the Leafseekers. The children were warm and welcoming and completely charming. That first day, we did circle time, read books, practiced spelling; the children wrote stories using invented spelling when they didn’t know how to spell a word. We ate lunch outside and played in the yard. Since I had recently moved back to the States from Japan, I taught the Leafseekers some basic Japanese greetings and a short song called “Kaeru No Uta.” I hoped I would be back. Fortunately, Lisa Ann felt the same about me and I was invited to work as her assistant for the remainder of the school year. By the next Friday All School Meeting, the Leafseekers were singing “Kaeru No Uta” in a round, supremely confident doing so.
Back then, the middle and elementary school shared the current elementary campus. I had the opportunity to meet children from ages four to fourteen and get to know their teachers as well. I noticed that Waverly students had a true enthusiasm for learning and an excitement to come to school. I heard music coming from most classrooms at some point during the day. I watched the assistant teachers interact with the children on the playground and witnessed a deep and abiding respect. Teachers always acknowledged the feelings of children and taught them how to navigate their world while showing respect and love for others and the community.
At that time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make teaching my career. I had been teaching English as a foreign language and American culture for the previous four years in the Japanese public schools through the JET Programme. Although I loved being in the classroom, I wanted to use my degree in environmental studies as an advocate for the environment. Just before coming to Waverly, I had interviewed for a job at Southern California Edison in the environmental affairs department and I wanted the job badly. After a multi-round interview process, the woman who had interviewed me at SCE called to tell me that she really wanted to hire me, but was forced to fill the position in-house. When Heidi let me know that she had a position teaching math and science in the middle school the following fall, I was free to pursue it. Within days of signing a contract to teach at Waverly, SCE called back and offered me the position I had desperately wanted. I let them know I wasn’t available anymore, but asked if maybe I could work during the summer on a contract basis. So I did. My dream job turned out not to be such a dream… more like a cubicle nightmare. Although I was earning significantly more that I earned as a teacher, I hated it! At that point, I knew teaching would be my career, and as it turns out, I did find my dream job–here at Waverly.
That fall, I began teaching in the middle school and the first week of school, we took a class trip to Catalina Island, which was a perfect way to get to know my students. My first few years in the middle school where exhilarating, enlightening, and exhausting. I learned so much about becoming an effective teacher from my colleagues Robin and James, and Heidi’s feedback that first year was invaluable. At that time, I had inherited a terrible set of middle school science text books that did not include any materials or instructions for how to do labs or hands-on activities. I asked other science teachers what they were doing, I researched online. I attended conferences and went to workshops focused on middle school science. I had also been reading the works of Dewey and Piaget and thinking about how to apply their philosophies to older children. Eventually, I found a curriculum that I believed fit Waverly’s philosophy perfectly. I was very nervous when I approached Heidi about purchasing the curriculum for the middle school because it was very expensive. Not only was Heidi supportive of adopting the curriculum, she has encouraged me to attend professional development that has allowed me to implement the curriculum more effectively.
This is just one reason why working at Waverly has been my dream job. There are many other reasons. Waverly students are kind, polite, caring, respectful, and eager to learn. Even after they leave the middle school, we can maintain a relationship, since most of them move on to our high school next door. Waverly parents are supportive, generous, and so positive. They chaperone field trips and dances, organize incredible events like the Winter Gift Faire and Silent Auction, and have really transformed the farm over the two decades. Furthermore, Heidi and the administration have given me tremendous support as I have become a parent and require more flexibility in my schedule. My colleagues are incredible educators and teach their students so much more than their particular subjects. As a teacher, I can’t imagine being a part of a more caring and respectful community. In the intervening years, a handful of those Leafseekers have grown up and graduated from the high school at Waverly. When they passed through seventh and eighth, their personalities were much as they were in first and second grade, but their intellectual and emotional growth during those two years was incredible to watch. I feel the same about every group of students I’ve taught in the middle school, which is why I particularly love teaching this age group. Now, some of those Leafseekers are young men and women who have graduated from college, pursuing graduate studies or careers, getting married, and starting their own families. I feel so very proud of them and proud of Waverly. Just as my students have matured and grown into young adults, Waverly has grown as an institution in innumerable ways. I am so excited and honored to be teaching here another year.