We are so excited to welcome Caitlin Ayers to Willow as our Middle School Science Teacher! Caitlin earned her BA in Early Childhood Education from the University of Coastal Carolina. She most recently served as the Director of STEM for upper elementary and middle school students at the Mosaic Freeschool. Previously, Caitlin served as a teacher and Grade Level Head at the Abu Dhabi Education Council in the United Arab Emirates. While many in our community know Caitlin well as a Willow parent, we wanted to take the opportunity to share a bit more about her teaching background, her approach to learning, and her exciting plans for the new school year.
What first drew you to Willow as both a parent and educator?
What first drew me to Willow were the sustainability goals that Willow lives and breathes. That stood out to me because it’s one of the most important things in the way I live my life. When I started looking into Willow beyond this, I discovered the emphasis on project-based learning and systems thinking, which is always something that I look for as a parent for my own kids and something I’m passionate about as a teacher. The joy of learning is evident at Willow, and the community is one of a kind. I just had this feeling about Willow; I knew my priority would be surrounding our family with this magic.
I’ll never forget our drive home from our tour; the place felt like a family. My husband looked at me with these glassy eyes, and he said, ‘You’re right. We just have to send our kids here. I’ve never been anywhere like this.’ It’s like going to this place that you can’t believe exists, and it exists in your community. Now, getting hired and working at Willow is even more dreamy because I get to spend my entire day here! When I am on campus, I feel like I am in our own special world away from the world, and each and every person in our school family is so wonderful I just feel joy and wonder abound.
Beyond your first impression, can you tell us a little bit about your family’s experience during your initial year at Willow and how that led you to join our teaching team?
My son, who started in kindergarten last year, was timid and shy. I always felt like the outside world was missing out on his beautiful personality that he only shared at home. Literally within a week at Willow, that all disappeared and his full character came out. Watching my son go from this shy, introverted kid to being a confident, outgoing, life-of-the-party personality was magical. He’ll be in first grade this year, and while my two girls are in high school and college so unfortunately too old to join, my youngest is starting preschool this year, and I’m so excited for him. Spoiler alert: he is going to build some pretty awesome forts. Willow brings out your child’s authentic character and allows each unique child to shine…it’s irreplicable.
Being a parent in the school for the past year, what I love the most about Willow is the community of families that are completely dedicated to their children and the community of teachers where everybody is supportive and positive. I’ve never actually seen a school where the administration and the teaching team work so cohesively together. It’s really special. The energy at Willow is contagious, and I just want my kids to catch all of the joy and wonder they can in the time they are blessed with at Willow. That’s been my year-long experience of Willow, just falling totally in love.
Now, I have to say, getting trained and working with the different faculty members, what stands out to me is that I know Willow prioritizes social-emotional learning; I understood that from a parent’s perspective. But seeing it behind-the-scenes now and seeing the evidence, it seems like everybody’s really figured out what to prioritize and how to support each other and help each other live the virtues of Willow. It’s not just something the school talks about. It’s everywhere, and it’s evident. Willow has exceeded my criteria for a place I want my children to learn and grow, and it’s a place where I know I will also learn and grow as a parent and as an educator.
Tell us a little bit more about your teaching background. What first drew you to teaching?
My dad was a science teacher, and I was always in his classroom. My whole life, it was like, ‘You’re going to be a teacher.’ Of course, like all kids, I resisted, but a semester into university, I realized…’Yeah, I’m going to be a teacher.’ [Laughs] I was doing an internship in a nursery school at the time, and I just loved every day of it. I have always loved children and watching them think, so I went into early childhood education.
I love to travel and immerse myself in different cultures. During university, I spent summers in Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, and Peru building after school English programs. So when I graduated, it was no surprise that I found myself taking a job across the world in Abu Dhabi as my first formal teaching position. I worked in a model classroom at a model school that was interested in using an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning, which in the UAE was totally unheard of at the time. Even the schools that were adapting educational approaches from the United States were modeling their programs after more rote teaching programs. But this school was ahead of the game. I was part of the curriculum team, helping to write the model curriculum and test it out. In the classroom, I started in kindergarten and looped up to second grade with my kinders, which was really special for us as a class. I was able to record data on their progress and model lessons for some really special visitors.
Your experience at Abu Dhabi Education included a lot of innovation in the classroom and testing out new teaching strategies. Can you share some of the things you learned through that experience that you plan to bring to Willow?
I’m still pinching myself that I’m now at Willow where I’m encouraged to implement innovative teaching and learning strategies again because that’s specifically what I loved in my role in Abu Dhabi. In the United States, there’s less opportunity for that because most public and private schools like to do things the way we’ve been doing things since the beginning of time, and they’re not modernizing quickly enough. Things I’m bringing over from my Abu Dhabi experience include active learning that starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios, student portfolios, student-centered learning, learning celebrations, an emphasis on group work, learning centers, flexible seating, long-term project-based learning, service projects linking to our community…all things that Willow does as well, so the overlap is really exciting! Some of the more innovative ways we would model our teaching at my specific school included having three teachers rotate groups around in a trilingual classroom and teach the same content in our native language. It really taught me a lot about cross curricular coordination. The middle school team here at Willow are already working closely with one another in such a cohesive way, I am really excited for all of the immersive learning opportunities our students will have this year with such a dynamic team.
When did you start teaching science and STEM, and what makes your approach to these subjects unique and engaging for the kids?
About two years ago, I started teaching at Mosaic Freeschool, which is a homeschooling educational program. I worked to build their makerspace and STEM program for upper elementary and middle school students, and that’s also when I branched over to those age groups. I quickly realized the impact I could make with this age group, inspiring wonder and curiosity by providing opportunities for my students to engage with material they might not otherwise have exposure to. To learn something new about themselves, what interests them, what makes that “spark” ignite. These special years–the middle school years–are a window of time where our students start constructing their own ideas, and this is where the magic happens.
If someone were eavesdropping on my classroom, they’d hear a student ask me a question and my answer would be, ‘Well, how can we find that information? What could we do? What do you think?’ I listen to what they say and scaffold and guide them through the process of seeking that information. I want my students to experience the world, reflect on those experiences, ask questions, and build their knowledge by finding the answers themselves, while equipping them with the tools they need to do this.
Can you share some of your exciting plans for science this year?
Keeping to Willow’s mission to provide a framework for students to explore, understand, and interpret their world. One of the things that is really important to me is stewardship and linking projects to our community, so we’ll be working on some sustainability projects that tie into our local watershed. Our watershed has a program called Trout in the Classroom. From October until April, students will raise trout from egg to little fingerlings, and then have a release celebration. Through the process of raising the trout, students are able to learn about the importance of conservation efforts and the importance of cold water for both trout and all living organisms, including humans. It integrates so many areas of science in the classroom, and it connects to and helps our local watershed. Within this, the students are engaged in the process of inquiry and problem solving.
Another watershed project that we’re going to work on is monitoring our stream on campus. Working with Ms. M and the fifth grade science class, we will be collecting water and testing it, reporting our findings to the local waterway to help them with their stream monitoring as well as acting in part with an international water monitoring challenge. Students will learn what nitrates are and how they get into the water, as well as learning how to collect and test samples and record and report data.
In addition to our trout class pets, we also have two rescued red-eared slider turtles that will be joining us after another science teacher has retired. As we take care of them, students have the opportunity to learn things like animal behaviors, food chains and food webs, pH, water pollution, needs of living things, biotic and abiotic factors in an ecosystem, genetics, and sustainability.
We have a big year ahead of us, and I have only just mentioned a few of our exciting projects! We are going to be thinking outside of the box, solving real world problems, experimenting and making. I am really excited for my students that will be studying chemistry this year because phenomenon learning is so fun to do with chemistry! All in all, this year, what middle school students can expect is to have a lot of joy and wonder in science, while working hard and having a fulfilling learning experience! To me, the point of middle school science is to inspire the students to love learning, to make them think, ‘Wow, I want to know how that works,’ or ‘I want to know why,’ ‘I have an idea, how do I build that?’ and to begin to work out ways we can test our theories. That’s what drives me to teach science.
As you said, you’ve taught early childhood before as well as middle school. What are you most excited about when it comes to working with middle schoolers this year?
Teaching middle schoolers for the last few years has been a delight because they’re hungry to know more about the world they live in. Their solutions to problems are always imaginative. I love this age because they are always saying something hysterical or coming up with wild ideas, which, in science, I’m really excited about because I’m the kind of teacher that leans into that. I want to help the students test their ideas, play with their theories, and see where it goes because the process is the learning.
I’m really excited to work with Willow middle schoolers, specifically, because I have met and observed them on campus, and they’re just so ingenuitive and confident and aware of themselves. The way they speak to adults, they’re not intimidated to say what’s on their mind, and I think that’s because of the environment they’re in at Willow. They’re comfortable, and they feel loved and safe and able to be themselves. They’re just starting to question how and why things work the way they work. I’m excited to get to know them and laugh with them and see what ideas they come up with. For example, in our first unit, we’re going to delve into scientific inquiry and the engineering process and how to write labs, and they’re going to invent their own science experiments. I can’t wait to see what happens!
Interested in learning more about Willow Middle School? See what makes our program unique and start a conversation with our enrollment team here. It’s not too late to join us for the 2023-24 school year!