Emily WheelesPublished 6:58pm Friday, April 1, 2011
High-energy Alexander City science teacher sees her job as her ‘calling’
Emily Wheeles graduated from Benjamin Russell High School in 1992. Five years later, she returned to BRHS to teach and says she hasn’t looked back since.
“I’m a hometown girl,” said Wheeles, who teaches 12th grade AP biology, human anatomy and physiology and an ACT science preparation course. “I knew I never wanted to teach anywhere else. I always felt the desire to come back home. I had such good teachers when I was a student here and I wanted to be a part of that master-level team. My own positive high school experience was one of the main reasons for coming back.”
Wheeles has a simple philosophy when it comes to teaching her students – she believes that doing is learning.
“That’s my mantra,” Wheeles said. “And the content has to be interesting and relevant to students. Since I’m the anatomy teacher, I’ve done much research on learning styles and am fluent in brain activity – teenage brain activity. Most people under the age of 25 are right-brain dominant, which is the side that controls creativity, movement and idealistic thought.
“But the adult brain runs primarily on the left hemisphere, so unfortunately, people often try to teach teenagers on the left side of the brain, and that’s the linear, organized side – or what my students call the ‘boring’ side – of the brain.”
To trigger that right side, Wheeles said she tries to introduce each day’s lesson with some sort of thought-provoking demonstration or creative outlet.
For example, when beginning a unit on the integumentary system, she has students put fortune fish – little fish made out of red cellophane paper – in their hands to observe their behavior.
“I don’t tell them anything, I just instruct them to hold a fish and watch it,” she said. “Eventually, it starts to move, so I have them brainstorm what may be causing this movement and why it may be happening. They’ll start giving me ideas like, ‘Well it’s the sweat in my hand,’ or ‘It’s the heat of my hand.’”
In addition, to conclude her lesson that same day, Wheeles has her students wrap their entire bodies from head to toe in newspaper.
“They cut the suit off, lay it on the floor, and measure it so they can visualize the estimated surface area of their own skin,” Wheeles said.
Wheeles works closely with Auburn University’s Science in Motion program and is the lead state biology teacher on the Global Climate Change Education Committee, which allows her to bring into her classroom high-tech equipment that is shared with other schools in the region.
“I use this program primarily to introduce my seniors to the world of the college laboratory so they can get a feel for what they will be expected to do after they leave the high school level,” she said.
Wheeles said the support of the community, parents and administration is what sets Alexander City Schools apart.
“My administrators encourage me to step outside the box and implement a wide variety of learning strategies. They also provide me with the tools to implement the latest technology,” she said. “My anatomy students utilize Apple iPad activities like PocketBody, an interactive, simulated human dissection lab.”
Wheeles received her bachelor’s degree in biology from Faulkner University and her master’s degree in biology from Auburn University at Montgomery. She received National Board Certification in adolescence and young adulthood science with a biology focus core in 2009.
Wheeles’ hobbies outside of the classroom include photography, reading, organizing, cooking and spending time with her husband, Shane. And, she said she’s always there to support her students both inside and outside of school.
“I love going to my students’ athletic events and even trivia night at Niffer’s on the lake with them sometimes,” she said. “I love seeing them dressed up at the prom and cheering with them at the homecoming football game and just going through those special high school moments with them. It makes me feel lucky to be sharing such an important time in their lives.”
Wheeles said she has had several of her former students tell her they decided to pursue degrees in medicine or other biological sciences because she instilled the love of science into them. And that, she said, is one of her greatest achievements.
“I have one of the best jobs in the world because I don’t feel like I’m going to work each day – I get to hang out with these kids and play a tangible role in shaping their future. It’s just a bonus that I get paid to do that,” Wheeles said. “Not many people can say that about their job. I honestly don’t feel like I’ve worked in 15 years. I am truly blessed because I get to touch the future and that to me is the most important part of teaching. It’s not about money. It’s not about status. It’s not anything other than these relationships that I foster and cherish.”
Alexander City Schools
The award-winning Alexander City public school system is a community-building system where all students go to class together in the same building – so all students end up knowing every person their age in town. The school (and town) mascot is “The Wildcats,” though they’re called “Baby Cats” at Jim Pearson Elementary. Alexander City Schools have the mission of providing a learning environment where all excel – students, faculty, parents and community. The school system is well supported by the community and there are no competing private schools in the area.
Lou Ann Wagoner Superintendent
357 Lee Street
Alexander City, AL 35010
District Accreditation, by Southern Association of Schools
and Colleges, 2005 & 2010, annually recognized as a Quality District.
National Civic Star Award, from the American Association of School Administrators, given in 2007 in recognition of the Gateway to Education program that pays for all Benjamin Russell High School graduates have a free two-year tuition at Central Alabama Community College. Currently 90 BRHS grads are enrolled at CACC.
Stephens, Radney and Benjamin Russell schools were named CLAS Banner Schools by the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools.
The Alexander City School System was the first system in the state with all schools designed as demonstration sites for the nationally recognized Alabama Reading Initiative.
Over $1 million raised
The Alexander City Schools Education Foundation has raised over $1 million to provide all core academic classrooms with computers and high tech teaching aids. Presently 158 classrooms are involved. All physics and calculus classrooms at BRHS are provided with individual PCs. Core classrooms at Jim Pearson have Promethean Boards.
Jim Pearson Elementary
Pam Langford Principal
Total Students 759
Kim Smith Principal
Total Students 532
Dr. Beverly Price Principal
Total Students 522
Alexander City Middle School
Tracy McGhee Principal
Total Students 516
Benjamin Russell High School
225 Heard Boulevard
Jose Reyes, Jr. Principal
Total students 1,066