Jennifer Lance has never had to stray too far from her rural Georgia roots to find personal, academic and professional success.
Lance, a high school science teacher who is seeking her doctorate degree in science education, grew up in rural Oglethorpe County. She was raised by parents from Washington in nearby Wilkes County, and studied at the University of Georgia in Athens, also just a short ride down the road.
“My dissertation will focus on science education in a rural classroom, and how rural secondary teachers teach students from a diverse population,” Lance said. “Very little research on diversity has been done about rural schools, although rural students compose about 50 percent of all students enrolled in Georgia schools.”
Lance’s research will be paid for by a $10,000 Berneta Minkwitz Scholarship funded by Delta Kappa Gamma Society International, a professional honor society for women educators. She was one of just 24 students across the nation to receive the scholarship, which she will use during the 2013-2014 academic year.
Lance believes her research is significant because most of the research on diversity has been conducted in urban settings.
“In rural Georgia, we have many of the same issues as urban schools, such as poverty and limited access to resources,” Lance said. “But rural teachers tend to live in the same community with their students, and teachers’ children go to the same schools. When your teacher is also your neighbor, it changes the dynamic of the classroom.”
When Lance was growing up, she didn’t plan to become a teacher, despite the fact that both of her parents and a brother are teachers. She also has aunts and uncles who have taught in Georgia public schools.
“I always said I was never going to be a teacher,” Lance said. “It was the family profession, so I knew all of the challenges. I initially said 'no thanks’ to that career.”
Lance earned two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Georgia with a double major in plant biology and horticulture, which led to a job as a technician at the university’s plant physiology lab. “But I knew I was going back for more schooling,” Lance said. “I didn’t want to do academic work as a researcher at the university so I decided to explore teaching.”
As she considered a future in education, Lance told herself, “Before I go to the classroom, I’d better find out if I can teach. A lot of times when we think of a career, we assume we can do it. But being a student can’t prepare you to teach. It’s a role you have to do to see if you have a passion for it, since passion is an important part of the job.”
A six-month job in environmental education with the University of Georgia College Cooperative Extension Service in 2003 helped Lance find her passion for teaching.
“You work with school groups that come to centers like UGA’s Rock Eagle 4-H Center in Eatonton to study science in an outdoor environment,” Lance said. “Students will stay two to three days to study lakes and streams, and to do hands-on activities to work on experiments with the basic ecosystems. It gives them real-world experience to find out what it means to be a scientist. I loved the experience.”
Lance completed her master’s degree in science education at the University of Georgia in May 2006, along with certification to teach biology in grades 6 through 12. For the past nine years, she’s been teaching full time at Washington-Wilkes Comprehensive High School in Wilkes County.
“The wonderful thing about science is that you can work in pure research fields, but also in applied and service industries as well,” Lance said. “Take health care, for example. Having a science background is critical in that field.”
Lance has learned many things from her students.
“Students have taught me that you can plan every day, but you never know what is going to happen,” Lance said. “You have to be constantly willing to adapt, because the level to which my students can go if they are challenged never ceases to amaze me. I challenge them and they challenge me. It’s mutual.”
She also believes that teachers can make a real difference in the lives of young people.
“It’s very evident that teachers are among the most influential people in our lives,” Lance said. “They push us to explore more, and that’s really what’s going to keep the teaching profession alive. A teacher should be that person who explains things to us, or presents a situation that challenges us to think about what we consider to be true, or encourages us to explore concepts in a unique, safe way. That’s what makes it an important and unique career.”
On Saturday, Lance is set to marry Al Yauck, a science teacher and coach at Oconee County High School in Watkinsville, where she also will work in the coming school year. She hopes to complete her doctorate degree by the end of 2014.
“I will continue teaching and I would like to explore teaching at smaller colleges and universities, or I might like to work at the county level in curriculum development,” Lance said. “But if someone told me I have to spend the next 30 years in a classroom, that would be fine as well. That’s what I enjoy most and what I consider to be the most important job.”