Spheres of Influence

How fun is this?

Three years ago I moved into a position of instructional coach for my building.  The majority of my days are now spent as a content-generalist coach focused on helping teachers improve pedagogical skills.  Our opt-in model keeps the conversation focused on one thing:  pedagogy as opposed to content.  This is a very smart model for honing in on the “P” sphere of Mishra & Koehler’s TPACK framework.  However, perhaps even smarter is the fact that I am not completely removed from being behind the wheel of my own classroom.  Teaching my own class is a way to assure my attachment to at least most of the day to day experiences of our folks in “the trenches.”  My opinions on instructional practice and concrete strategies are only as good as my ability to pull them off in my own classroom.  I say this for perhaps a different reason that you might think.  The core of my role as a coach is to question, to advise, to consult, encourage, and inspire my colleagues toward better and better things.  It really isn’t about “me.”

TPACK framework diagram

That said, my ability to move down any strategic path toward best practices in instruction with a teacher is directly tied to both my familiarity and comfort level with that mode of learning.  Put simply:  you can’t talk the talk without walking the walk.  So during the day, I teach Principles of Biology during period three as well as Marine Biology.  Marine Biology is a special case across the board.  The program was created in 1999 and and includes night classes from 7 to 9pm on Mondays, a roster made up of students from our three local high schools, and a week-long field study on the coral reefs of the Bahamas each April.  Did I mention yet that my district respects and fosters solid innovation?  For that, my students and I are terribly lucky.

To my original point

Seriously.  Blogging is such a reflective act for me.  So often I start down a simple path and quickly realize there is far more under the hood to discuss.  So with that out of the way, allow me to introduce you to two of my newest colleagues:  Jennifer Toalson and Alex Paolillo.  Interestingly, between the two, they teach quite a range of subjects: General Biology, Environmental Science, Microbiology and Genetics.  More interestingly, they were (somewhat recently) Marine Biology students of mine.  Our department has a total of less than seven FTE’s.  Therefore, here are two-sevenths of my immediate world.  Jennifer was a member of the 2002 Marine Biology class and Alex was a 2004 member.

Alex & Jennifer discuss the finer points of pipetting.

Jennifer joined the Benton Science Department last year and was an immediate success.  As the oldest of seven, she is a natural at building relationships and getting the most out of younger folk.  Jennifer’s Dad is also a teacher of industrial arts at a high school across town.  Alex, who will begin his teaching career this fall, also comes equipped with a teacher’s pedigree.  Alex is actually the son of two teachers and his father was at one time the Director of Secondary Education in our city.  And yes…  in my prized image below, you’ll see Alex attempting to feed bread crumbs to seagulls from his bare chest in The Bahamas.  Tell me this isn’t going to be fun.

How many of you have been lucky enough to have two former students as direct departmental colleagues?  How fun is that?

I can’t tell you how excited this makes me.  Again….. I am now only a really a small part of the science department at my high school.  However, with a wife who is the Department Chair, it is even more exciting to see our immediate world become so infused with young, enthusiastic blood.  One thing I can say for sure about Alex and Jennifer:  they really want to make a difference in the lives of young people.  With that, anything they want to work hard for in this profession will come to them.  Not only do I remember their high school days as fun-filled, I now have spent time with them as colleagues.  The following pics will give you a glimpse of them in their (recently) younger days as Marine Biology students.  One might wonder if perhaps holding a sea urchin or encouraging sea gulls to feed from your belly makes one a likely candidate for biology educator in later years.  I am staring to believe so.  (funny now to see them so young again here in the next two images)

Jennifer in HS

I recently thought about doing a quick and dirty post that mentioned these two coming on board as biology teachers.  (as biology teachers, biology teachers in my hometown, and as biology teachers in my current school)  The day it hit me was a few weeks ago when Erin, Jennifer, Alex, and I spent the day at a biotechnology workshop in Kansas City…  (many thanks to Erin for organizing the day’s events.)  Overall, we had a great summer day of re-connecting to the past and teambuilding for the future.

Alex and the seagulls

In closing

Since Marine Biology began in 2000, some of my former students are undergrad marine biology students.  A few are even PhD candidates.  People frequently ask about those.  However, the demographic that isn’t often inquired about might just be those who have lived their entire lives in the center of the continent…  who love biology…  love the energy of youth…  but cannot find a better reason to move that far away from a strong family/friends network.  I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this as of late.

See what this does?  I start out with an idea to post a simple image from a recent workshop and I end up tacking it on to personal connections, people-to-people connections, coaching, and the TPACK framework.  When I began blogging a just over a year ago in April-  it was done as a “proof of concept” exercise.  That has blossomed into the mess you now see.  The bottom line is:  You cannot imagine the effect blogging will have on your future learning unless you are actually doing it.  This truly is a new genre of writing.  It is more than empowering for the everyman who embarks upon it.  Give it a try.  What are you waiting for?  And while you’re at it…  give my two new colleagues a shout out from the masses.  They will soon be getting an earful from yours truly about establishing their “digital footprint” and getting connected as a professional.  I am excited about being a leader in the “T” (in TPACK) revolution in the Saint Joseph School District.

Stay tuned…


*TPACK framework courtesy of Punya Mishra and Matt Koehler
*The rest…  me.

Sean Nash

Biology teacher in the great state of Kansas. Back at it in the classroom after a 30-year career in Missouri. Former District Curriculum Administrator, Instructional Technology Coordinator, and Instructional Coach. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at http://nashworld.me


  1. What a great opportunity to see the efforts of your work. Perhaps more important is the idea that these two teachers already understand the importance of good science and pedagogy in teaching. They have experienced inquiry and how technology can help in the learning process. Please make sure they join us on science social networks!

  2. Welcome to the newest additions to the Science Team at BHS! So good to have you back in SJSD–and this time to influence the lives of our students just like you were once influenced by Sean. 🙂 I can’t wait to see what transpires on the 3rd floor at BHS in 09-10!

    • @Christine Prussman, thanks much, and glad to count you among the newest members of the Benton faculty as well. Way to start making marks in the digital world!

  3. How cool is that to have former students return to work with you again! It truly says how much they enjoyed their high school science experience and I will definitely look for them on Twitter. Actually I am trying to get our brand new Chemistry on Twitter too or some other science social network. (Know of any good ones for Chem?) We’ll see if he takes the bait. Anyway – congratulations and good luck to both of them!

    And you have also reminded me that I need to do some work on my own blog!

    • @Debra Garcia, Chemistry… yeah, that’s a tough one. For some reason I find far fewer of our chem-loving pals online in comparison to us biology folk. I’m not really sure why that is, but it is interesting to think about. Actually- my assistant principal (who was at #NECC09 with me) is a former chemistry teacher. He is @lukemccoy on Twitter. Perhaps we’ll have to get some chemistry heads together to create a place online (similar to The Synapse for biology).

  4. Sean will do almost anything to get me to blog. Dangling two new teachers in front of me will do it every time. The 3rd floor of BHS will be a force not to be ignored for sure.
    Welcome to both Jennifer and Alex. My suggestion is that you find your instructional coach and hang on tight. I will guarantee that the ride will be fast and exciting.
    I am thrilled you are making SJSD your professional home!

    • @Cheri Patterson, 1) Glad you personalized this. I love it. 😉 2) Good point on the teacher focus. I bet that did make it irresistible for you. Regardless, by you joining the conversation here, we all win. 3) Thanks for the plug. Drumming up that type of business is good for us all. 4) I need to let you know how much I have bragged about your move from early-childhood into higher and higher leadership positions… and dragging a K-12 constructivist model of instruction with you. That type of longview will outlast you far beyond your blood and bones.

      Regardless of the state of top-down accountability, NCLB, state & national standards, etc… this is the way human being learn. Having this model in the back of our minds as we plan each step of the way makes us all constantly aware of the real reasons we spend so much time with young people. Thanks for that. And really… when I tell far-away folks (of the progressive type) of this approach, they are nearly always quite jealous of our situation.

      We are poised for great things in the SJSD. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and our renewed mission is still a relatively young one. Thanks for sticking to your guns on this one. A constructivist foundation puts all we do as learners in solid context.

  5. What a great welcome to BHS! It was a wonderful year watching Jennifer grow her own classroom last year, and I know she will vault into her own as this year offers so many more opportunities to be a part of a great learning team. Alex — it’s great to have you on board! I am really excited about the possibilities with you joining us at Benton. With children at our center, learning as our goal and all the tools of the trade in your hands — wow! I am excited about what we are going to be able to share with our students! Go Cardinals! And thanks Sean for the great welcome to two of our new science geeks! 🙂

    • @Jeanette Westfall, this sums it all up pretty well: “With children at our center, learning as our goal and all the tools of the trade in your hands…”

      We certainly are fast getting to the point where we can honestly say we are near to what you speak of. I’m always positive, but summer provides time to rebuild the fire required for such a mission. It’s going to be a memorable year in so many ways.

  6. Sean,
    It is pretty amazing to have your former students working with us next year. Working with Jennifer last year truly allowed me to feel like our department could start accomplishing things that would truly benefit our students. After our little workshop, I know it will be exciting to work with Alex next year as well.

    I look forward to the future when I could possibly start working with some of my past students..think it will ever happen?

    @Jeanette I deeply resent the term “science geeks” 😉

  7. Sean – Nice post! It’s nice to know that Alex and Jennifer, two of my former students as well, are under your influence, again, along with another former student (and relative) of mine, Christine Prussman. I, too, am fortunate to have 2 former students in the science department at LHS, Nathan Arnold and, new this year, Luke Davis. I anticipate some great biology collaboration this year!

    • @Jincy Trotter, That’s very cool…. I hadn’t thought about you having two. Good point. It was great to have Luke and Nicole join us last month at the biotech workshop. Fun times ahead……. 😉

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