Rhea May, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, is in her seventh year of teaching elementary school science at SA Bed-Stuy 1. Under her tutelage, Bed-Stuy 1 fourth-grade scholars are some of the top performing in the state in science, with 100% passing the science state test at the highest level. We spent a day with her to find out what it’s really like teaching science at Success Academy, how she manages work-life balance, and why she’s never “counting down the hours until the end of the day”!
I like to come in at 7:15 a.m. to set up for the day. I purposely live a 15-minute walk away, so I wake up at about 6:15 a.m., eat breakfast, walk my dog, and get here with time to spare. My mornings are much more intentional and relaxed than they were in my first year. I majored in evolutionary anthropology — what I call “science light” — so I was doing a lot of reading and YouTube watching to deepen my science knowledge, and I used to review my lesson plans over and over to make sure I was prepared. Now, I spend my time thinking about how I’m going to tweak the lesson based on my kids’ needs.
The middle school is upstairs, so sometimes in the morning my old students stop by to say “hi” and let me know how they’re doing science-wise. Christian was in my class for five years! They tackle very rigorous science in middle school — high school and even college-level — so it’s fun to see how into it they still are.That is my goal as an elementary school science teacher: to help them develop a deep love for the subject so that they stick with it even when it gets hard.
Before my kindergarten class arrives, I check the slides for the lesson. We’ve been doing a unit about forces in motion and they’re building their own Rube Goldberg machines. Today, they’re going to figure out how to use a ball and a ramp to move an object in a way that rings a bell — they have to decide if they want to use a gradual ramp or a steep ramp.
I always go outside to greet my class and get them pumped for the lesson. They are so excited to work on the machines! I love the way we teach science here. Learning through experiments and inquiry taps into their natural curiosity and you can see their excitement and passion. That, and having the resources to teach science right, has made me want to stick with it.
It’s been fun but challenging to figure out how to break this process down for five-year-olds — it’s usually something kids do in middle school. Yesterday we gave them a tube and a bell and asked them to figure out how to ring the bell without touching it. Instead of rolling the tube like I envisioned, they were just wacking the bell with the tube. So I had to bring them back to the rug and say, “Yay! You rang the bell without touching it! But…let’s think about this. Can there be a person in the middle of your machines?” And they realized, “No, there can’t.” So we’re working backward one step at a time.
This is the only job I’ve had where I don’t feel like I’m counting down the hours until the end of the day. I was a consultant at a non-profit after graduating from Penn and I just hated sitting behind a desk — I felt so apathetic and depressed. When I was thinking of what to do next, I realized that my whole life I had kind of been trying to be a teacher — forcing my sister to play school for example. So I decided I was going to give teaching a shot — and I haven’t looked back!
Most of the kids make their machines work — they are literally jumping for joy when they get the bells to ring! I ask Javon to be the “teacher” and lead the discussion about what we had observed (with a little guidance from me). The first thing he asks his classmates is to shout out people who were great teammates. In kindergarten, learning how to collaborate and work together is just as important as learning the content.
Today is my mid-year review, so during my break, I meet with my assistant principal who is my direct manager. We talk about my strengths and areas of growth. My two highest areas were sky-high levels of engagement and flexible thinking, and my biggest growth area is using questioning that allows students to grapple deeply with the content and engage in productive struggle. Getting concrete feedback is really nice — I agree with all of it. I am pretty good at facilitating discussion, but I need to be more hands off and trust that my kids will figure it out without redirecting!
It’s pretty amazing how much professional development we get here — you never stop growing as a teacher. My AP has been great about having us do regular videos and giving us feedback. We have centralized training from the network — on unit launches for example — but there’s also a lot of informal teacher-to-teacher training that’s incredibly valuable. Your colleagues know the kids you’re working with, they know their quirks, so they have that really practical knowledge.
During my break, I do some prepping and planning with the science team. We study the content we will be teaching and think through strategies for engaging the kids in strong discourse. Our department works really well together — over my time here I’ve learned so much from veteran science teachers on my team, and I try to play that same mentor role for new teachers. We’re also very efficient — we plan everything two weeks in advance on Google sheet and list all prep materials for each day, then we divvy up responsibilities to lighten our workload.
Besides the kids, the best thing about working here are my colleagues. We have a staff full of people who all share this passion for educating kids and we become incredibly close. My closest friends — most of the people coming to my wedding — I met here. I even met my fiancé through Bed-Stuy 1. He used to bartend at the bar we always go to for happy hours on Fridays!
In the afternoon, I teach fourth-grade science. They’ve been studying the movement of the earth, sun, and moon and how they interrelate to create the seasons, tides, eclipses, etc. Today’s the last day of the unit so it’s more of a celebratory “fun day.” They are carving out the moon phases using Oreos and popsicle sticks, which is the reward for accumulating points for strong teamwork.
Most of the incentives we give the kids in science are about collaborating effectively, which is so vital in science — and in life of course. The teams that accumulate the most points over the unit get to research a planet of their choice on a Chromebook tomorrow. Fourth graders are obsessed with Chromebooks!
I was talking with Elias about the moon, and then he asks me if I know what a Tamagotchi is — it’s a handheld digital pet. He tells me all about his and wonders if he can bring it to school. Classes like this one — end-of-unit celebrations that are more open — are a great time to make these little connections with my students.
At the end of the day I clean up and check in with my co-teacher to prep anything we need for the next day. She’s been here since the school was founded and is such an amazing friend and colleague. She helped me so much in my first year. It really enriches my work experience to have such a close friend as a co-teacher.
Sometimes I take a yoga class that is held here after school. Otherwise, I leave at around 4:00 p.m. and go home to walk my dog. Usually I have an hour or two of work at home — each year I get better at work-life management and every year I have less and less work when I leave school. I have a pretty great work-life balance at this point!