AACT Member Spotlight: Michael Farabaugh
By AACT on June 1, 2019
Every month AACT will spotlight a passionate member who is dedicated to enhancing chemistry inside and outside the classroom. This month we spotlight Michael Farabaugh, Chemistry and AP Chemistry teacher at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Why did you become a teacher? Did you always want to teach?
I enjoyed high school, I liked my teachers, and I usually made good grades. Unfortunately, I was one of those students who never really learned how to study. In college, I got my wake-up call. During my first semester at the College of William and Mary, I made the transition from a high school valedictorian to a student who struggled to make C’s. That humbling experience was the motivation I needed to get my act together. It took me a while to figure out how to take notes and get organized. Today I tell my students that I majored in chemistry because I liked the subject…not because I was especially good at it. I did get better with practice and had some great chemistry professors in college. I decided to study chemistry in graduate school because I thought that I might want to be a professor. I attended Purdue University and Michigan State University. Eventually I realized that teaching chemistry was much more enjoyable for me than doing research in a lab.
Teachers who are very knowledgeable in their subject area have a tendency to think, “What’s wrong with my students? This is so easy!” I believe that my academic challenges have been an important part of my development as a teacher. I have empathy for my students, no matter what sort of skills they bring to my classroom. If I see an intelligent student who gets bored easily, I can relate to that. If I see a student who is intimidated by chemistry, I can also relate to that. I tell my students that even though they might think of me as the expert, I understand what it’s like to struggle with difficult chemistry concepts. I’m happy to provide challenges for my top students, explain things in different ways for other students, use analogies to make it clearer, and model problem-solving strategies. It makes me happy when students finally arrive at that “aha!” moment.
Share a story from your past that led to your choosing your field of work.
In high school, my main extra-curricular activity was drama/theater. In college, I was actively involved in a modern dance group, in which I was both a dancer and a choreographer. So I am comfortable being on stage. As a graduate student at Michigan State, I got involved with Science Theater, a student-run science outreach organization that visits schools and performs interactive science demonstration shows. Something really “clicked” for me when I was performing chemistry demonstrations for K-12 students. I knew that I had found my passion, and decided to become a high school chemistry teacher. Even though I enjoy showing my students examples of why chemistry is so cool, I don’t think of myself as an entertainer. I strive to create lessons that are both engaging and educational. In my classroom, students spend a lot of time in small groups, discussing chemical concepts and working together to solve challenging problems.
Some people say that it’s better for the teacher to be the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage.” Since I am very comfortable in both of these roles, I tend to switch back and forth all the time. Some of my favorite classroom activities include chemistry demonstrations, dynamic lecturing, cooperative learning, and bad science puns.
Do you have a science demo that students find particularly compelling? What makes it so interesting for them?
It’s hard for me to pick just one.
“Stop and Go Gases” is a demo that I developed in my first few years of teaching. It is a simple experiment that is used to show examples of chemical reactions and the properties of CO2 and O2. Students enjoy the “back and forth” part of the demo, especially when the glowing splint re-ignites in oxygen.
What is your approach to build a meaningful relationship with your students and their parents?
In August 2018, I wrote an article for Chemical Education Xchange on building relationships. That article summarizes my thoughts on this topic and how to build relationships starting from day one. If I have established a positive classroom climate, my students are more likely to do the work required to be successful in my class.
What are you most proud of in your work?
I have been an AP Chemistry Reader since 2011, and an outside item writer for the AP Chemistry Exam since 2014. For the past few years I have served as a mentor for other AP Chemistry teachers through my work with a Facebook group. This diverse group includes both new and experienced teachers. We have good conversations about a variety of topics related to the AP Chemistry course and exam. Many helpful ideas, strategies, and resources are shared. It is a valuable professional learning community.