December 14, 2014

The best teachers are not always seen. An interesting philosophy for a teacher who was just named the 2014 Outstanding Biology Teacher of Illinois this fall by the National Association of Biology Teachers. But that is exactly how Jennifer Pfannerstill ’01 MED runs her classroom.

A peek beyond her door at North Shore Country Day School reveals pods of students coming to their own conclusions while she navigates the room as well as their ideas. And according to her peers, Pfannerstill’s strategy works. As she battles the belief that teachers belong in front of the class, she hopes that her unconventional way of teaching will continue to find a larger place in education.

Life science on the lake

Jennifer initially studied pre-med. “But the roots of teaching in my family changed my mind,” she says. “I knew in the end that I was supposed to be a teacher.”

Biology was a natural choice for her. After growing up on a lake, Jennifer says, “I just had a natural love for being outside. We would go on hunts in the woods and that is one of the first things that drove me to life science.

“And I always ask questions,” she adds.

Jennifer graduated from Olivet’s School of Graduate and Continuing Studies with her master’s in education in 2001. She went through the program with her husband, Noel ’01 MED, at a time while they were both already educators.

Noel is now a primary teacher, and Jen is the scientist in residence at North Country Day School in Winnetka, Illinois. They have three daughters: Kali, Meg and Haidyn.

“I think going back to school when you’re a practicing teacher is different. We were thoughtful practitioners because we could try what we were learning,” she says. “A master’s program shouldn’t be theoretical.”

Lessons in learning

Jennifer was immediately able to apply what she learned at Olivet, just as she hopes her students can do in her biology classes. “We need to put students in authentic situations,” she says.

“Teachers don’t have to be Google, and lessons don’t have to go perfectly. As teachers we need to remember that we are facilitators,” says Jennifer. “If we provide the questions and the means, what our students do with those questions is what drives the lesson.”

Even though she may be hard to find in her own classroom, her students find her worthy of the award. “They were really excited,” she says. “They like hearing that we are doing something a little bit different and that it is being recognized.”