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Florida AEM Johnetta Harris helps students explore STEM fields

Posted on May 14, 2021 at 8:26 AM by Virginia Smith

Teacher Johnetta Harris poses with her class in the classroom after winning Rookie Teacher of the year for her school.
Johnetta Harris, a middle school STEM teacher in Florida, was named Rookie Teacher of the Year for her school, Palm Valley Academy, this year.

May 14, 2021

Meet Johnetta Harris. This Florida Aerospace Education Member (AEM) is the middle school STEM teacher at Palm Valley Academy in St. Augustine, Florida. She is in her second year of teaching after a career working in animal research and training. While focusing on conservation work in zoos, she helped create lesson plans. "It was then that I fell in love with educating," she says. "I worked in a few zoos and nature centers, educating the public, before finally deciding to step into the classroom." This year, she participated in CAP AE's new  Adopt-a-Classroom program, in which cadets and senior members connect with classrooms in their communities. Her students, in turn, connected to the speakers, she says. She also likes the benefits her students get from CAP's Aerospace Connections in Education (ACE) and STEM Kit programs. She teaches in the aerospace/STEM education field because she is "passionate about science/STEM" and hopes to inspire her students to explore those fields and develop a passion of their own. We asked her some questions about her animal conservation career, her teaching career and her work with CAP. Her answers follow.

Tell us about your current school. 

I currently work at Palm Valley Academy in St. Augustine Florida. It is a K-8 school, and I am the Middle School STEM teacher. 

How many years have you been an educator and how did you decide to enter the field?

This is my second year teaching, my first year ended in COVID, so this is the first time I will end the school year in a school building. I spent most of my career in different animal field roles -- veterinary technician, animal trainer, research, director at an animal shelter. I decided to get my master’s degree so I could focus on conservation work in zoos. I was a research volunteer at our local zoo at the time and thought I wanted to do that forever. While I worked  on my degree, a lot of our work involved creating conservation lesson plans, it was then that I fell in love with educating. I worked in a few zoos, and nature centers, educating the public, before finally deciding to step into the classroom.

  Florida AEM Johnetta Harris believes getting to know    her students helps her learn how to best teach them.

Please list award you have received as an educator.

I was named Rookie Teacher of the Year for my school this year. 

How many years have you been involved with Civil Air Patrol, and how did you hear about CAP’s AEM program?

This is my first year. I heard about the program because I was Googling aerospace education to work into my curriculum.

Please describe the Civil Air Patrol programs in which you participate. What benefits do your students get from the CAP programs you use?

I participate in ACE and STEM kits. Because of these programs, I have been able to provide my students knowledge and experiences they otherwise would not have.

Please tell us about your involvement in CAP's new Adopt-a-Classroom program.

The Adopt-a-Classroom program has worked out better than I expected. I thought we'd maybe do a Zoom meeting or something remote. However, a member of Civil Air Patrol came to my classroom with many hands-on activities and an amazing and engaging presentation. I, myself, learned from it and was so grateful to be a part of it.

 Would you recommend to other teachers to allow cadets and CAP members to visit their classrooms when COVID protocols allow? 

Yes, I would recommend other teachers have cadets and senior members come into the classroom. That inspired my students to want to pursue careers in aerospace and join the cadet program. It was so much more engaging, and the students connected to the speakers.

Please describe how stay at home restrictions changed how you do your job, if so. How did you make the best of the situation for your students? Is your system currently remote or in-person or a mix?

We have been in-person five days a week since the school year began. However, they did offer distance learning to the community; so in middle school we have distance and in-person learners at the same time each period. It has been a challenge, but as teachers we adapt and thrive, and that is what I did. 

Why do you teach in the aerospace/STEM education area?

I am passionate about science/STEM -- so much so, that I want to share that passion and inspire the next generation to explore those fields and develop a love of their own.

What is the best advice you have for a new AEM working with CAP programs and materials?

Enjoy it! Don't get nervous or stressed about delivering the lessons or checking all the necessary boxes. It’s such a unique opportunity, and it can enrich you and the students if you let it. Have fun with it!

We have to ask you how you came to work with training animals, such as chimpanzees.

I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was younger; however, after volunteering as a young child, I realized I was more interested in the why of animal function instead of the how. I pursed a bachelors in psychology, and began working in research. My time with chimpanzees was actually on an Air Force base where my husband and I were stationed. It was a facility for retired research chimps. I was part of the enrichment team, and in the process learned how to train them for medical procedures, and so on. My training career grew from there.

Please tell us your teaching philosophy.

Take the time to build intentional relationships. Getting to know your students helps you learn how to teach them and what they need. They are also more willing to learn and respect someone they feel cares about them.  

Is there anything we didn't ask that you'd like to say?

My husband and I traveled the world; so my animal study and training experience took place throughout the world. I have three daughters, whom I love to share my love of science with, and a cat.  

Johnetta Harris began teaching after a career working with animal conservation and training.




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