By Brenna R. Kelly
Heleen Giesbers didn’t announce to her students at Williamstown High School that she had been named the 2016 Outstanding Biology Teacher for Kentucky, but the news didn’t stay quiet for long.
As word spread among the 225 students, many offered their congratulations.
But one student said something else.
“He said, ‘That doesn’t surprise me,’” Giesbers said. “That was just the best compliment I think.”
Giesbers was likely the only person at school in the Williamstown Independent district to be surprised by the recognition.
“Dr. Giesbers is a phenomenal teacher,” said Superintendent Misty Middleton, one of two colleagues who nominated Giesbers for the award. “She is truly deserving of the recognition.”
The award, given by the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), is based on teaching ability, experience, innovation, initiative, positive student-teacher interactions and cooperativeness in the school and the community.
Giesbers will be recognized at the National Association of Biology Teachers conference in Denver in November. She also will receive a gift certificate from Carolina Biological Supply Company, which sponsors the award, and a year’s membership to NABT.
“She’s extremely devoted to her curriculum, but even more devoted to her students learning her curriculum,” said Middleton, who was assistant superintendent for curriculum when she nominated Giesbers. That’s what I think really sets Heleen apart, she has that desire for students to have a passion for content. It’s about the students first.”
Giesbers, who has taught at Williamstown for 12 years, said she wants her students to understand how science is useful and fascinating.
“I hope when I teach that I make it easy for students to relate to what we’re learning,” she said. “Hopefully that way they will feel more involved, rather than just learning a lot of vocabulary and facts. I use real-life examples so that they’ll understand that biology pertains to them too.”
The first week of school, students start to grow their own plants from a seed. They monitor the plant and record data that becomes a reference for many lessons throughout the year.
“I feel when you do things like that, it makes them take ownership in it. It’s their plant and they are taking care of it, they’re measuring it, they are keeping all this information,” she said.
Not every lesson can be interactive because there’s a lot of content to get through in one year, she said. But Giesbers rarely passes up an engagement opportunity.
“When we are learning about fermentation we make our own yogurt,” she said. “I want students to relate to it, so that it means something to them.”
In addition to biology, Giesbers teaches anatomy. She also teaches two dual credit courses, Environmental Science 110 and Biology 120, through Northern Kentucky University.
Science has always been a part of Giesbers’ life. Growing up in the Netherlands, her father was an analytical chemist.
“I think just hearing him talk about his work, I just picked up on that,” she said.
When the call came that she had won the Teacher of the Year award, Giesbers’ parents were visiting from the Netherlands.
“It was really neat that they were here, because being so far away, normally I would have had to give them a call and told them the news,” she said. “But it made it even more special that they were right there.”
Giesbers first came to the U.S. as a college intern at the University of Cincinnati. There she started working with Professor Jodi Shann, now the director of the environmental studies program at Cincinnati. After she graduated with a degree in botany laboratory techniques from Internationale Agrarische Hogeschool Larenstein in Wageningen, the Netherlands, Giesbers returned to the University of Cincinnati where she received both a master’s and doctorate in biological sciences.
She then received a master’s in education from Georgetown College.
Giesbers, her husband and children moved to Williamstown, where Giesbers stayed home with her young children. Then one day she heard that the high school needed a biology teacher. Though Giesbers wasn’t quite ready to go back to work, she couldn’t pass up the chance.
“I’ve been here ever since,” she said.
Giesbers said she likes the small-school atmosphere of Williamstown, where teachers know most of their students long before they sit in their classroom and where her fellow teachers feel like family, not just co-workers.
“Everybody helps each other, they are very supportive of each other,” she said. “I’m really thrilled to be here. Williamstown is a special place. It’s really a team effort here.”
Giesbers is always one of the first teachers to volunteer whenever a new idea or program is introduced, Middleton said.
“She’s always willing to learn and eager to try new ideas,” Middleton said. “She has a passion for providing a great learning environment for her students.”
Middleton’s own daughter benefited from that learning environment, taking four classes with Giesbers before she graduated. She also took the dual credit class, even though she didn’t need the class.
“She knew in those classes she was going to learn and they were going to be engaging, interesting and would challenge her,” Middleton said. “It’s not just my daughter. We have several students who say even though they don’t need the course, they want to take it with Mrs. Giesbers.”
So when the email asking for nominations for the Outstanding Biology Teacher Award popped into Middleton’s mailbox last year, she didn’t think twice.
“It was just a no-brainer,” Middleton said. “We were thrilled that she was chosen. I think the committee saw in her exactly what we get to witness every day. And I’m just so excited that she’s in my district.”
MORE INFO …
Heleen Giesbers Heleen.Giesbers@williamstown.kyschools.us
Misty Middleton Misty.Middleton@williamstown.kyschools.us