Faculty & Staff Profiles
It hasn’t been long since Theresa Shebalin earned a Ph.D. in anthropology, conducted archaeological research in Peru and did a yearlong internship with NASA. So how did a career that was pointed toward researching Peruvian prehistory or working with America’s space agency inspire her to explore teaching fifth-grade science at Durham Academy, and what made Shebalin decide “this is where I want to be for my career, I want Stefan [her 2-and-a-half-year-old son] to be a student here”?
The story begins in Florida, where Shebalin grew up in the Orlando area, a top student and an ace swimmer. She knew she wanted to swim in college and didn’t look at schools she couldn’t swim for. The College of William and Mary was “the perfect fit of academics and swimming.” She majored in geology and swam all four years, competing both in distance events and sprint freestyle. She went into geology “as a sort of scientific approach to archaeology,” graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1999.
Shebalin’s interest in archaeology came from her father, a pediatrician who made sure that family vacations often included visits to archaeological sites. “When I was in early high school I remember my father saying if he could go back and do anything he wanted, he’d probably be an archaeologist or a musician. I’d already decided that being a doctor was not what I wanted to do. I thought I’m going to learn from my dad. … I’d always been very science-focused, and there aren’t as many people doing science in archaeology.”
A course in atmospheric science her junior year at William and Mary piqued her interest and led to an internship with NASA, where she worked on her undergraduate honors thesis on the effects of El Niño on atmospheric chemistry in Indonesia. NASA offered to pay for graduate school in atmospheric science and assured her of a job after that, but Shebalin decided to stick with geology and headed to Penn State for grad school.
“At the time I wanted to work in Peru — I loved Peruvian archaeology. … I wanted to marry my interest in climate change research and archaeology and talk about how societies in prehistory Peru had responded to El Niño events.”
But after one summer working on the north coast of Peru, “I decided that’s not what I wanted to do every summer for the rest of my life. I got very ill, and being sick in Third World conditions is not very much fun. The other thing was I’m not very good at foreign languages. I cannot hear them. I can read them, but Spanish was really a challenge for me to be conversant.”
So Shebalin switched her focus from Peruvian archaeology to southeastern United States archaeology. She finished her master’s degree at Penn State in 2001 and transferred to UNC, where the focus was on archaeology of the southeastern United States. She spent the next 10 years working on her Ph.D., and was awarded a doctorate in anthropology (archaeology is a subfield of anthropology) in 2011.
“I was doing geo archaeological chemistry there, looking at soils, but I also had this interest in working with kids on archaeology education. So to pay my [grad school] bills, I took a job working for UNC’s archaeology labs as their education specialist. I developed curriculum, I did workshops for teachers, I went into classrooms, I developed cool things for kids to come to our labs and do.”
Shebalin’s advisor thought her work as education specialist might lead to a full-time position after grad school, but that was in 2007 and as the economy went into a tailspin, so did the likelihood of UNC creating a new position. Instead, Shebalin’s advisor asked if she had ever thought about teaching at the K-12 level.
“I sort of looked at him because, honestly, it had never occurred to me. The more I thought about it, I thought oh my gosh, why haven’t I thought about this? I get to continue doing what I love, which is working with kids.”
Shebalin also realized that teaching a younger age group would provide the perfect audience for focusing on problem-solving skills. As a grad student, she had frequently taught undergraduates and was frustrated by their lack of problem-solving skills.
“I realized it was so hard to teach those kinds of skills to 19-year-olds. If I start at a lower level, that’s when I really can teach kids these kinds of things.”
Shebalin knew Middle School teacher Virginia Hall, a William and Mary alumna, through alumni events, and when their paths next crossed, Shebalin said she was thinking about becoming a teacher. Hall told her DA’s fifth grade science teacher wasn’t returning from a sabbatical and encouraged her to check the DA website for the job posting.
“So here I am. I am so grateful to Virginia. I got my job because of her. It wasn’t on my radar because I wasn’t ready for the job. In fact, my dissertation committee said don’t do this. You will never finish your dissertation if you take this job.”
The stars aligned when the interim science teacher’s plans changed and she stayed in the DA fifth-grade job an extra year.
“I accepted the job two years out. I really worked hard on my dissertation and just had to finish it up in my final year.” Shebalin came to Durham Academy in 2010, which meant she completed her dissertation during her first year of teaching fifth grade.
Shebalin didn’t know if she would like teaching, and as a product of public schools, she was unsure about teaching at an independent school.
“Now I am so thankful that this is where I landed. … I love what I’m doing here. I can do so many creative things with kids. I like the freedom of revising the curriculum as I see fit.”
Things have come full circle for Shebalin, who was in Orlando last week for the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. She has presented at the international conference a number of times, and this year she presented a poster on Lessons from the Classroom: A Teacher’s Suggestions for Improving K-12 Archaeology Outreach.
“I spent all those years designing curriculum as an archaeologist. Then when I got in the classroom, I realized there’s a lot archaeologists don’t know about teaching. For those who are designing curriculum, they need to know these things. It was extremely well received.”
Last year Shebalin presented a paper at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, and her co-authors were DA Upper School students Anna Baker and Samantha Baker. The paper concerned the Archaeology Adventures camp Shebalin operates each summer at an archaeological site near Morganton, North Carolina, a camp the Baker sisters had attended.
“That’s one of the things that makes me excited about working at Durham Academy. I get to work with students who can do truly amazing things. They are talented and I have this research and extracurricular interest that I can bring them into. I feel like it’s a win-win for both of us. They wouldn’t be able to do that if they didn’t have someone like me for a mentor, and I wouldn’t be able to work with kids if I weren’t here at Durham Academy.”
Teaching at DA also means Shebalin has freedom in how she approaches teaching science.
“A lot of schools teach science as a body of knowledge. My view of science is it is a method for learning about the natural world. I’m much more interested in kids learning how to learn about science than in teaching them all these facts. I don’t use a textbook.”
Shebalin teaches science “as a method and a way of thinking. To me, it’s more important for the kids to know how to solve problems and to know how to evaluate evidence. … I teach them how to think for themselves.”
In her science class, it’s about coming up with questions and how to investigate them. “That means every year my curriculum is different, and that’s OK. I love that challenge.”
Her fifth-graders spend more than two months toward the end of the school year working on independent projects of their choice. This year’s projects will culminate on April 28 with a celebration attended by parents and even grandparents. “The kids get to show off their stuff, and they are truly the experts on their project. It’s the highlight of fifth grade, and it is why I’m a teacher. I really loved to see that they have gotten it. For fifth-graders, the projects are pretty darn impressive. … For me, it’s a chance to say, hey look, you have learned how to be a scientist.”
Teaching fifth grade has a special place in Shebalin’s heart because her fifth-grade teacher died at the very end of the school year. “When I think of elementary school and even middle school, fifth grade is the grade I go back to because for me that was a very formative experience. It was really the first time I’d dealt with anything like that. I can remember what it was like to be a fifth-grader. It was for a sad reason, but I can remember what it was like. To think back to where I was developmentally has been helpful.”
There’s something else Shebalin remembers when she looks back, something she wants to be different for her students.
“When my [UNC] advisor said I should look into teaching K-12 and I really started thinking about it, I realized that I found myself where I was in life because teachers had been telling me all along, ‘You’re talented and you should do this.’ I got to a point in life where I did everything everybody suggested and I wasn’t happy. I had put off having a family. I got burnt out in graduate school, probably because I had been working at such a high level for so long. Everyone had always said you can do anything you put your mind to, you can do anything, but no one had ever said you can’t do everything.”
Shebalin still loves to swim, though as a single mom she has little time of swimming. She likes to garden, an interest that will come in handy later this month when she and Stefan move from an apartment to a townhome. And she enjoys cooking, especially baking, and has worked as a cake decorator at bakeries.
She wants her students to worry less about what parents and teachers want them to do, and to think more about what they want to explore.
“I try to let them know it’s OK to experiment and not be successful at something. You don’t always have to be perfect. I think I went down a very narrow path because I was afraid to try anything new. … I wish maybe I had been less of a perfectionist and maybe had tried some things I would have made mistakes in.”
As a teacher, she treasures her relationships with students, and she hopes those relationships will last long beyond DA.
“I feel like I found my happiness eventually, but it wasn’t until I ended up teaching, which to me was not what my professors all wanted me to do. I was fortunate that my advisor supported it, but I want kids to know that whatever makes you happy is OK. I’m hopeful some of these kids will see me as someone they can come back and talk to at any point if they need someone to give them some guidance.”