12 Mar 2021

Isabella Liu: The Chemical Formula for an Awesome Teacher

Isabella Liu is a passionate and inspirational grade 7 to 12 Science and Chemistry teacher from Toronto, Canada. With an ever-growing social media following, she’s recently been making waves and in turn, she’s been collecting the recognition she deserves. 

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to chat with Isabella about her passion for EdTech, her unique and interesting story about her beginnings as a teacher, the creative and thoughtful ways she’s been maintaining her relationships with her students over the last several months of hybrid learning, and more.

Recognition and award winner

In addition to being a Chemistry and Science teacher, Isabella is also her school’s EdTech Integration Program Coordinator. As a result, she thoroughly understands the importance and usefulness of utilizing EdTech in the classroom. However, she’s also aware that not every teacher is super familiar with what the latest and most useful educational technologies are. With the global pandemic necessitating the movement of education online, the importance of being aware of these technologies has increased dramatically. In response to this, over the 2020 winter break, Isabella created her version of the interactive Periodic Table of EdTech. At the time of writing, Isabella’s Tweet about her creation has received 164 likes and an overwhelming outpouring of positive comments.

Isabella was recently a recipient of one of the much-coveted Peary Awards. She picked up the prize in the Growth Guide category, which recognizes educators who endeavor to foster a growth mindset in their students and help them understand that learning is a journey. This award could not have gone to a more deserving person and I’m sure it will be one of many awards that come Isabella’s way in the future.

A natural talent for teaching

Although she is now a seven-year teaching veteran, pursuing a career in education wasn’t Isabella’s original plan. During her undergraduate degree as a chemistry student, she had dreams of going to medical school. While taking several of the required classes necessary to pursue a career in medicine, she found herself surrounded by a group of students that she simply didn’t fit in with. Isabella explains to me how the culture within those classes was what she viewed as “not a healthy competition”. It was this intensely competitive culture that steered her away from pursuing a career in medicine.

Throughout 2012 and 2013, at the same time she was finishing her undergraduate degree, she was working at a learning center for students in grades 3 to 6 who had fallen behind in their reading and learning skills. It was a one-to-one learning environment, and Isabella quickly fell in love with seeing her students’ abilities and self-confidence grow. With a beaming smile across her face, Isabella recalls how “it was amazing to see the students read books and no longer get frustrated”. Although she was thoroughly enjoying her time tutoring the students, Isabella didn’t necessarily have aspirations of becoming a full-time teacher. It was her colleagues at the learning center who suggested that she apply for teachers college. “I think they had seen something in me that I didn’t really see at that point in time”. Heeding their advice, she promptly applied for teachers college and set forth on her new path to becoming a high school teacher.

A desire to get into the classroom

After graduating from teachers college in Toronto, Isabella was faced with a dilemma. At the time, the job prospects for aspiring teachers in Canada were less-than-stellar. Looking around at her teacher friends, she could see their passion and drive slowly leaving them as they struggled to gain the necessary in-classroom experience to secure a full-time teaching position. As a fresh teachers college graduate, Isabella wanted to waste no time getting into the classroom. Remembering that time, she tells me “I felt like, I’ve just learned all these things and I really wanted to apply them right then and there!”. She ultimately decided to look further afield for opportunities.

After one of her previous classmates secured a position teaching in China, Isabella realized that teaching there would be an excellent fit for her, too. Isabella is fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, so no matter where she settled, there would be no language barrier to overcome. Isabella spent two years teaching in Nanjing and traveling throughout Southeast Asia. After two years in China, Isabella landed a position teaching in Hong Kong at a school that would provide her with experience teaching the International Baccalaureate program, which would help her when applying for teaching positions in Canada. Having spent three years teaching in Hong Kong, Isabella headed back home to Canada in 2019.

Isabella teaching in Hong Kong

Tips for remote learning and student communication

Over the last several months, Isabella’s school has been utilizing a HyFlex learning model. With every student having the flexibility to choose whether to attend class in-person or virtually every day, it is certainly a lot to juggle for the teachers. However, Isabella and her colleagues have utilized some helpful strategies to make remote learning easier for them and more engaging for the students.

Isabella and a colleague of hers devised what they call the PeerPals system. The PeerPals system groups one in-classroom student with one online student. Isabella tells me how pairing students together “creates a small learning community between the two students, where they rely heavily on each other”. When the in-classroom students are conducting an experiment, the online students are responsible for recording the findings on a data table. After implementing the PeerPals system, Isabella has observed an increase in her students’ ability to use their own initiative and take responsibility for their own learning. Isabella explains to me how the PeerPals system flips her students’ learning on its head and “instead of having the attention on the teacher, now they’re all co-learning together”. Isabella and her colleagues also utilize what they call the PeerPods system, which is similar to the PeerPals system, but for groups of up to four students.

Isabella and her OKIOCAM

There is absolutely no doubt that remote learning has been immensely tough on students emotionally. Recognizing this, Isabella has adopted a very clever strategy for communicating with her students to ensure that she is doing everything she can to support them in their learning. As she tells me “I need to know who my students are and exactly what they need in terms of support from me”, Isabella’s passion for helping her students succeed couldn’t be more obvious. 

She structures her lessons in such a way that allows for her to check in with each student every lesson, and the fundamental way she approaches communicating with them is highly creative and without question very effective. Presenting her check-in questions metaphorically, Isabella asks her students things like “if you were the weather today, what type of weather would you be?” or “if you were a color today, what color would you be?”. “The students love it. They absolutely love the check-in questions”, Isabella tells me. These types of questions greatly encourage students who otherwise wouldn’t be open to sharing their thoughts and emotions a chance to tell Isabella what’s on their mind. This allows her to tailor her lessons and communication with her students’ families more optimally.

If you want to connect with Isabella and hear more of her awesome teaching tips, you can check her out on Twitter and Instagram or visit her website www.theisabellaliu.com