By Douglas Moser
---- — METHUEN — Melissa Tobin, a high school science teacher, has jumped onto tables and danced around the room to explain a point.
Her teaching style, doing whatever it takes to reach a student and make a connection, has made an impression on those who have taken her classes.
It shows in other ways, too.
Tobin, who has been at Methuen High for 10 years, has won a Claes Nobel Educator of the Year award for 2012, an honor that goes to 10 top teachers in the country and is given by the National Society of High School Scholars. Students nominate teachers who have influenced their lives, and the committee, based in Atlanta, selects top educators every year.
“I was shocked,” said Tobin, 35.
“It’s nice to know the NSHSS recognizes the students’ input, and that a group of students put themselves out there and publicly said, ‘This teacher had a big influence on my life,’” she said. “It feels so good to know you’re making a difference.”
She also was nominated as an educator with distinction in 2010 and 2011, according to the NSHSS.
Tobin, originally from New Jersey, studied microbiology at the University of New Hampshire, where she met her husband, Jeff. Two of her UNH professors stand out to her not only because of the subject, which she is passionate about, but for their styles.
A virology professor would weave into his classroom discussion household and real life examples of bacterial contamination. The stories were both gross and entertaining, she said, and they stuck with her years later. “He brought it back to real life and that’s why I really enjoyed it,” she said.
Another professor talked about the role microorganisms play in brewing beer, how the yeast eats sugars from the grain, excretes ethyl alcohol and creates the carbonation. “When you’re 21 and in college, that’s the coolest job ever,” she said.
That style stuck with her not only as fond college memories, but also as a foundation for her own teaching style. “I’m not only a teacher, but a mentor,” she said. “Everything I teach, I try to make it relevant to their lives. I get to know them on a one-on-one basis.”
She started teaching through the Boston University City Lab, a program that sent teachers in a mobile laboratory to school districts around the commonwealth. On one trip to Methuen, Tobin caught the eye of a science teacher and the department chair. Shortly after, she was hired here to teach chemistry and biology.
Soon after she landed a job at the high school, she started work on building a new biotechnology course, half in the classroom and half hands-on in a lab. Tobin said the department would let her create and teach a pilot class if she could get a dozen students to sign up. She got five dozen.
“We were planning on piloting it with one or two classes, but the first year she had five full classes,” said Joseph Harb, chair of the science department at Methuen High School.
Now there are about 120 students taking her biotech courses, and she and high school administrators are working to expand it into a vocational program.
Tobin said Massachusetts is an obvious place for a high school vocational biotechnology course, with an explosion of biotech companies in Boston, Cambridge, Waltham and the 128-corridor.
“What separates Melissa from a lot of teachers is her willingness to do whatever it takes to have her students succeed,” Harb said. “She has a reputation of a teacher that will not give up on her students.”