Science Department: Home sweet home


Helen Chao

As soon as she graduated from MVHS in 2009, student teacher Julie Choi eagerly distanced herself from the so-called “bubble” of Cupertino. She chose to attend the University of California San Diego primarily because it was the furthest from her home compared to all the other colleges.

Yet Choi returned seven years later as a student teacher at MVHS. Her recollection of MVHS experience is much more sentimental than when she had first graduated, as she reminisces about her close-knit group of friends, the entertaining AP US History review sessions and the dances she attended. These factors did not immediately jump to her mind when she was just graduating and determinedly heading towards San Diego.

Choi arranges her cartoon magnets illustrating the Kreb Cycle. Starting next semester, Choi will be the official instructor for Hajjarian's fourth and fifth periods. Photo by Helen Chao.
Choi arranges her cartoon magnets illustrating the Kreb Cycle. Starting next semester, Choi will be the official instructor for Hajjarian’s fourth and fifth periods. Photo by Helen Chao.

As Biology teacher Pooya Hajjarian’s student teacher since last school year, Choi will take over his fourth and fifth periods as the official instructor and also instruct a period of physiology for Physiology teacher Jenna Smith next semester. Choi considers Hajjarian a prominent influence in her teaching style and specifically emulates the way he makes students “feel at home.” Last year, Choi had struggled significantly with enforcing the cutoff for “A” grades. However, Hajjarian’s advice helped ease the burden.

“[He said] that as a teacher you kind of have to make sure that you want the A students to be really deserving that ‘A,’” Choi said. “[That] really did change how I perceived the grading system.”

Choi emphasizes that she isn’t enforcing a system of punishments or rewards if a student makes or breaks the cutoff — rather, it is her honest attempt to be fair and provide an accurate assessment of the students. Occasionally, students will approach her about late work, saying they forgot to ask for an extension, to which she finds it challenging to respond with a firm “No.” As Choi ultimately wants to help her students, she tries to avoid enabling any irresponsible behaviors or habits. Choi hopes to foster a connection between her and her students, deterring them from the reputation she herself had as a student, as she usually sat in the back corner of the classroom and kept to herself.

“The culture in [MVHS] is so unique,” Choi said. “I think sometimes because I’ve been [to school] here it’s something that I can relate to and it’s a perspective I can bring into teacher meetings.”

According to Choi, the MVHS culture is especially competitive, fraught with the common stigma that more advanced classes equates to a “cooler” reputation. Choi acknowledges that she herself had this outlook as a student: her own high school experience was burdened by AP and honors classes, a combination of challenging courses nobody recommended her to take, but which she took regardless.

Nothing in MVHS has undergone a drastic change, she observes. The competitive atmosphere is clearly present, the biology textbooks are the same ones she used and the community of teachers are a whirl of familiar faces. Of course, in terms of physical appearance, there are the gigantic solar panels spanning the parking lot and the refurbished buildings.

“But it felt familiar,” Choi said. “When I came back, it felt like I was at home.”