Brooklyn high school psychology teacher encourages students to turn pessimism into motivation

Curious about how teachers engage their students? In our How I Teach series, educators share their unique approaches to teaching.

Selecting a high school psychology teacher like Caitlyn Homol for a National Geographic teacher fellowship in the Arctic might seem unusual, but last summer’s transformative adventure inspired Homol to create a new interdisciplinary unit.

As the International Baccalaureate, or IB, Teaching and Learning Coordinator as well as the IB Psychology teacher at Brooklyn Prospect High School, Homol is collaborating with the Environmental Systems and Societies course at her school to delve into “the relationship between motivation, action, and climate attitudes, culminating in a beach cleanup and reflection.”

During the 17-day journey, Homol witnessed polar bears on land due to insufficient sheet ice for their usual hunting routines. She observed marine litter on the shores of islands hundreds of miles north of populated areas. Such encounters left her and others feeling doubtful “about our collective chances of being able to preserve the sights we were seeing for future generations.”

This experience led Homol to engage with scientists from the Rozalia Project as they documented data on microplastics in the waters. She spontaneously assisted in one of Rozalia’s Maine expeditions to reach their 20,000-pound cleanup target for summer 2023. Reflecting on this, she expressed, “It brought me so much hope and energy for what we can achieve when we collaborate to tackle difficult challenges.”

Having devoted four of her nine teaching years to Brooklyn Prospect, Homol recently received a prestigious teaching award from the American Psychological Association.

In her belief, teaching psychology equips students with a solid foundation in social science research, prompting her to encourage students to pursue research opportunities in college.

“This course provides numerous connections to students’ own experiences,” she remarked. “It offers them a unique opportunity to enhance their self-awareness while broadening their understanding of others’ experiences.”

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How and when did you decide to become a teacher?

As a first-generation college student at Ohio State University with a scattered school history across the East Coast and South, Homol initially faced challenges in her studies, prompting her to explore education psychology. This exploration not only alleviated her academic anxieties but also sparked her interest in teaching.

Following her transformative experience at the Dennis Learning Center as a learning specialist, Homol’s path toward teaching was further solidified, eventually leading her to consider programs like Teach for America for an alternative teaching certification.

What’s your favorite lesson to teach and why?

Homol values a lesson from her colleague Khanh Le that engages students in arranging a fictional family into homes with varying room counts. Through this exercise, students discover shared values and acculturation effects, fostering discussion on cultural differences and universal values.

This lesson stands out for its blend of research, relatability, and the balance it strikes between celebrating diversity and finding common ground across global experiences.

Are there particular things that students are seeing or experiencing in their lives related to the course that come up in the classroom?

Homol recognizes a positive shift in class dynamics regarding mental health discussions, attributing this change to reduced stigmas. Students enrolled in the “Abnormal Psychology” option within the IB Psychology course at her school exhibit remarkable openness and eagerness to share personal experiences, fostering a supportive learning environment.

Conversely, she notes a growing sense of pessimism among students, influenced by factors like climate concerns and societal disillusionment. To counter this, Homol emphasizes the role of educators in inspiring change and encouraging generative interpretations of knowledge to shape a more hopeful future.

Tell us about your own experience with school and how it affects your work today.

Homol’s educational journey, marked by the unwavering support of dedicated teachers, fuels her commitment to providing diverse student populations with access to specialized programs like the International Baccalaureate. Her experiences navigating educational hurdles have shaped her advocacy for inclusive educational opportunities.

Working in settings that broaden student access to specialized programs reflects her determination to empower students seeking enriching educational pathways.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, and how have you put it into practice?

Guided by the wisdom of a mentor encouraging her to take risks and let others decide her limits, Homol embraces opportunities with open-mindedness. This mindset has led to engaging initiatives like partnering with the Rozalia Project for cleanup programs, showcasing the transformative power of daring to pursue ambitious endeavors.

By relinquishing self-imposed barriers and embracing possibilities, Homol continues to unlock new avenues for collaborative efforts and impactful educational initiatives.

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