Meet Mr. Harris
This is Van Harris, a fifth grade science teacher at Mario Moreno STEAM Academy in the heart of Oak Cliff in Dallas, Texas. A father of two daughters – Asia and Krystal (one of whom is also a teacher!), Mr. Harris has been teaching for 24 years in the Dallas Independent School District and has taught science from second to eighth grade over the course of his career.
He comes from a long line of educators, with his great great grandfather starting the trend as a university professor.
“My entire family believes in education first,” Harris says. “That’s the one thing we do in our family – we graduate. You go to school to graduate. It’s not a choice. Education is the way to better yourself, to move up and achieve the things you want in life. My mother laughs about it because she says that I didn’t like kids when I was younger. I had two younger sisters, and they liked to bother me. She laughs because now I’m a teacher. But I also watched my father when I was a kid. I watched how he nurtured kids in my neighborhood. I watched how he was with my friends. I asked him why once, and he told me that he saw kids who didn’t always have that complete support they needed and he chose to step into that role. As I watched him, I kind of knew deep down that I would be moving in that direction someday. Inherited traits, I guess you would say.”
His Students’ Real-World Science Superhero
When asked what his superpower is as a teacher, Mr. Harris says he can motivate anyone to believe in themselves and their potential.
“I think my students feel a connection with me. I can see a little of myself in each kid. I feel like I can see what they need and where they can be pushed to go farther to achieve things they didn’t think they could. And I try to be that push for them.”
When asked what he believes enabled him to achieve so much with his students, Mr. Harris says that his participation in Out Teach’s coaching program during the past two years has played a large part.
But Mr. Harris’s accolades extend even further. Not only is he known for his ability to awaken the potential in each of his students, but he also holds the distinction in his school for the greatest growth in science scores.
“Our kids learn best outside. It is how you cement what you want them to learn with actual experiences,” Harris says. “They get to touch and experience the concepts they are learning about, and it makes it stick. Wendy (Mr Harris’s Out Teach coach) opened my eyes to a lot of things. I thought I could only teach certain concepts outside, but she showed me that you can do so much learning outside.”
Because of Out Teach, Mr. Harris shares that much of his class now takes place outside the four walls of his classroom. His class is contained within the journals he has his kids bring outside, his rolling bag of supplies that he can easily bring with him, an outdoor dry erase board that Out Teach set up for the school, and a speaker that he uses to play music to call his students back together after they have done an exploratory exercise. He says that one of his favorite lessons to teach is about weathering and erosion.
Inspiring Students Outdoors
“I sent the kids to find rocks tiny enough to fit into little tubes. We added water to the tubes and put lids on them. Then we played “Shake It Off” on my speaker and had a dance party as we all shook our tubes. After the song was over, we poured the rocks out, and the kids were amazed by how smooth and shiny the rocks had become because of weathering.”
“That’s the benefit of outdoor learning,” Harris says. “With experiences like that my kids now have something to revert back to, a prior experience to lean on when it comes time to see complex science vocabulary words on the test. Most of the science concepts on the tests are not words that are spoken everyday at home. With Out Teach, they get to experience those words, and it helps them remember them forever.”
And Mr. Harris says that outdoor learning has made his job more enjoyable, as well.
“It gives me a chance to relax more and just be with the kids. In a lab, I have to be after them to make sure nothing breaks or gets messed up. Outside, they can really explore. They find things that are even new to me, and I get to be curious with them.”
Teacher of the Year
When asked what’s next now that he is Teacher of the Year, Mr. Harris says that aside from wanting to help teach and mentor other teachers, he wants to continue to be there for his students.
“I want to give them options. I love to have options. I want them to believe that they have different paths they can follow,” Harris says. “Winning this is motivating to me, but I also want it to motivate them. I hope they feel motivated because they have a role model that they see is still setting and achieving goals at this age. I want them to become the best version of themselves.”
On behalf of Out Teach, we want to say thank you, Mr. Harris. Thank you for opening the outdoors to your students. Thank you for showing them what’s possible, and thank you for nurturing the next generation of problem-solvers, innovators, and leaders.