Lainie Clowers remembers the exact moment she knew she wanted to be a teacher.
She was standing before a group of pint-sized visitors at the Central Florida Zoo, holding a kinkajou, a nocturnal rainforest mammal, with a long prehensile tail.
As a volunteer at the zoo, Clowers was charged with giving the young visitors a lesson on the animal’s nocturnal habits. But the excitable little creature, having just woken up, had other plans and was climbing all over Clowers, much to the delight of her audience.
Watching the faces of the children light up in delight as they settled in for a healthy dose of entertainment with their education, Clowers caught a spark that she carries with her today. A spark that her students say makes her “fun and entertaining, not boring at all.”
“I’ll always remember that feeling of how good it was to see the kids so excited to learn,” Clowers said of that fateful evening.
Now 12 years into her teaching career, Clowers is just as passionate about teaching as ever.
“I remember my first day teaching, I knew I was right where I was supposed to be and I still feel that way today, maybe even more so,” she said.
The Maitland Middle School eighth grade science teacher was honored for her passion recently by being named the 2016 Orange County Teacher of the Year.
In the classroom, Clowers moves at a fast pace, never standing still, engaging her students, literally, from all angles. Similar to a college class, the students use electronic clickers to anonymously answer the questions she poses. The technique guarantees everyone is following along and participating.
And she’s not above doing whatever it takes to get her students’ attention.
“She likes to sing and dance in class, she’s always doing something crazy. She really knows how to make things relatable to us,” said eighth grader Mackenzie Gassie.
Clowers’ cat, Superbad, often makes an appearance in lessons, adding a fun element that students have come to expect.
“Superbad pops up everywhere, even on test days, it’s a lot of fun,” Gassie said.
Grabbing and holding the attention of her students is something they say Clowers excels at.
“She has an energy that keeps us all going,” student Lukas Nikoloff said.
“Even though its first period and we’re all tired, she makes us happy to be here,” added Gassie.
Clowers understands the importance of incorporating STEM skills into her curriculum. Last year, in anticipation of SunRail opening, she brought engineers into the classroom to teach students about all that went into bringing mass transit to Orlando.
This year, she asked students to create a “Fabulous Wake-Up Machine” using spare parts. The requirements were that the machine needed to light a bulb, turn on a fan and ring a buzzer all at once.
Each team had to figure out what electrical components were necessary, and come to the realization that some things they needed were missing. Students used online simulation software to test their designs. To complete their machine, they could “buy” parts from Superbad’s Emporium.
“This experiment allowed them to use a variety of different skills and learning objectives while solving a real problem,” Clowers said.
According to the students, the lesson was a big hit.
“I loved the unit on circuits, it was my favorite activity,” Kyneshia Bennett said.
“As a teacher, you have to go out of your way to make real world connections for students,” Clowers said.
“She’s like a cheerleader for these kids, always encouraging them and giving them that extra inspiration they need,” said Maitland Middle’s Vice Principal Dr. Eric Sochocki. “They’re lucky to have her.”
“For me, teaching is one of those things that if you told me tomorrow I’d have to do it for free, I’d still be here ever day, loving it,” Clowers said.