Best in Class



Dr. Nancy Ungvarsky may spend most of her time trying to inspire others these days, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t still learning.

“I’ve been passionate to learn all I can about biology,” she said.

Her passion and drive were recognized recently, when she was named the Beaufort County School District Teacher of the Year.

She faced some smart competition — each district school names its own Teacher of the Year, and those honorees must then decide whether to throw their hat — or ruler, or chalk, or calculator — into the ring for the district title. If they decide to go for it, they must write an essay on their professional life, community involvement, students’ achievements, and teaching philosophy. In their essay, they also must address current trends in education. Other teachers, parents and members of the community review and rate their application, and a committee of judges interviews the finalists.

Ungvarsky, who lives in Bluffton and earned a doctorate in ecology and evolution from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s of education in secondary science from the University of South Carolina, has also taught at Georgia Tech. Whether working with high school students or at the college level, she said the best teachers are the ones who are dedicated to challenging students to excel — something she learned from her favorite teachers when she was a student.

“The teachers who shaped my life were unwavering in their expectations of excellence, engaging in presentation and content, and approachable,” she said.

Of course, students play a big part in their own success, Ungvarsky said — and she’s there to help them along the way. As a teacher, she said it’s important to find ways to reach students and engage with them.

“Students are young adults who process information in different ways, at different speeds and motivation levels,” she said. “Teaching isn’t as easy as reciting facts … learning doesn’t come from what I do in the classroom; it comes from what the student does in the classroom.”

In her biology class at Beaufort High, she uses real-world medical case studies to go beyond the textbook. Her students meet in groups to “diagnose” the patients based on their symptoms. She also teaches students about the cutting-edge technologies being developed to treat diseases — like a discovery by geneticists on how to “edit” DNA to treat disorders caused by genetic mutations. She hopes by sharing them with her students, she can encourage them to see how the things they learn in school can impact the world — and her students’ lives.

“I link this exciting advance to what I teach about molecular genetics to show students how understanding basic biology is essential in making decisions about their health,” she said.

That’s also why she insists on holding her students to high standards while still teaching by showing. She knows that if she can help students believe that they can succeed, they usually will. Some of her former students are currently studying for the MCAT, a test required to attend medical school; serving as medics in the military; and working for nonprofit groups. One is even participating in a neurobiology research project.

The greatest reward, she said, is when her students have that “Aha!” moment.

“That keeps me coming back to the classroom with a joy for teaching,” she said.