By Martie Thompson
St. Johns County’s 2021 Teacher of the Year, Creekside High School’s Ali Pressel, grew up a self-proclaimed tomboy in southern New Jersey — known as the “Garden State” for a reason. Pressel said she thrived there and was that kid who was always outside in nature — getting dirty and tired. She became interested in environmental science at an early age and wanted to be “Jane of the Jungle.” By her junior year in high school, she talked her parents into letting her attend The School for Field Studies, along with mostly college students, in Costa Rica. She said this adventure opened her eyes to a new interest, sustainable development and how humans impact the environment. She earned a bachelor of science degree in Human Ecology from Rutgers University and during her time there had an internship with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which led to her first job there after graduation. Her first teaching position was with a high school in Maryland where she taught biology and human anatomy before moving to Florida due to her husband’s job relocation in 2007. After a one year stint teaching eighth grade science at Fruit Cove Middle School, she became one of the original teachers at Creekside High School. By the school’s second year, she became the Academy of Engineering and Environmental Sciences’ lead teacher, a position she holds to this day. She and her husband Josh have two cats — and Ali is always known to take in other creatures in need.
Q: How did you segue into the teaching profession?
A: I took a brief hiatus from my job at the New Jersey DEP to take an internship at a small coastal town in North Carolina, where I developed a sea turtle nest evaluation program for volunteers. I found that I had an interest in environmental education for both children and adults and so I began taking the required education classes to become a teacher. Before I finished my degree, I was hired by a school district in Maryland where I was thrown right in to teaching.
Q: What do you like best about teaching?
A: Definitely the relationships I am able to build, especially with Creekside’s Academy students, whom I see for all four years. I enjoy watching them grow and mature. By the time they graduate, we are very close knit and our classroom is truly a community. I also enjoy the one-on-one relationships I have with our business partners, who help the Academy by providing internships for students, developing students’ interviewing skills and serving as guest speakers. They become like my partner teachers. Since 2008, our Academy Advisory Board has grown from 12 to 30 business partners.
Q: What are some of the benefits of being affiliated with the National Geographic Society for your students at Creekside?
A: As a National Geographic Certified Educator, I am able to partner with the National Geographic Society to help students with service learning projects. For example, as part of the National Geographic Explorer Exchange Program, last year my students partnered with a scientist in Uganda who worked in a National Park trying to save lions from poachers. The students helped develop maps that the park rangers could use. Also, a few times a month my students engage with the National Geographic Explorer Classroom where they join, online during class, with a scientist from somewhere in the world. They have been able to ask questions of marine biologists, forest ecologists and scientists performing bird migration studies, to name a few.
Q: How did you find out that you were the Teacher of the Year?
A: It was all such a surprise. First, my peers at Creekside nominated me for the Creekside Teacher of the Year, which is quite a recognition. Then that information was shared with the district office and I was surprised to be named a finalist for the county. Then, I was absolutely floored to be named the St. Johns County Teacher of the Year. The other finalists were so deserving. I’m just really honored and flattered.
Photo courtesy Ali Pressel