Oswego SD308 teacher Pam Phelps brings biology to life for her students

Pam Phelps teaches Advanced Placement biology at Oswego High School.

Pam Phelps relished her formative years growing up along the Fox River in Yorkville, where she immersed herself in the natural surroundings and looked for evidence of life in all its forms.

“That’s where I played. I enjoyed finding fossils and bones.”

Phelps has an inquisitive nature and strives to share her passion for scientific discovery with others.

At Yorkville High School, Phelps found inspiration from her teachers, deepening her love of learning.

“In high school I had a lot of experienced teachers,” Phelps said. “They knew what they were doing.”

After graduation in 1990, Phelps had an ambitious goal.

“I thought that I would be a doctor. I was smart and got good grades,” Phelps said, but a pre-med program did not go well.

“It was terribly sad and disappointing,” she said.

Soon, Phelps found herself at Aurora University, where she was majoring in biology, and began finding the same kind of inspiration from her instructors as she had in high school.

However, Phelps said she still was trying to find her place in the world.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’ll be a biologist,’ but I didn’t really know what that meant.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from AU, Phelps returned for a master’s in teaching, completing that degree in 1997.

Phelps began her teaching career at Oswego High School that same year.

“After a couple of years, I didn’t like it,” Phelps said. “I thought all of my students would be like me, but it wasn’t like that. The students were not all excited to learn.”

Oswego High School biology teacher Pam Phelps leads her class. (Mark Foster -- mfoster@shawmedia.com)

So Phelps returned to school, this time to Northern Illinois University, to work on a master of science degree in biology.

Phelps came away not only with another degree, but a greater appreciation for both the subject matter and its presentation.

“I realized I missed teaching,” Phelps said.

Since then, Phelps has become one of Oswego High School’s most distinguished faculty members, teaching some of the school’s best and brightest students.

Phelps teaches advanced placement biology for sophomores, juniors and seniors, as well as honors biology for freshmen.

About a decade ago, Phelps restructured the advanced placement course in order to meet new College Board guidelines, increasing the level of inquiry and scientific modeling in the learning process.

In addition, Phelps mentors students in the school’s “Medical Topics” program, a collaborative effort with Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora.

Phelps teaches in a manner designed to encourage her students’ inquisitiveness. She said it can be a balancing act as a teacher whether to direct the student to the answer or let him figure it out.

“Advanced placement biology is a lot of hard work for students,” Phelps said. “Liking your teacher only gets you so far.”

Phelps said it’s not enough to teach the subject matter. Students need strategies for learning.

“The easy part is teaching,” Phelps said. “Helping them retain the information is more difficult.”

Phelps uses a combination of worksheets, reading assignments and hands-on laboratory exercises.

“I tell them to be brave when they answer a question. They have to process the information and put the pieces together,” Phelps said.

Oswego High School biology teacher Pam Phelps explains a concept to a student during a lab session. (Mark Foster -- mfoster@shawmedia.com)

The pandemic presented a challenge and resulted in an evolving teaching style for the biology instructor.

“COVID changed the way I would give notes,” Phelps said, explaining that she began to use more pictures in her presentations.

Students responded well, and now Phelps plans to hang on to some of her pandemic-inspired teaching strategies.

Phelps has helped guide not only high school students, but other teachers, as well, serving multiple times as an SD308 Mentor to First Year Teachers, assisting with lesson plans and providing feedback.

Her dedication to teaching has not gone unnoticed.

Phelps was named the 2018 Outstanding Biology Teacher of the Year by the National Association of Biology Teachers and received the 2019 Outstanding Teacher Award from the Challenger Learning Center. In 2015, Phelps was a finalist for Illinois State Board of Education “Those Who Excel” honor.

The teacher has been the recipient of the Village of Oswego Character Counts Recognition Award and instituted the OHS plastic recycling program.

Phelps is married and is the mother of two students at OHS.


Pam Phelps, advanced placement biology teacher at Oswego High School.

Q: Can you name a book that has had an influence on your teaching?

A: “Genome” by Matthew Ridley.

“That was probably my gateway book,” Phelps said. “There were nonfiction texts that I didn’t know existed. I guess I average two nonfiction science books a year. Other books I really enjoyed include:

• “Your Inner Fish” by Neil Shubin.

• “And the Band Played On” by Randy Schilts.

• “Charles and Emma, The Darwins Leap of Faith” by Deborah Heiligman.

“I like books that help me look at a science topic in a new way or that place the topic in a broader realm, like politics and law.