Science Teacher at Seattle Urban Academy
Federal Way, Washington
Class of 2011, Biology and French majors, Chemistry minor
It’s not typical for a high school teacher to take her students to a weekend concert, attend their family parties, accompany them on college visits, or give rides to church and youth group. But Selamawit Bariamichael isn’t a typical teacher.
“Miss Bara,” as her students call her, has taught science at Seattle Urban Academy since 2014. But in her eyes, the most important thing she teaches teens is their worth.
“My prayer is often that God would give me his perspective when I work with students. I ask him to give me his heart for each student and to see all the wonderful things he sees in his sons and daughters,” Bariamichael says. “And the truth of the matter is that they are each God’s masterpieces, created for great works.”
She is one of six teachers at the CRISTA Ministries-supported school in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. With a maximum of 35 students in the entire student body, her classes are sometimes as small as three or four students. That intimacy creates an environment where her students — some of whom experienced challenges at their previous schools — feel enveloped by genuine concern for their whole selves and an unremitting belief in their potential.
Senior Joshua David says Bariamichael is “a good person to know and to have in your corner.”
“She definitely is strict,” he says. “She cares about whether I get my work done or not, but she’s not going to make it harder than it already is. She’s patient and gives me time to do what I’ve got to do.”
David appreciates that Miss Bara’s concern extends beyond his biology grade and study sessions. “We’ll have catch-up time where I’ll come in after school and just have a conversation and she’ll give me advice. She asks me about how I’ve been doing with my walk with God and where I’m at in my faith. If I’m having a bad day, she’ll pray for me.”
“She’s just so joyful,” says Breanna Smith, a sophomore at SUA.
Smith loves how Bariamichael makes learning fun with games and her trademark enthusiasm. “My other teachers would just say try harder or study. More studying doesn’t help if you don’t know what you’re doing. Miss Bara will sit and help you with your work to see if you get it, and she’ll keep working if you don’t get it.”
Through hands-on lessons using termites or extracting DNA, Bariamichael works to make science relevant and applicable. “I teach from an inquiry-based model, where students have to think backwards, creating solutions for themselves in order to develop critical-thinking skills,” she says.
She also guides each student to set and measure individual learning goals. “It’s powerful when students can see ‘enduring learning’ taking place,” she says. “They begin to both advocate for and guide their own learning.”
Despite the academic failure they experienced at previous schools, SUA students defy the odds: 95 percent of seniors graduate and 91 percent go on to higher education or sustained employment.
Bariamichael herself defied odds. Born in Sudan to Eritrean parents, the family immigrated to the U.S. when she was a child. She is a first-generation college student. While at SPU, Bariamichael served as the ASSP intercultural director, coordinating student-led diversity efforts.
“My time at SPU afforded me with many opportunities to dialogue and process what it means to be a follower of Christ — what it looks like to be committed to his restorative justice on the earth,” she says. “Those weren’t always the easiest conversations to have, but it continues to impact how I approach the work that I am doing today in partnering with students and families in my community.”
She fondly remembers the impact of Susan Okamoto Lane, SPU’s dean of Multi-Ethnic and Wellness Programs. “For me, as a first-gen student, Susan’s office was a place of refuge for many of my friends and myself,” she says. “What I’ve learned most from her is the importance of waiting and listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, something she never preached but modeled with her life.”
Bariamichael was on a pre-med track, majoring in biology and French, with a chemistry minor. But her own experience with, and interest in, educational disparities drew her to Teach for America, where, after graduation, she worked as a high school science teacher in inner-city schools in Philadelphia and Maryland. “I fell in love with being with the kids,” she says.
There, she focused on developing skills and strategies to close the achievement gap for marginalized and unrepresented populations. Bariamichael is continuing her focus on transformational teaching practices as she pursues her master of science in education degree with an emphasis on educational studies/practices through Johns Hopkins University.
When she isn’t working or studying herself, Bariamichael volunteers with refugees, whether by translating documents, helping as a cultural navigator, or assisting with paperwork.
Her volunteer work often connects her with the SPU family. “It has been my experience that when it comes to social justice work in our community, an SPU alum is probably somewhere in the mix, whether that is in the school system, outreach programming, community development work, or the important dialogue around cultural competency/racial reconciliation in the church,” she says.
Bariamichael is surprised by the daily lessons her job offers.
“I could never have imagined how much I would learn from my students. I’ve also seen God show up and reveal so much to me in the classroom,” she says. “I consider myself greatly privileged to partner with students in their success and development.”
— Colleen Steelquist
How does your time at SPU connect to what you’re doing today?
At SPU, I was constantly being challenged and stretched to consider things in light of the greater narrative, eternity. Those weren’t always the easiest of conversations to have, but it continues to impact how I approach the work that I am doing today; partnering with students and families in my community.
Which SPU faculty or staff member made a difference in your education?
A faculty member who has and continues to play a key part in my development, both academically and spiritually is Dean of Multi-Ethnic and Wellness Programs Susan Okamoto Lane. As a first-generation student, Susan’s office was a place of refuge. She helped me process through several key transitions in my life. But what I’ve learned most from Susan is the importance of waiting and listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
What advice would you give to current SPU students?
Be flexible with what God’s plans might look like, because life in partnership with the Holy Spirit is an adventure! Enjoy the journey and the process.