‘It’s like he lives here’: Wheeling High School science instructor goes ‘above and beyond’

It’s typical for science teacher Gregory Wallace to be the first to arrive to Wheeling High School in the predawn hours. But one occasion in particular demonstrates his commitment to education, colleagues recall.

Wallace was ready to walk into school that morning, but hadn’t yet switched over to a new key fob that would open the door. Still before 6 a.m. and not wanting to let the time go to waste, Wallace worked from his laptop in his car, parked close enough to connect to the school’s Wi-Fi.

He eventually got inside when others arrived and went about his day.

“It’s like he lives here. And he will stay until six o'clock at night,” said Emily Rodriguez, Wheeling’s division head for math/science. “He's so committed to our students.”

Though Wallace is in his 16th year as a high school science teacher — after earning a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology and an earlier stint as a research scientist — lesson planning isn’t plug and play.

  Gregory Wallace teaches a host of science classes at Wheeling High School, including freshman biology. John Starks/

“If you are like Greg, you go above and beyond,” Rodriguez said. “Where you're differentiating, where you're planning things, where you're working with students, where you're meeting them where they're at, where you're changing your curriculum constantly to meet all the different needs.”

Wallace teaches a whole host of classes at Wheeling High — an early adopter of a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum emphasis — that range from the basics of freshman biology to the complexities of nanotechnology. It’s his connection with all types of students that led to him receiving the Outstanding Educator Award from the University of Chicago.

The recognition is fitting because that’s the same school where he was a postdoctoral research fellow who investigated treatments and cures for muscular dystrophy. But around the same time, while teaching biochemistry as an adjunct at Northwestern University, he discovered a passion for connecting students with science.

For students that have found their own passion for science, that means opening their eyes to various career paths. (Wallace initially only thought of becoming a doctor or veterinarian, and enrolled at the University of Illinois to pursue the latter.)

  During a recent lab, Wheeling High School science teacher Gregory Wallace helps biology students learn how to use chopsticks for a lesson on the tragedy of the commons. Students played the role of fishermen and the chopsticks served as fishing poles, with goldfish crackers scattered on a tray that served as a lake. John Starks/

“I have an opportunity to be in there on the ground floor of creating the people that are pushing the envelope, or influencing people that are going to be pushing the envelope later on,” he says.

For new students, he sees his role as teaching them to be a high school student as much as anything else, helping them develop foundational skills to present and analyze data and communicate in technical writing.

“It’s definitely true that most of the kids that I see aren't interested in science at the freshman level, yet,” Wallace said. “I hope that I get to change at least a couple of their minds. And I think it's a challenge at the freshman level convincing the kids that they can do more than they think they can.

“An important part of a science education for every student is to not be intimidated by what a lot of people can be easily intimidated by — and that's, you know, the technical aspects, the data,” he added.

Emily Park, a senior who takes Wallace’s Advanced Placement Biology and Dual Credit Anatomy & Physiology classes, said he excels at breaking down complex concepts into digestible pieces, tailoring each topic to students' level of understanding.

Park also called him a teacher and a friend — someone who is explaining cell signaling one minute, and offering assistance with tax returns the next.

“You don't come across many teachers that are like Dr. Wallace,” she said.

  Wheeling High School science teacher Gregory Wallace says he tries to open students’ eyes to various career paths in the sciences. But for new students who may not be as into science, he believes his role is just to help them get accustomed to the high school experience. John Starks/

Over the last two to three decades, Wallace said there’s been a big shift in science education — and education in general — away from memorizing facts and formulas and toward developing skills.

To that point, in one of his recent biology classes, students were tasked with finding the source of water contamination in a simulated city. As part of the lab experience, they had access to water samples, a budget and various testing sites. In the end, they had to present their findings.

“There's a lot of those skills, a lot of that science embedded in that experience,” Wallace said. “And the thing that I like about assessments like that is, it's kind of like a low floor, high ceiling thing where there's access points for every student, no matter what ability they're coming in at.”

Curriculum vitae: Gregory Wallace

Age: 46

Residence: Buffalo Grove

Hometown: Park Forest

Occupation: Science teacher at Wheeling High School

Education: Bachelor of Science in Animal Sciences and Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology, both from University of Illinois

Activities: Illinois Junior Academy of Science, Trout In The Classroom, Positive Impact Science Symposium, Operation Snowball

Tips from a top teacher

• Students should “chase understanding, not grades.” When students chase understanding, the grades will come. When students chase grades, the understanding may never catch up.

• Success looks different for every person.

• Compromise for students that need it, but never compromise high expectations.

• Try to laugh at your mistakes, but always grow from them.

• The best lessons are ones where students realize they can do something they thought was impossible for them.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.