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Teaching Secrets: Thriving in the Science Classroom

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When I entered the world of science teaching, I soon realized that the official job description didn't begin to cover the real work of my new profession. As daunting as this realization was, I also quickly came to see that it would be up to me to make genuine teaching and learning happen in my classroom, whatever it took.

As I worked through the inevitable trials and tribulations of a new teacher, I made notes of all the things I needed to know and the questions I found myself asking. With luck, new science teachers won't face the same questions I faced. (I certainly hope they don’t.) But just in case, I'm sharing my first five questions here--with the answers I'm now able to give after a lengthy teaching career.

To set the context, let me say that most of my science teaching has taken place in the middle grades, and that I came to teaching from a “first career” as a research scientist specializing in virology. I’ve taught many kinds of students in a variety of school settings and served on several national panels related to science education. Now, the Q & A!

If I'm a science teacher, where's my science equipment?

With newbie enthusiasm, the first thing I did after stepping foot into my assigned school was to a launch a search for science equipment. I finally located the cache, such as it was, in a hall closet behind stacks of discarded textbooks and an outdated ditto machine. The sagging shelves held a couple of broken microscopes, some chemicals that hadn't been used for a decade, a few beakers crusted from lack of cleaning, and other rusty odds and ends. Two established science teachers had some working science equipment stored in their classrooms but were quick to let me know that the equipment was for their use only.

Your circumstances may not be the same, but here's a tip: Expect that you may not have the equipment and supplies you need for your students to do scientific investigations and experiments. Plan to attack this problem head on. You may be new, but you're smart, determined, and probably have a high energy level. Teacher leadership emerges from recognizing a problem and making a decision to tackle it, so step into a teacher-leader role from day one.

First, enlist the support of the administration and the help of fellow science teachers in addressing the lack of needed resources. Make it clear that you are not addressing this issue just for your students, but that this initiative targets upgrading the equipment for the whole science department. Then begin a career-long quest (yes, you read that correctly) in search of better science resources through grants, businesses, and other community sources.

Be creative. Medical professions (dentists, hospitals, and doctors' offices) may furnish surgical gloves and other items for students to use during lab work. Police drug units tend to be a particularly good source of triple beam balances. University biology departments sometimes donate perfectly good working microscopes when they purchase new ones. Parents can generally be counted on to donate paper towels, vinegar, baking soda, and other grocery store supplies. (Note: Paper cups and kitchen scales are better than nothing, but do focus on introducing your students to the world of science exploration by using the actual tools of the trade--real science equipment.)

Did someone drop a bomb on my classroom-to-be?

My first classroom was in a circa-1940's school facility and resembled a disaster area. Over a fourth of the floor was bare concrete, and peeling tile covered the remainder. Student tables were battered and covered with graffiti. The broken teacher's desk had no chair and the walls badly needed paint. While carpentry and painting were not in my contract, I quickly got over that minor point and enlisted friends and family in cleaning, painting, and giving the room a welcoming appearance. My thinking about this was simple. I wanted to begin my new career on a good note, and my classroom would say a lot to students about how much I cared about teaching and about them.

If your room needs a facelift and the system can't take care of it, just do it yourself. (The "do-it-yourself" philosophy will serve you well as a teacher -- trust me on this!) Besides, it's easier to keep graffiti and student-caused damage under control when your room and student tables are clean to start with.

Why are my students looking at me like that?

I'm such a science enthusiast that it took me by surprise when some of my students arrived with a serious case of "science apathy," or even an active dislike of science. When I told them what remarkable learning experiences we would have during the year, many of their expressions said, "Yeah, right." Obviously, these kids needed some tender loving SIC -- Science Instructional Care.

Should you look out at faces filled with disinterest, consider that their previous science experiences might have been dominated by textbook-driven teaching and paper-and-pencil assignments. Fortunately, you have an opportunity to correct that. You might start SIC treatment on the first day with an eye-popping discrepant event–-something that puzzles students and invites inquiry. You can find some great ideas by typing "science discrepant events" into an Internet search engine. Continue SIC treatment early on by engaging students in actively investigating, experimenting, and working together to learn science principles and issues. Your enthusiasm about science and its relevance to what your students do during the year can cure many of them of their apathy and build interest in learning. Remember: Inquiry, inquiry, inquiry!

What on earth is going on in those small groups?

Before completing the first three weeks of teaching I made an important discovery. I could plan wonderful lessons to involve students in active learning and experimentation. And like any good teacher, I planned for my students to work together in groups to learn, explore, and solve problems. Planning, however, did not make it happen. Frankly, my students were not good at working together in teams. That set off alarm bells for me--especially since teamwork is one of the most important lifelong skills students will need. So I started on a career-long quest to help my students learn how to work together productively.

I'm going to get preachy now. Please make building community and teamwork in your classroom a top priority. Understand that helping your students learn to work together and accomplish something will definitely be an uphill challenge. You will deal with frequent frustration (yours and theirs) as you help them develop this skill. I have a couple of "how to" ideas that might assist you. Feel free to correspond with me at ajolly@bellsouth.net. When you discover team-building techniques that work, I'd like to hear your tips as well.

Who are those other adults in my building?

When I started teaching one of the most surprising discoveries was that I was basically isolated from other teachers. That was a real jaw-dropper. In my former profession, I met with colleagues on a daily basis to analyze and discuss our work with (are you ready for this?) laboratory rats. I had the distinct belief that students were at least as important as lab rats, so naturally I was perplexed by the lack of communication and collaboration among the adults with daily responsibility for their progress.

Later in my career I began addressing this problem, but I wish I’d begun a lot sooner. So this tip is more like a plea: Start now and take a leadership role in establishing learning connections with your colleagues. Hopefully you have (authentic) professional learning communities in your schools where you can work with other teachers to learn, grow, and improve your instruction. If you don’t, I have some tips along those lines, too! Keep in mind that collaboration is a culture change for teachers who have "grown up" in a tradition of stoic individualism and some degree of competitiveness. As a new teacher you don't have these hang-ups yet, so become an advocate for regularly working together, building knowledge and sharing ideas, and feeling a collective sense of responsibility for all students.

And don’t limit your collaborative thinking to your own school building. Ongoing connections to science teacher colleagues in other schools and locations provide you with fresh ideas, trouble-shooting tips, and collegial support to refuel your enthusiasm when you feel discouraged. Form local and district connections with as many science teachers as you can. You can find virtual groups and support through a number of science organizations. Join the National Science Teachers Association (nsta.org), a great source of information, listservs, conferences, lessons and workable ideas from real science teachers. Locate science Web sites such as the National Health Museum (accessexcellence.org) and the NSF-sponsored Middle School Science & Math Portal (msteacher.org). Sites like these provide information and resources targeting first year science teachers, exciting lessons, and access to others who share your enthusiasm.

These aren't questions, but let me add three more quick tips:

-- Give your students the freedom to design their own science investigations, make mistakes, and try again. Canned labs are okay for teaching students to follow directions and demonstrating some principles. But don't overdo the pre-fab stuff. Science is all about genuine inquiry.

-- Actively find opportunities to involve parents. Parents are not your enemy. You'll need extra hands and eyes when doing labs. You'll also need parents in helping you find funding sources for science equipment. And parents with science-related backgrounds or careers can help students make the linkage between the K-12 classroom and the future.

-- Finally, plan for a long and fulfilling career teaching real science to many hundreds of naturally curious students. Remember, you're doing something every day that matters--not just to those students who will choose to pursue science careers, but to every kid who comes to see the important and exciting place science holds in our 21st century world.

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