Schools and districts around the country increasingly have difficulty finding qualified science teachers to staff their classrooms. In California—where I’m a teacher—the number of credentials issued to new science teachers in the state dipped 14 percent in the last four years, according to a recent report from the Learning Policy Institute. My school was unable to fill all of our open science positions, and I know of other schools that were still seeking science teachers after the start of the school year. In fact, 40 states and the District of Columbia reported science-teacher shortages to the U.S. Department of Education during the last school year.
Our students need science teachers who are able to inspire them and prepare them for science learning in the 21st century. But providing schools with such teachers begins with support for the teachers themselves.
When I began my first teaching assignment at a San Francisco high school serving students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, I was not prepared for the realities I would face in the classroom. Like many other first-year teachers, I would not have considered myself qualified to teach at that time—probably much to the chagrin of my credentialing program. Science teachers have the challenge of juggling additional responsibilities, such as helping students understand the complex processes of science; making sure students follow proper safety procedures during labs; and maintaining a well-stocked inventory for experiments.
My first year was tough and filled with many moments of self-doubt and tears. However, support in and out of school helped me build a firm foundation for my career. Similar experiences must be available to all science teachers, especially those who are just starting out in the classroom.
Ensuring students’ access to well-trained and qualified science teachers depends on the creation of supportive school environments."
In fact, ensuring students’ access to well-trained and qualified science teachers depends on the creation of supportive school environments and the availability of additional programs that allow teachers to hone their skills in a nonjudgmental space. I once lamented to a former professor that teaching would be so much easier if we could just download all the information we needed into our brains. I have since learned in my 10 years in the classroom that teaching is exciting because of the learning that teachers experience alongside their students.
But there must be room and opportunities for growth to happen. Teachers will not feel as though they have the space to learn by trial and error if they are fearful that an unsupportive administration will fire them.
How do we ensure that all students have access to well-trained and qualified science teachers? Education Week Commentary invited teachers, professors, and teacher-educators across the country to weigh in on this pressing challenge. This special section is supported by a grant from The Noyce Foundation. Education Week retained sole editorial control over the content of this package; the opinions expressed are the authors’ own, however. Read more from the package.
During my formative years, the head of my department stood by me during trying times as I navigated the challenges of classroom management and lesson planning. The counseling department and administration were also instrumental in assisting me in handling challenging students. Maintaining lab supplies and a safe environment for experiments presents a challenge even for veteran science teachers, so administrative support must last long after the first year.
It is also important that teachers are not demonized as part of the problem, but rather seen as collaborators working toward solutions alongside staff and students. Even normally understanding administrators will sometimes see teachers as the cause of an issue without realizing that they have a responsibility to treat new teachers with patience.
Support programs for teachers—new and seasoned—are also an important element for growth. When I attended the teacher-induction program at the Exploratorium, a hands-on learning museum in San Francisco with a professional institute for science teachers, I had access to mentors who were former and current K-12 science teachers and scientists, as well as workshops to navigate the unique challenges of science teaching. I had a forum in which to vent my frustrations with those who had similar experiences and received invaluable feedback from staff members who visited my classroom.
The Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum in San Francisco, offers a specialized induction program for new science teachers. The inquiry-based program offers teachers the support of a professional “guild” of scientists and science educators.
Because the advice came from neutral parties outside the school system, I did not have to worry about a negative performance evaluation that might jeopardize my job. Such support programs help teachers improve their skills in ways that are not possible within a regular school day.
Seventeen percent of new teachers leave the classroom within the first five years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Instead of being forced out or getting burned out, teachers need to know that they have the freedom to reflect and learn from their mistakes without being penalized. To make this happen, school districts, administrators, and fellow teachers must take steps to be more understanding, give teachers opportunities to try different ways to improve student outcomes, and ultimately allow them to become the kinds of educators all students deserve.
And if every student is able to learn about science with a teacher who feels supported, I believe more students will pursue careers in science. They will be scientifically literate, able to think critically about the challenges they will encounter in the future, and prepared to become the next generation of science leaders—or maybe even science teachers.
Coverage of science learning and career pathways is supported in part by a grant from The Noyce Foundation, at www.noycefdn.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2016 edition of Education Week as Advice From the Science Classroom