The Trials of Teaching Science: One Teacher’s Struggle

The photos above are from my year of Teacher Tuesdays. The teacher described in this post asked to remain anonymous.

Written By Dr. Chloe N. Poston

K-12 STEM education is a concept that is often thrown around by teacher unions, parents, circles in higher education, and even the President in an address or two. Why so much interest? The answer is simple: Americans routinely perform below average when compared globally on Math and Science Exams.  This is especially troubling as we look to the future of STEM and the preparedness of students to perform in these fields.

Several of my favorite periodicals have zeroed in on teaching this week. The New York Times ran two pieces focused on teaching in America. The first found here focuses on the fact that while the U.S.A. does a great job at innovating the learning process, we are pretty awful at actually implementing these techniques in our schools. The author, Elzabeth Green states that main reason for this is because teachers are not taught how to teach the new methods. This results in students learning complicated methods, but not the concepts behind them.  The second opinion comes from Joe Nocera. In his Op-Ed he discusses the increase in books aimed at creating better teachers and focuses on a book by Elizabeth Green (the author of the aforementioned article) that identifies the qualities of a good teacher and describes ways to strengthen those qualities in anyone.  Elsewhere in the Atlantic, one teacher gives an account entitled ” I Lie About My Teaching“where he describes his lack of honest discussion with other teachers (a tactic that is hailed by Elizabeth Green) that likely stymies both his and his colleague’s improvement.

All of this made me curious because teaching science, unlike history or grammar, comes with experiments and inherent hands on activities. I have some experience with this because I volunteered to teach at a local high school during graduate school. “Teacher Tuesdays” meant that I got to create fun, interactive lesson plans for three 9th grade biology classes to underpin the general concepts to be covered. Even though I only taught once a week, some challenges were obvious: there weren’t enough books for every student; resources were scarce and I often purchased materials for experiments myself; and there was a great deal of standardized testing, more than the just the end of the year exam. But even so, the students were engaged in my lessons and seemed to take something from our time together. I know my perspective from Teacher Tuesdays is skewed because this wasn’t my day job, my performance wasn’t evaluated based on student comprehension, and I was only there once a week.

To get a more realistic view of what it is like to teach science at a high school, I turned to a Facebook friend who had been quite publicly counting down the days until he completed his final year of teaching. Our discussion was a follows:

What event or experience in your life prompted you to pursue science at the undergraduate level?

For most of high school, I considered history and English as my academic passions. At the time, writing essays and reading about history seemed to be more interesting than my science courses, which seemed a little dry. My school offered few AP classes for juniors, so I felt pressured to sign up for as many as possible my senior year. Two of the AP courses I took were AP Chemistry and AP Biology. AP Chemistry was the first class in all four years of high school that truly challenged me and though I was not successful all the time, I found this challenge was strangely motivating. As I learned more about the properties of matter and how chemical reactions occurred, my interest in chemistry grew. AP Biology further fueled my passion in the sciences once I saw how the two fields were so intertwined. By the end of my senior year, I decided that I wanted to pursue chemistry as my major in college so that I could one day help design pharmacological agents to help treat the ill.

 Why did you decide that becoming a teacher was the best option for you?

 To be perfectly honest, I had no intention of becoming a teacher at first. My original plan was to finish college, take about 2 years off, and then enter medical school. It was not until a Teach For America recruiter contacted me in the fall of my senior year that I even considered teaching. As the TFA recruiter spoke to me about the organization’s mission ad vision, I couldn’t help but think of my own experiences attending an urban school in a low-income community. I had a considerable amount of teachers who invested in my education and no doubt played a significant role in my success today. I saw teaching as a means to give back to my community. After much reflection and several discussions with other TFA staff, I decided to apply. If I didn’t teach, I may have done healthcare consulting or worked as lab technician somewhere. When I was accepted to Teach For America, I was assigned to the Greater Newark Region. I soon learned that the high school I graduated from recently became a Teach For America placement school. Interestingly enough, I ended up being assigned to one of the buildings of my former high school. I was able to work with some of my former teachers and even had one as my vice principal. I did what I could to remind my students that being from Elizabeth, NJ was not a bad thing and tried to reinforce the idea that education was a way out.

 Provide a general description of the school where you taught. 

The school where I taught is one of the six high schools in Elizabeth, NJ. Prior to 2009, Elizabeth had one large high school—Elizabeth High School—that was composed of five “houses.” After 2009, the Board of Education decided to make each EHS house a separate “academy” that focused on a certain field of study. I taught at the Halsey Academy of Finance, which had 200 students in the building. The Academy of Finance was technically part of a larger school, the Halsey Leadership Academy, which housed approximately 900 students in the Main Complex. I would say that at least 90% of our students were eligible for free or reduced lunch and often came from low-income households. My class sizes ranged from 18 – 27 students, with an average of about 22 students per class. The graduation rate for Halsey Academy is 61% making it a “Focus School”.   Focus Schools comprise about 10% of schools with the overall lowest subgroup performance, a graduation rate below 75% and the widest gaps in achievement between different subgroups of students.  Focus Schools receive targeted and tailored solutions to meet the school’s unique needs.

What was the most rewarding part of being a teacher?

The most rewarding part of being a teacher is establishing relationships with students and witnessing their transformation both academically and socially. The classroom can be an incredibly impersonal environment and establishing relationships with students individually can be challenging, which is why conversations during lunch and after school were important. I treasured these moments the most.

 It was also incredibly rewarding to find out what students really felt about my class and how much they learned after reading their comments in my mid-year and end-of-year surveys. I had one of my juniors send me the following email the other day: “Mr.G or can I call you by your first name now lol. Didn’t get to say bye to you appropriately, you gave me the ultimate high school experience. You made me realize a lot which can really help me out in my future. You weren’t really much of a teacher , you became one of my role models. Also, I’m very happy for you. Everything you have going for your self is very well deserved, the treatment you received in school by your students was just horrible, soon they will realize that you were a great asset to their education. But I hope you’re doing fine, and keep doing what you’re doing !”

 Finally, it was invigorating to see students who made huge academic leaps. One freshman went from consistently receiving D’s and low F’s to earning a B on his benchmark exam after he decided to attend tutoring and learn how to study effectively.

Did you feel that students were interested in learning more about science?

 Unsurprisingly, many students were always interested in topics that were relevant to their every day lives. They loved learning about how the circulatory system maintained homeostasis as they also learned how to measure their radial pulse and measure a blood pressure. Their eyes gleamed with amazement when they learned how many of the foods they eat were genetically modified and were fascinated by the fact that an organism’s DNA can be changed by humans. One of their favorite chemistry activities was when they made their own ice cream while learning the concept of freezing point depression. I learned that students would be interested in a topic if presented in a way that personally connects with them.

What are some of the challenges that students encountered as they tried to learn science?

 The great majority of my students were definitely not equipped to tackle a rigorous science education. Many of my students lacked basic literacy skills and came to my class with weak math backgrounds, which I feel was a major hindrance in understanding relatively complex scientific content. I had a 16-year old sophomore in my Biology course who literally did not know what the word “repetition” meant when I encouraged him to review his notes at home. I had another sophomore in my Chemistry class use a calculator to figure out what 32 x 1 was as he struggled to calculate the molar mass of sulfuric acid. He seemed truly confused when I told him that any number multiplied by one equals the same number. (He used a calculator and got 1031 as an answer.) My end-of-quarter test scores were consistently low. I did my best to break down test questions as I soon discovered that their low test scores were not necessarily because they did not understand the science concepts, but simply had trouble deciphering the question stems. How could I expect students to excel at rigorous benchmark exams when they literally could not understand the questions? Unfortunately, despite my great efforts to encourage them, certain students remained discouraged by their low test scores and felt that there was no point in trying if they were going to fail anyway. In addition to the skills gap in math and literacy, many of my students simply have trouble retaining content. I learned that a considerable chunk of my curriculum has already been covered in middle school, but most, if not all, don’t actually retain any of it. Density, for example, has been discussed repeatedly since at least the 7th grade, yet many of them still cannot explain or apply the concept. I often times wonder how certain students were even allowed to leave middle school not having such basic skills.

Many of my students also had to balance many responsibilities at home as some of their parents often depended on them to take care of younger siblings or deal with certain errands. Some had part-time jobs, which they needed to help support themselves or their families. I had one remarkable Chemistry student who worked almost full time to support herself and pay rent every month, but still managed to earn mostly A’s and some B’s. Others had an unstable home environment and frequently moved. Knowing all this, I did my best to accommodate every student’s unique situation.

 What challenges did you encounter as a teacher? Why did you decide to quit?

 I faced many challenges as a teacher, but I will only discuss the main ones here.  One challenge was that trying to teach students “college prep” science was an incredibly difficult task when they lacked basic skills as I mentioned above.

Another challenge was trying to manage the immense workload that always seemed overwhelming. Creating lesson plans, preparing instructional materials, grading classwork and exams, attending meetings, trying to communicate with parents and guardians, and tutoring students after school were all very time-consuming, not to mention physically and mentally exhausting. During my first year and a half of teaching, it would not be exaggeration for me to say that I worked an average of 80 hours a week, which often included Saturday evenings. I dedicated every single Sunday to creating packets of guided notes, practice questions, Power Point slides, and updating my class website. Then there was the pressure to make every lesson “fun” and engaging, which can sometimes be difficult when you have objectives like “Students will be able to explain the different agricultural practices.” (Seriously, who cares?)

After a year and a half, I had to accept the fact that this pace was simply not sustainable. Though I battled with feelings of guilt and inadequacy, I knew I needed to significantly reduce the amount of hours I spent doing work outside the classroom. Unfortunately, reducing hours meant I needed to “cut some corners” and to this day, I wonder how much my instructional quality suffered. At the end of it all, I had a very hard time with accepting that there were simply not enough resources to adequately teach every student in way that they needed. I often had to improvise when doing labs or avoid doing them completely due to a lack of appropriate lab equipment and chemicals.

I decided to quit when my burn out became too great to manage and I began to truly hate my job as it continuously drained me of my time and energy. Once I felt that I was not becoming as effective as I would like to be, I had countless conversations with colleagues, my vice-principal, and my friends about the future of my teaching career. After months of deep reflection, I decided that I must resign from my teaching position and return to my original passion—medicine. Though I could have continued to “cut more corners” to make the workload more manageable, I don’t think I could ever live with the guilt of not dedicating every minute I’m awake to improving my instruction.

In your opinion what should be done to improve STEM education at the high school level?

 Most professional development workshops and science department meetings do an excellent job at emphasizing the importance of inquiry-based and student-centered instruction. This is nothing new and my science supervisor often encourages teachers to create lessons that are “hands-on, minds-on.” STEM education needs to equip students with “21st century skills.” Science classes should teach students how to think critically, analyze and interpret data, develop sound hypotheses, and effectively communicate. I do believe that these skills can be learned if students are given multiple lab and project opportunities to actually practice these skills as students learn best when they are engaged in hands-on activities that are intellectually stimulating and not simply listening passively.

Lectures need to be eliminated or at the very least be extremely limited as it leads to the least amount of retention. For this to be possible, benchmark exams need to be completely redesigned. These exams cannot remain in the format they are in today—75% multiple choice and 25% open-ended questions that require students to remember a great amount of arbitrary pieces of scientific knowledge. Because of the amount of content that is required to be “covered” by my district’s science curriculum, there is simply not enough time to teach every unit with an inquiry-based approach where students take several days to “discover” a new concept. At a certain point, lecture becomes the most efficient way of “covering” material. Assessments should require students to solve specific problems and demonstrate their entire thought process. These one-to-two-hour multiple-choice exams simply need to end as they do a poor job in seeing how students think and in challenging them to think “outside the box.” At the very least, exams should mostly be composed of open-ended questions that ask students to show their complete thought process.

 If school districts insist on standardizing science education in all their schools, the prescribed curriculum needs to explicitly describe what teachers need to prepare inquiry-based lessons as well as actually providing the necessary equipment to carry out some of these lessons. There were far too many instances when I had to modify a lab or simply not do a lab because I did not have all the reagents or equipment available. Virtual labs can only be effective at a certain point.

 Administrators need to decide which content is absolutely necessary for students to learn and how teachers can use a variety of projects and lab experiences to effectively teach that content.

 As far as getting more students interested in STEM careers, I believe that mentoring can enhance a student’s education. There should be some type of program that connects active STEM professionals from a variety of industries with high school students who can not only shadow these professionals, but actually contribute to a current project. STEM teachers can even include that work as a project grade.

 This teacher’s experience highlight several initiatives that were implemented with the best of intentions, but are adding to the detriment of K-12 education. If we consider Green’s article in the Times, which promotes extensive teacher training, then it becomes apparent that the Teach For America model does a disservice to both the people it places in the classroom and the students who are there to learn from them. This error is exacerbated by the fact that Teach For America schools are often low-performance schools, like the one described here, that would benefit most from the best, most seasoned teachers. This teacher also talks about STEM preparedness and knowledge retention. Math literacy or numeracy is a prerequisite to excel in any STEM field. High school freshmen who have become dependent on calculators without knowing concepts will likely lose interest in STEM because of their inability to perform. In the long-term, this reduces the pool of potential STEM majors in college and graduates on the job market.

The theme that ran through this account, and the articles in the Times and Atlantic is the idea of adequate training. Teachers are given large curriculum overhauls and when the performance measures are not up to par in a single year, parents and policymakers push to change the curriculum again (Common Core Anyone?). This gives teachers no time to properly learn the best way to teach the curriculum and meet redesigned standards. Furthermore, as states trim budgets at the expense of education, teachers have less (paid) time to train and often times school districts lack the resources to provide said training.

Placing blame is easy, but I encourage you to write a congress person or a state representative. Stop allowing education to end up on the cutting room floor. Perhaps better funded schools can both hire and train great teachers that meet national standards and improve America’s overall global competitiveness in education.

What do you think?

 

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