Starting Out on the Right Foot in Chemistry

By John Bergmann and Jeff Christopherson on September 5, 2014

Starting any school year is stressful for everyone, especially young teachers. In our years of teaching high school chemistry, we have combined to start a school year almost 40 times. Here are some things we like to focus on during the first few weeks of chemistry class.

1. Establish the Tenor of Your Classroom

Your students need to know that, in your classroom, there is a purpose. The purpose is for students to learn key principles of chemistry, to understand how these principles are manifested in the real world, and to learn how to apply these principles – often quantitatively – to solve problems. Folded in with this purpose, you should strive to emphasize to your students the need for evidence – i.e., observable, measureable data – to support or rationalize decisions, as this is the foundation of all of modern science.

Your students also need to know that there is a pathway you will all follow to achieve that purpose. The pathway is up to you as the teacher, but it should be sequential, steady, and progressive. There should be a balanced variety of learning “tactics” employed. Every day, you should strive to relate today’s material with what has gone before AND to practical application in the real world. Learning chemistry should be like building any large edifice over time: first establish a strong foundation and then add to it little by little, every single day, occasionally looking all the way back to see how far we’ve traveled.

Your students also need to appreciate that, in your classroom, there is focus. That means that you – and they – will stay on the pathway. Occasional detours are fine, and new learning activities are encouraged, but we never lose sight of the main goal and of our purpose. In this regard, it is very important that you know the content backwards and forwards; there is no substitute for absolute thoroughness in knowing what you are talking about. And on a related note, you also must decide upon your classroom procedures and classroom rules and must directly teach them, especially at first. There are any number of ways to go about choosing procedures and rules, some more student-centered and others more teacher-centered, but they MUST be chosen and you must teach them at the beginning of the year.

2. Do a few Demonstrations

This will help establish the idea in the minds of students that chemistry can be interesting, sometimes unexpectedly so. Lead the students through the demonstrations by questioning, rather than simply narrating. You will find that, by asking the proper questions, you can lead students to connect what they already know or have experienced with new ideas. Demonstrations are a great way to establish an interactive rapport with your students, a back-and-forth type of dialog that generates a positive classroom environment. Demonstrations are also a great way to emphasize the importance of safety in the chemistry classroom and – by extension – at home, out on the road, and anywhere else your students find themselves. One of our favorite demos is the Remsen demonstration. This is a great one to help students develop observation skills. When students first see the demonstration, we don’t explain in detail what is happening (at the beginning of the year, the students don’t have enough chemistry background yet), but it is a great demonstration for generating interest in your class.

3. Be Like a Boy Scout: Be Prepared

You need to be ready to go when the curtain rises. Have your photocopying done ahead of time. New labs or new homework sets will surface at the last minute, and you’ll have to copy those the day before (or the day of) the lesson, but make sure to get the lion’s share of the copying done in advance. On lab days, the area should be ready to go: clean (for starters, anyway), each piece of equipment in its proper place, and safety equipment accessible and functioning. Finally, be one step ahead by thinking about policies such as the following:

  • how will you handle late homework,
  • how you will approach homebound instruction if the need arises,
  • what are your interventions for students who don’t do the work, and
  • if students are really struggling, how will you approach them.

Of course, teachers do a billion different things and you can’t plan ahead for each and every one of them, but the more work you put in on the front end, the smoother the sailing, even knowing that wrinkles WILL come up. Strong planning will make the wrinkles fewer, less shocking, and more easily addressed.

So there are a few things to keep in mind as you are starting off your school year. Above and beyond all of this, though, make sure you are having fun. Teaching without going insane these days is largely about adopting the proper attitude toward your work and your students. Make the decision ahead of time that you are going to enjoy it, that the little perturbations that arise on the job are just that: perturbations. You mustn’t allow them to color your view of your work and the learning being achieved by your students.

We wish you the best. Good luck!

John Bergmann and Jeff Christopherson

Originally trained and employed as an engineer, John Bergmann has taught chemistry and physics at Normal Community High School in Normal, IL, since 1997. In his free time, he plays the E-flat cornet in the 33rd Illinois Volunteer Regiment band (a Civil War band), exercises, and nurtures a vegetable garden.

Trained as a chemist, Jeff Christopherson worked in the chemical industry before becoming a teacher at Normal Community High School in Normal, IL. In his spare time, he enjoys photography, gardening, and wood working projects.

John and Jeff maintain a free chemistry website full of quality materials for teachers.