May 2016 | In My Element
Finding a New Element
By Rie Somlai
After a major geographical relocation for my spouse’s career, I decided to leave my tenured position as an associate professor of chemistry with ten years of experience at a primarily teaching institution, Delta State University, in the rural Mississippi Delta.
In my position as a university associate professor, I was responsible for teaching Organic Chemistry I and II, Introduction to Organic Chemistry, and General Chemistry I, all with corresponding laboratories. I was respected for my work ethic, my commitment to student learning, and quality of service to the university. I had also received an Outstanding College Teacher award from the Mississippi Science Association of Teachers and two different Alumni Awards for Teaching and Dedication to Students. In short, I was passionate about preparing undergraduate and masters degree students with a comprehensive chemistry background to enable success at the next level of graduate or professional school.
I took a one-year leave from academia before reentering the teaching profession, and then accepted a position to teach high school science at a private school in Indianapolis, Indiana. My teaching load would include dual-credit chemistry classes (lecture and laboratory as separate credits) through Indiana University Bloomington (IU), three chemistry classes, a general biology class, a learning lab for re-teaching in a professional learning community, and a study hall.
Finding my way in a new environment
I interviewed in late June for this position. Upon accepting the position two weeks later, I learned that I needed to be approved at IU for dual-credit teaching and attend training there. With school starting in early August, my teaching at the high school level was already beginning much differently from my university experience.
At the university I had been able to choose my own textbook, supplementary materials, and laboratory supplies with a substantial budget. At the high school, on the other hand, I’m expected to design a curriculum with limited funds for supplies and student textbooks. While money was budgeted for laboratory supplies and glassware for the new dual-credit chemistry offering, I was asked to submit a wish list for the remaining science offerings. Thankfully, a parent with a science background offered to help purchase lab supplies. This has allowed the chemistry laboratory experiments to be a little more robust. I have also applied for a grant that would allow for laboratory supply expenditures.
Another major difference is timing. While I was teaching at the university, most of my colleagues came in well before the start of school to order lab supplies and prepare syllabi. In contrast, at the high school, I’ve had little preparation time before classes. In addition, I don’t have much time between classes, as compared to university. It has sometimes been difficult to make the transition from teaching the dual-credit chemistry class to ninth grade biology class within the space of a few minutes.
I also felt there was more support and opportunity for mentor relationships in the university setting. For example, I needed to provide information to IU about scheduling and planned laboratory experiments before school started. But I had questions about the way the school year was structured, and how to write a semester-long versus a year-long syllabus. Unfortunately, teachers and administrative staff were taking their last vacations before school started, and I did not yet have access to the school building.
So I improvised, and did the best I could to supply information concerning the dual-credit college chemistry class. I tried using the internet as a source for college level laboratory experiments, and I researched several potential textbooks for use in the class. In contrast to my university experience, I did not have to get approval for the textbook or the laboratory experiment. In university, I also had the opportunity to work with five chemists with similar training and backgrounds. In high school, I am the only chemist by training, and there is currently only one other science teacher who teaches junior high school.
I also learned that high school comes with its own terminology; terms such as ICP, ACP, ECA, ISTEP, and 504’s were all new and puzzling. In hindsight, it would have been really helpful if I had defined all of these acronyms on one sheet of paper and kept it for reference.
Adapting to teaching at the high school level
All aspects of teaching chemistry at the high school level, compared to university, have been so different for me.
For example, I am now very aware of the differences between some high school and university students’ abilities to think and reason — as well as in the students’ motivation. For the most part, students who enrolled in my university chemistry classes were intrinsically motivated. In contrast, many of the high school students I now teach simply need the science credit, and have few options in science classes because of the school size.
Here are some of the ways I’ve adapted my teaching approach accordingly:
Classwork and homework. At university, I assigned many problems, but did not have students turn in homework. After teaching the class several times, all of my homework problems were listed in the class syllabi. In contrast, for my high school classes, I have learned to make homework assignments shorter but still relevant. If an assignment is too long or creates cognitive overload, the students often quit working on it — or just do not attempt it at all.
Teaching philosophies and goals. As a high school teacher, I am expected to design engaging activities and rely less on teaching the material from the students’ actual textbook. I also have to record, at a minimum, two new formative, summative, and/or laboratory grades per class each week and submit weekly lesson plans with daily student learning objectives. Learning to assign meaningful work and manage the grading load has been challenging. I have started to “trade and grade” in some classes, as this makes the grading load lighter, and it provides instantaneous assessment review and feedback. I also have been grading less homework — although I do check for homework completion.
New instructional emphases. I am readjusting my instruction to emphasize laboratory safety, behavior expectations, and how to read and interpret laboratory procedures. For example, I found that students were asking me for guidance after each step of the laboratory procedure, and it was getting confusing, because each group was in a different place in the lab. I now require my chemistry students to write the laboratory procedures in their own words. If students have questions about the experiment, I ask them to show me what step they are doing in the procedure. I find it rewarding (and a little humorous) that when a student has a question about what to do next, the other students will tell the individual to read their procedure!
- Setting expectations. At university, I listed in my syllabi classroom management expectations for the students as well as expectations that students could have of me. After I reviewed these expectations the first day, my students generally came to class prepared, seated themselves, and were respectful of me as well as their peers. With my high school students, I have to be much more explicit about many behaviors I used to take for granted — including not bringing food or drink into the laboratory, doing homework (even when not graded), the consequences of turning in late work, and unfortunately, even throwing objects in class.
The classroom management learning curve
One of the biggest adjustments I have had to make is in the area of classroom management. I have had to develop new skills and tactics in order to motivate, yet still maintain order, within my classroom. This learning curve has been tremendous, and some days I still feel like a beginner teacher in this area.
I was also unaccustomed to the sequence of steps that must one follow when trying to curb discipline issues. In my new environment, I must first try to resolve all discipline issues in the classroom, then follow with emails to the parents/guardians, and document all the intervention steps in our school management system. If these steps have not been successful in curbing discipline issues, administrative involvement becomes necessary.
It has taken me one semester to even become comfortable with emailing parents about grades or behavior issues. This is strongly encouraged at this private school, in an effort to build a partnership with parents/guardians in educating their young adult. Fortunately, most parents have been extremely supportive when I have emailed them about specific behavior concerns or about more general concerns — and when I have taken such extra steps, I have noticed changes in students’ classroom behavior, completion of work, and attendance.
Although the university to high school transition has been quite challenging for me, I have enjoyed working with students and seeing their growth and confidence in new problem solving skills. Although I am radically changing my teaching methodology, a passion for chemistry has remained one constant in this transition. With chemistry, I feel as if I am in my element. As I have learned from teaching at university, the first year is a growing year. Looking forward to next year, I am becoming more comfortable with the pacing of the material as well as learning to recognize when the majority of students are prepared for a quiz or test. I feel strongly that I will need more training, whether through a conference or independent training in classroom management and behavior.
I also have a new respect for all secondary teachers. They possess untold strength of character and a passion for working with students.