May 2023 | Classroom Commentary
5 Lessons I Wish I’d Learned Earlier in My Career
By Andrea Gearhart
I sometimes wish I could travel back in time and give advice to my younger self in order to avoid or ease the discomfort I experienced as I struggled and grew as a teacher.
Now, after 26 years of teaching high school chemistry, I find comfort in being able to share with fellow educators some of the lessons I learned — insights I developed over many years of good and bad teaching days, dealing with hundreds of teenagers and their families, and numerous rounds of administrators.
I hope that by sharing some of the lessons that helped me develop into a more impactful and effective teacher, I may also help other chemistry teachers. Here are five of my most important lessons.
1. Truly know your chemistry.
|Figure 1. The author uses a textbook to help prepare for a chemistry lesson.
Photo credit: D. Gearhart
You owe it to yourself and your students to become not just competent, but very strong in your understanding of chemistry. It is your job to lead students through the challenging topics and develop the problem-solving mindset needed to understand this subject — two important goals that ultimately depend upon your knowledge as the teacher. I believe that genuinely understanding each unit and laboratory experience establishes credibility with your students, which in turn assists with inspiring effort on their part.
Mastering the course curriculum can take a lot of time for a young teacher — likely requiring numerous hours each week, especially in one’s first two or three years of teaching. I strongly suggest reading the topic sections from several different chemistry textbooks or teaching sources to get a broader perspective on the different ways a particular topic can be explained. Ask colleagues if they have any “old” or extra textbooks that you could have or borrow, and also look for bookstores that sell used college and high school chemistry textbooks at a low cost (my local used bookstore sells them for $10–25 each). You can also harvest good questions and example problems from textbooks, or get inspiration for creating your own worksheets.
Hang in there — because, after a few years of creating lessons, labs, and assessments, you’ll probably need less and less time to prepare to teach. Investing effort and energy in mastering your subject is never time wasted; it assists greatly in lesson development and builds trust with your students. Speaking personally, the time I invested years ago has kept my interest and wonder in chemistry alive for both myself and my students.
2. Learn from others.
Find strong chemistry educators from whom you can learn. These might be chemistry teachers in your own school, or elsewhere in your district. Learn from those around you, and find time to watch other teachers actually teach the same subject area. Observing other teachers lead a lesson can be an extremely valuable experience for an early-career teacher.
If you don’t have teachers to connect with locally, there are many outstanding teachers available online. I’ve learned so much from those teachers who are active in creating and sharing video content on YouTube. I search specifically for those whom I enjoy and learn from best. My favorite master chemistry teachers are Lisa McGaw, Michael Farabaugh, Dena Leggett, and Julie Laub.
Additionally, exclusively for those who teach AP Chemistry, there is an AP Chemistry Facebook group. Educators with all levels of experience go there to post and react to questions about content, lab, class management, lesson ideas, and so much more. I’ve learned a lot and found exceptional resources through this platform. Members of this group seem to be very active, as I’ve seen that most questions are responded to within a few hours of being posted. Additionally, apteach.org is a community of AP chemistry educators from around the globe who meet virtually each month to discuss a timely topic (the order in which topics are presented follows that of the College Board Curriculum). Meetings usually start with an expert presenter on the topic, after which attendees participate in breakout groups to discuss aspects of the topic such as common student misconceptions, best practices, etc.
Lastly, the AACT classroom resource library has more than 1,000 teaching resources, including labs, activities, demos, and lessons — all created by fellow teachers of chemistry. They have been peer-reviewed by teachers, and include helpful teacher tips, answer keys, and more. I think you’ll find it’s a great place to start building your collection of go-to lesson plans, or to find new ideas for your classroom. Additionally, AACT Webinars offer another valuable opportunity to learn about chemistry, teaching strategies, and unique topics from other educators. Check out the online calendar for upcoming webinars.
3. Be yourself.
|Figure 2. The author embraces her love for teaching in a chemistry themed T-shirt.
Some of the best advice I have ever received was from a sophomore whom I taught when I was in my fifth year in the classroom. Leaving class, he told me, “Lessons are the best when you are yourself, Mrs. Gearhart.” This statement made me realize that students could tell when I was trying to be too serious for my personality.
In this instance, he was complimenting me, and he had obviously enjoyed the lesson, which revolved around synthesis reactions. I taught this topic just after the students had mastered balancing chemical equations. After introducing each type of reaction, I invited a student or two to perform an example reaction for the class. I especially enjoyed the demonstration of nonmetal oxide reacting with water, in which I had two students compete to see who could turn their beaker of water (with a few drops of bromothymol blue and a pinch of baking soda to make it basic) acidic, which would show as a yellow color due to the indicator. I gave the students straws to add their nonmetal oxide (carbon dioxide) to the water, and encouraged those who were observing to cheer on the participants as they competed.
Everyone enjoyed this demo to the fullest. And although the participants ended up with water splashed on their faces (protected by splash goggles, of course!), the rest of the students had a memorable experience, full of laughter.
So the lesson here is, be yourself. After all, you’re neither your cooperating teacher, your mentor, nor any other teacher whom you admire. Nothing is better than being yourself. Don’t hold back on those excellent chemistry jokes — they are not Argon! Do not pass up wearing chemistry T-shirts, socks, ties, etc. — if that suits your personality. Being yourself will give color to your classroom, which your students will appreciate and remember for years to come.
4. Do not lower your expectations.
You are the leader of your classroom. You set the behavioral and academic expectations and determine the “warmth level” of your classroom. It is exhausting to simultaneously model good character, correct students’ undesirable behavior, and spark their engagement and sound thinking. You need to remind yourself daily (often multiple times each day) that you are doing very important work. You are helping to develop and guide their young minds, so keep your expectations high.
In classrooms throughout the country, teachers are still working to correct bad learning habits students formed during the COVID pandemic. For example, I think it’s important to continue to expect students to memorize a list of polyatomic ions, despite students protesting that they “cannot memorize.” Provide students with examples of learning and study strategies, including your own and those that have worked for previous students. Other examples of good academic expectations include timely test taking, student engagement during lessons, and homework completion.
Over your career, you will get occasional emails and thank-you notes from past students, telling you how much impact you made, and the academic strengths that you helped them develop. Keep those notes handy, because you may need to re-read them on one of your “bad days”!
5. Find “your people”.
|Figure 3. The author (right) and a colleague exchange ideas.
Photo credit: L. Hyland
In addition to learning from other educators, be sure to also connect with them. It is difficult for anyone who’s not a teacher to truly understand the joys, demands, and stresses of our jobs. Find teachers who are like-minded — those who have a similar work ethic, and who enjoy their subject and working with students as much as you do.
We teachers can be our own best resources. Finding that select group of educators with whom you can brainstorm lesson ideas and discuss student issues is invaluable for your professional development and endurance. Such colleagues will listen when you vent (but not let you ruminate too long in frustration) and more importantly, will also help you find a solution.
Don’t fear reaching out to a teacher from across the country on Facebook, or connecting with someone you met at a professional development session. One of my “people” was my first question-buddy at the first AP Reading event that I attended. Another was an AP chemistry teacher I had admired from afar for years by watching his videos on YouTube (and finally worked up the courage to contact directly). Sharing ideas with these two fellow educators has strengthened my teaching and understanding of chemistry. Having a small group of “my people” has been a lifeline that has made the rollercoaster ride that is teaching much smoother and enjoyable.
Looking back, paying it forward
Being an educator is hard, and there are times you may not like your job. Having developed a network of great teachers has been a tremendous help to me — whether I made the initial connections at my own high school, while attending conferences, or participating in online teacher forums. These teachers have played an integral role in my success as a teacher, and served as a much-needed support system.
I have such gratitude and appreciation for chemistry teachers, no matter their years of experience. We teach a difficult subject, and teaching it well is not a small endeavor. My general advice to newer teachers is to continue working hard to academically challenge and develop your students.
But to conclude with two last bits of even more specific advice: Look your students in the eye (sometimes we forget we teach kids, and taking the time to truly look at each student helps to remind you of that fact), and wear comfortable shoes whenever possible!