November 2022 | Editorial
Making Connections: The Value of a Professional Learning Network
Have you ever known a student who had that interesting combination of high academic achievement, coupled with poor organization and study habits? In high school, I was that type of student. I enjoyed learning new things, but I usually got by with a minimum amount of effort. I was able to get good grades without really knowing how to study.
I didn’t have the motivation to change my ways until I made the transition from high school to college. I had thought of myself as a (mostly) straight-A student. So, after earning three C’s and a B at the end of my first semester, I struggled to figure out how to turn things around. As I look back and reflect on my journey as a student, I can understand how my academic experiences have shaped my teaching philosophy.
Teaching with empathy
If I had never faced any difficulties as a learner, I would have probably become the sort of teacher who gets easily frustrated when their students don’t “get it” at the end of the lesson. A content expert may have trouble imagining what it’s like to be a novice learner. There is an important distinction between merely knowing a subject well and having the skill set to teach that subject to someone else.
A teacher with good pedagogical content knowledge has a range of instructional strategies and assessment techniques that they use to help students understand the material. I am grateful for the academic challenges I faced over the years, because I believe that they helped me to develop empathy for my students. I have often used the following statement to encourage my students to be persistent. “I decided to major in chemistry in college because I enjoyed that subject…not because I was especially good at it.” Gradually over the years, I was able to grow in both my understanding of chemistry concepts and my ability to teach chemistry to others.
Independence versus isolation
Another experience that had an important impact on my professional development occurred during my first year of teaching.
I had been hired to be the only chemistry teacher at a high school that had just been built. It was not only my responsibility to teach all of the chemistry classes; I also had to order all of the equipment, glassware, and chemicals. The way that I usually describe that first year of teaching is: “The bad news was that there was not another chemistry teacher in the building who could tell me what to do. And the good news was that there was not another chemistry teacher in the building who could tell me what to do!”
I had the freedom to develop my own teaching style, but I also lacked a mentor to give me advice and feedback. I made lots of mistakes during my first few years of teaching, and eventually I discovered ways to improve my skills over time. Isn’t that the sort of growth that we encourage our students to aspire to while they are learning?
Teaching involves building positive relationships — not only with our students, but also with our colleagues.
The sense of isolation that I had felt during my first few years of teaching helped me to understand and appreciate how overwhelmed a new teacher can be. I wanted to establish my own network of chemistry teachers with whom I could collaborate and share ideas. It started locally, as I worked with the other chemistry teachers in my school division.
Eventually I was able to make connections with chemistry teachers from around the country, through websites and social media platforms. For example, I started to ask and answer questions on the College Board’s AP Chemistry Teacher Community. I also joined Twitter, and started following teachers such as Kristen Drury (@APchemisMe), Ryan Johnson (@RyTriGuy), and Ariel Serkin (@aserkin). I learned more about what they were doing in their classrooms from the posts that they shared. (By the way, if you are on Twitter yourself, you can follow me @mrfarabaugh and search helpful hashtags that tend to be used by chemistry teachers such as #iteachchem, #chemed, #chemtwitter, #chemistry, #apchem, and #chemfam.)
I also joined a Facebook group for AP Chemistry Teachers that allowed me to share conversations and resources with thousands of other teachers. In the beginning, I was looking for ways to improve my teaching skills. Eventually I grew more confident that my resources might be helpful to others — and I now have a YouTube channel that I use to share my chemistry lessons with students (but it can be accessed by teachers as well).
In 2011, I attended my first AP Chemistry Reading. This is an annual event, held each June, in which thousands of AP teachers and college faculty score the student free-response questions from the AP exams that were administered earlier that year. Being invited to participate was both exciting and intimidating for me. As I observed this group of enthusiastic and talented chemistry educators, my initial reaction was that I was grateful that such a group existed. However, it took me several years of attending the annual AP Chemistry Reading events before I felt comfortable striking up a conversation with someone I didn’t know. (Not all of us are extroverts, right?)
In the fall of 2014, I became a charter member of AACT. (Read about the launch of AACT in C&EN magazine.) I was excited to join, because I knew that this organization would allow me to improve my professional development and expand my professional learning network (PLN).
I am grateful for the resources available to me through my AACT membership. If you’re not a member of AACT, you can either (1) learn about the benefits of membership online or (2) you can connect with me, and I’ll talk you into it! If you are a member of AACT already, I encourage you to make the choice to get more involved. There are many ways for members to contribute to the AACT community, such as serving in leadership positions, sharing resources, hosting a webinar, etc. Another way to share your insights and reach teachers outside your immediate circle is to write about a topic for the AACT quarterly periodical, Chemistry Solutions. (Complete this short form to tell us how you would like to get more involved!)
As my PLN expanded, I felt a certain level of imposter syndrome. This is a predictable phenomenon, because it’s hard to resist the temptation to compare ourselves with others. I am consistently impressed by the variety of activities and resources that are shared by such a diverse group of amazing teachers. As a result of my admiration for my colleagues, I tend to assume that I have nothing special to share. I need to remember that the teachers in my PLN share at least two qualities in common: our passion for helping our students and our desire to improve ourselves as educators.
It was around 2018 when I first became aware of conferences focused on chemistry education. One of them is ChemEd, and another is the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education (BCCE). These are 5-day conferences that occur during the summer. Each of them occurs every two years, and they alternate back and forth, so that there is always a summer conference available to attend. They bring together chemistry educators from across North America to collaborate and share ideas. There are demonstrations, hands-on labs, workshops, and chemistry sessions for enrichment and professional development.
After seeing details about these conferences shared by fellow teachers in my PLN, it definitely increased not only my curiosity, but also my FOMO (that is, Fear of Missing Out)!
Fortunately, I was able to attend my first BCCE conference in July 2022, which was held on the campus of Purdue University. I experienced both joy and regret. My joy was having the chance to meet many chemistry teachers in person for the first time who, up until that point, I had only known virtually. My regret was the fact that I had waited several years before deciding to attend such a valuable conference!
One of my takeaways from BCCE is how invigorating it can be to spend time talking, sharing, laughing, and learning from such a diverse, dynamic, enthusiastic group of chemistry educators. I look forward to re-connecting with my #chemfam and making new connections at ChemEd 2023, which will be held at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada July 23-27, 2023.
In this issue of Chemistry Solutions
In this issue, several teachers share their unique insights, strategies, and stories with the chemistry teacher community, including:
- The current AACT High School Ambassador, Laurie Smith, shares about a year-long project that culminates in a Writing Marathon field trip to New York City. Students write about chemical phenomena observed in daily life to make connections to the concepts discussed in class.
- Chemistry teacher Pat Cunningham shares about the benefits of teaching measurement, laboratory skills, and safety, through the use of a dehydrated salts lab activity. Though it is more common to see teachers use this type of activity mid-year, he shares about the advantages to using it sooner.
- Shannon Baxter, a Canadian high school teacher of chemistry in French Immersion (a program aimed at promoting bilingualism in the country’s two official languages) shares about her unique classroom challenges.
I encourage anyone who feels a sense of isolation associated with being the only chemistry teacher in their school, or even in their entire district, to make the effort to establish and expand their professional learning network. You can do this through social media and AACT.
Be on the lookout for more information about a new series of AACT webinars entitled “Office Hours,” which are virtual meetups for chemistry teachers, led by experienced teachers via Zoom. Unlike a typical webinar in which the host(s) give a presentation, Office Hours events provide an opportunity for open conversation with a small group of fellow teachers to share ideas, discuss strategies, and more.
In the meantime, feel free to reach out to me. I look forward to joining your PLN and collaborating with you!
Additional resources on this topic
- NSTA: Overcoming Isolation by Joining Professional Learning Communities
- ChemEd X: The Importance of a Professional Learning Community
President-Elect, AACT 2022–2023
(article cover) Bigstockphoto.com/VectorMine