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For years I found myself choosing between my two loves: teaching high school students, and teaching science.

I had taught high school history, government, and sociology for many years — all the while listening longingly to my science teaching colleagues discussing their teaching challenges and strategies. I was fascinated by how they described the value of playing music during the unit on sound in Physics in order to discuss the musical scale based on fifths; by the importance they placed on their students making the connection between energy and light wavelengths when doing flame tests with different metals; and by how essential they felt it was to drop everything to take advantage of a “teachable moment” such as an earthquake in Indonesia or tsunami off the coast of Japan.

Zena McFadden, North Boone High School
Photo credit: Rebecca Wanless

I loved science and decided to put my Middle School Science Endorsement to work by moving to a position teaching sixth through eighth grade. As a science teacher, I embraced opportunities to implement hands-on learning in my classroom. For example, I made PB&J sandwiches based on directions written by a sixth-grader in order to demonstrate the importance of being clear and using details when writing a lab report. Meanwhile, I helped my seventh-graders experience the process of natural selection first-hand by directing them to throw green toothpicks in the grass and then retrieve them. I also challenged students to design a hydraulic lift that could pick up a golf ball and successfully hold it one foot above the table.

However, even though I was happier with my new teaching position, I often found myself frustrated. I couldn’t go deep enough into the subjects I loved. I wasn’t satisfied with my job at the middle school level.

My turning point

I decided it was now or never. I had to quit the middle school job and take advantage of the chance to do what I wanted to do: teach science in high school. In order to do this, I took a year off from teaching middle school and finished the biology and chemistry courses required for my high school science certification. It was the right decision.

I’ve just completed my first year in the high school science classroom, which was initially frustrating but is now satisfying. Although I was hoping to jump right in to teaching chemistry, I was instead hired to teach earth science at a small rural high school outside Rockford, Illinois. I realized that while I had been in the classroom for years, taking a new science position at the high school was going to be much like starting my teaching career all over again. I had no tried-and-tested lesson plans, and no clear idea of how to get help to grow professionally. I also began to realize that teaching strategies were changing rapidly, with increasing nudges to integrate Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I was in need of information and new skills in order to be prepared.

I found myself faced with an additional challenge: working in a school where there was only one teacher in each subject of science. Because I had no in-house collaborators, I had to look outward for help if I was going to survive the school year. I went on a desperate search for resources, both digital and human. I joined professional organizations and attended conferences. I forced myself to reach out to colleges and businesses to help me teach.

Digital resources

Before the school year even started, I thought it was important to compare my initial course outline with those of other experienced earth science teachers. In searching the Web, I found many individual teachers’ sites that included course outlines and even lesson ideas. By spending time reading about the topics that other teachers were covering in their classes, as well as the structure of their courses, I was able to determine how I should prepare my own material.

Several subject-specific Facebook pages became my go-to resources. When I had a question or just wanted to learn something new, I turned to the generous teachers who were part of those communities. To seek help, I posted questions like, “Any great phenomenon or exceptional labs for the Rock Cycle?” and “How can technology be integrated into the classroom?” By the end of the second quarter, I was actually able to contribute to these discussions.

Human insights

Another approach that helped me was engaging with various professional organizations. For example, I attended the annual NSTA area conference in Milwaukee last November, where I sat in on as many workshops and visited as many booths as possible. It was during this conference that I got the idea to reach out to local colleges to try to find knowledgeable speakers to visit my classroom and talk to my students about local earth science topics. I also met representatives from relevant businesses and organizations in the conference’s exhibit hall who wanted to make contact with science teachers to help them make connections between science curriculum and real-world applications of the subject.

I also met a representative of the Illinois Association of Aggregate Producers at the conference, and asked if they knew of spokespeople in Illinois who would talk to my students about the big holes in the ground we commonly see in our area. They were able to connect me with a regional company who sent their environmental compliance officer to speak to us. Students learned how the company mines limestone and how they keep the groundwater clean in our area. They also offered to send me to their summer workshop for teachers where I could learn more.

After the conference I sent an email to the science department at Rock Valley College, located 30 minutes from our school, to inquire if anyone would be interested in visiting my classroom and talk to my students about the geology of Illinois. Mike Kelley, a professor in the area of geoscience, wrote me back telling me he was interested. Mike brought his rock collection and a sense of humor that had the students chuckling, and he also helped me to connect the local geology with my curriculum. Since Mike’s visit, we have stayed in touch. This summer, while he was on a trip to the west coast, he created rock collections for earth science teachers and students at my high school to use in the future.

Planning for the future

At the end of the last school year, the chemistry teacher at the high school where I currently teach resigned, and I enthusiastically volunteered to take over her chemistry classes.

So once again, I find myself preparing to be a new teacher of a subject. It is a little like deja vu, as I look for organizations and workshops to attend to immerse myself in the chemistry culture and start making connections with others who can help guide me. The difference is that I now know what worked for me before, and how to prepare myself.

One of the first things I did was join AACT. I was so excited to see so many resources available in one place: a library of resources just for my grade level, organized by topics and subtopics; animations that will help me when I teach difficult subjects like orbitals in three dimensions; and valuable webinars like one titled “Creating a Dynamic and Adaptive Safety Environment” that I can’t find anyplace else.

This past spring, I found and attended a chemistry modeling instruction workshop, and I am so grateful to have learned about this constructivist, student-centered educational approach. The instructor even agreed to make himself available for questions from all of us modeling rookies. Through attending the workshop, I also developed a network of more than 20 teachers, who are all as green as me when it comes to teaching in this new fashion. Motivated by this great experience, I also joined the American Modeling Teachers Association, and have found their many online resources to be very useful as I plan for the new school year.

This summer, I met many fellow chemistry teachers who work at all levels of education at the 25th Biennial Conference on Chemical Education at Notre Dame. I was given a very warm welcome not only at the conference, but also beforehand by the members of the Rock River ACS local section, who granted me a scholarship to offset much of the conference costs.

I have learned that collaboration is the key to teaching success. It’s only with the support of generous science teachers, college educators who do outreach with K-12 schools, businesses that partner with teachers, and relevant professional associations, that teachers are able to excel in their classrooms.

I will need your help as I start my first year teaching high school chemistry, and look forward to meeting and working with many more chemistry teachers during my career. Are you looking to collaborate? Let’s start a discussion today!

Photo credit:
(article cover) nuoil830/Bigstock.com