We all know that teaching is tough, especially when you’re first starting out. The grind of planning new lessons every day, while also keeping up with grading, can be exhausting. As an added challenge, chemistry teachers have to prepare labs, manage student behavior, and deal with chemical clean-up, all of which can be daunting tasks.

As a teacher in my fifth year, I still experience this overwhelming exhaustion from time to time, but I can say with certainty that teaching does get easier. Ranging from general organizational ideas to advice for planning labs with students who aren’t intrinsically motivated, here are seven tips that have helped preserve my sanity and advance my teaching practice.

  1. Eliminate redundancies in the planning process. My first year, I wrote my agendas and homework assignments in a paper planbook provided by my district. Then, per district policy, I’d write the same information on the board to display at the beginning of each class, and, as a personal preference, I’d also put it on my website.
Figure 1. Google Calendar with daily agendas.
  1. While it was nice to be sure of my plans, copying the same information three times was a logistical nightmare; if I changed one thing, I had to update it in three locations or else risk getting confused. Eventually, I discovered the wonder of Google Calendar, which was a game-changer.
  2. Now I have a Google calendar for each of my classes. Each day the class meets, I make a calendar event that includes the agenda, homework, and links to handouts. This is my planbook, which is automatically published on my website; I also project an enlarged version on the board at the beginning of class. Among its advantages are that I can look back at past years to check pacing and find old handouts, students and parents can easily access daily agendas, and, if I update a plan, I only have to make the change in one spot instead of three. One and done!
  1. Start the year with an index card for each student. At the beginning of the year, I transfer each of my students’ names to an index card, and set them out at their assigned seats before the first class. While this may seem like an unnecessary use of time at the high school level, these index cards serve many purposes. From the first time students enter the classroom, this method gently sets in place a classroom standard for the year: seats will be assigned. The first assignment of the year is for each student to write a bit about themselves on the index card, including nickname, extracurriculars/hobbies, parent/guardian information, etc. After class, I review the cards to learn a bit about each student. Each time I change the seating arrangements, all I have to do is set out the cards and students know to find their new seats. During lessons, I shuffle the cards and use them to randomly call on students.
Figure 2. Lab safety items and equipment numbered for scavenger hunt.
  1. Prepare students for lab safety. In the first week of the school year, I have students complete a lab equipment scavenger hunt. I label items around the classroom, including the fume hood, the fire extinguisher, the safety shower, and frequently used lab supplies, such as beakers, graduated cylinders, and stirring rods. The students have to locate each numbered item, try to remember its name, draw a sketch, and discuss the item’s purpose. As we review the answers, I briefly discuss safety rules for each item, including the rules for broken glassware, the safety shower, etc. In the next class, while the safety discussion is fresh on their minds, I have students complete a simple lab, such as Observing a Chemical Reaction from the AACT library. This helps reinforce the rules and procedures for labs introduced at the beginning of the year.
  1. Assign student roles during labs. In my first year as a teacher, labs were a nightmare. Students weren’t naturally inclined to work as a team, they often skipped steps in the procedure, and generally there was at least one student in every group who had no idea what was going on. Eventually, I learned that students have to be taught to function as a group.
    Student Lab Roles
    • Spokesperson: leads the group, directs questions to teacher
    • Facilitator: reads lab procedures out loud to group
    • Materials Manager: collects and returns lab supplies
    Now, I utilize a lab role for each student, and during the first lab of the year, I explain the roles. The spokesperson leads the group and directs questions to the teacher; however, they are only allowed to ask a question once they’ve discussed it as a group. The facilitator is responsible for reading each step of the procedure out loud, while the team listens. The materials manager is the only person out of his or her seat to collect and return lab supplies. Before we start each lab, we review the roles, students divvy up the tasks, they write their assignment on their paper, and then I give them the okay to begin working. Not only does this strategy lift the large burden of lab management off my shoulders, but with most classes, assigning and following roles becomes an ingrained habit by the year’s midpoint. I don’t typically use the roles for my AP Chemistry courses, except when I have a really disorganized group.
  1. Sometimes, labs are still chaotic; when this happens, stop the class and reset. Maybe the students are having an ‘off’ day, or maybe the instructions weren’t clear enough, but eventually there will come a time when the lab just isn’t working.
  2. If I find myself doing more classroom management than lab guidance, I’ve learned to call everything to a halt and have students return to their seats. If students have to migrate away from their lab stations to do this, I instruct them to turn off any hot plates or Bunsen burners that might have been in use, and also secure any precariously-seated glassware before leaving their stations. Once everyone has settled and all eyes are on me, we address the issue. I’ll usually ask the class why the lab isn’t working, or why they’re off-task. Sometimes I learn that the solution is a simple matter of spreading the supplies out so students aren’t clustering in one area. Other times, I realize I need to clarify directions. If students are unsure why they’re not operating according to our normal lab standards, we review the lab roles and expectations, then start again. Setting the tone before things get totally out of control can help students get refocused and have a successful experience.
Figure 3. Particle diagrams used to illustrate a precipitation reaction.
  1. Use particle diagrams, then use them some more. My first few years in the classroom, I tried teaching chemistry without particle diagrams. Students had a hard time understanding some of the most seemingly simple topics, like chemical reactions. When I started using color-coded particle diagrams to show how atoms rearrange in a chemical reaction, I starting seeing understanding among students. Stoichiometry? Use particle diagrams to show how one reactant can be left in excess, after another reactant has been depleted. Thermodynamics? Use particle diagrams to show that pulling apart atoms requires energy, or that particles must collide in the correct orientation to react. Solids dissolving? Use particle diagrams to show how solvent molecules surround and solvate a solute. This is a simple and powerful way to aid student understanding.
  1. Don’t be afraid to do labs, but plan for safety and chemical disposal. In my first couple of years, I was hesitant to do any labs with chemicals that you wouldn’t find in a regular kitchen. I was nervous about the kids’ behavior around potentially hazardous chemicals, unconfident about how to handle chemicals after the lab, and thought that it all seemed like a lot of risk. However, once I started getting the classroom management aspect of labs under control (see Tip #5), I began to realize that most students can be trusted to be responsible. Once I felt confident that no one was going to goof off, I began to explore more involved labs.
  2. Now, using Flinn’s online SDS resources, I start by looking up the safety information (flash point, health risks, etc.) regarding the chemicals used in a lab. Then, I save the SDS links in an online spreadsheet, which gives me easy access for reviewing them each year. I also frequently utilize the Flinn Disposal Methods website. Requiring a free account to access its materials, the site contains several articles with helpful tips for minimizing waste, and most importantly, specific and quick procedures for disposing of a wide range of chemicals.
  3. Once I understand how to deal with the clean-up for a specific lab, I get students involved in the process. For instance, I teach them how to add universal indicators and neutralize solutions before pouring down them the drain, and they love watching for the appropriate color change. I also show them how to precipitate and filter out ions that aren’t drain-safe. Not only does this help me feel more confident about labs, but getting kids involved in the clean-up saves a lot of time.

These tips and tricks have positively impacted both my teaching practice and student engagement in my classroom. These are the strategies that I build into my classroom each year to improve my efficiency as a teacher and a classroom manager. What strategies have you found most effective as a new teacher? Share your ideas on the AACT Discussion Board!

Photo credit:
(article cover) Maridav/Bigstockphotos.com