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When I started teaching (what seems like eons ago), I definitely went into the classroom well prepared. I had had a terrific mentor as my Ph.D. research advisor. Invariably, I would observe him preparing for lectures the day before class was to take place. In between, he would be in the laboratory doing fundamental research.

Every once in a while, from April through October, our research group would be called into the office and our advisor would say, “How about we take the afternoon off and go fishing?” We all knew what to say: OK! He had planned all day long to suggest we take off for the remainder of the day. We were caught pleasantly surprised, as we all enjoyed the camaraderie of fishing.

Moving ahead a few years, I was now in my first years of teaching. Sundays were my days to plan ahead. I would prepare for the upcoming school week — putting together the concepts, problems, and lab experiments I planned to cover. Not only was I a teacher, but also a coach of softball and baseball. I found myself having to prepare for the game day by putting together a game plan.

I would plan the lineup by first putting the starting nine or ten players on the field and then come up with a batting order. In addition, I made plans for the substitutions that would come sometime during the game. There might even be some switches in defense that I knew would have to be made.

On occasion, a student would ask to miss a game due to some unforeseen circumstance such as an ‘unannounced’ test the next day. As I always believed that academics came before extra curriculars, I would invariably excuse that player. I had a Plan B for just such game days. Planning ahead was essential to being a successful coach.

Sharing with fellow teachers

As I became more confident in my ability as an educator, I collaborated with another teacher or two and together, we gave workshops and presented at conferences, such as ChemEd, BCCE, and NSTA. Knowing that fellow chemistry teachers would not want to attend a workshop and find that the presenter was not organized, I knew that I had to get myself prepared; again, planning was essential.

Long before each conference workshop, I found myself deciding which laboratory experiments I wished to offer that were most informative, interesting, and easy to transport to another state. Then, I needed to figure out which chemicals and equipment were needed for 25 to 30 teachers; sometimes, we offered the same workshop twice within three days. Planning was essential and had to meet a deadline that often was two or three months in advance. We had to get things done, as others depended upon us.

Two summers ago, after thinking about it for a few years, I decided to retire from teaching. This decision was not an easy one to make, as I have always enjoyed working with students and fellow faculty members. (Grading of tests and lab reports were another issue altogether!) I also enjoyed trying to come up with new approaches to lab experiments.

After retirement, however, I realized very quickly that I was not ready to stop doing anything related to chemistry. Being active in the American Chemical Society is nothing new for me, as I’ve been the Chair of my local ACS Section, a member of the SOCED Committee, a Science Coach for a third-grade teacher, and a volunteer on the committee that plans for each year’s National Chemistry Week. Volunteering has, and still does, keep me busy doing what I have always loved to do. Then the unthinkable happened.

What we couldn’t plan for

One can plan for what one anticipates, but not for what is unexpected. That is what occurred in March 2020. No one asked for the COVID-19 virus and what has ensued. Yes, some of us had done some online educating in the form of a flipped or blended classroom. But we were not ready for what it meant as educators to have to deal with schools closing down, and the need to teach virtually.

Even before I retired, I had done some flipped classroom activities in the form of pre-lab instructions and concept reviews. I even went so far as to create videos of all of the lab experiments that students of mine had done over the past many years. Yet, I had not prepared for day-to-day virtual instruction. I would guess that very few educators had been teaching 100% online. We were in for a change, and one that was happening essentially overnight.

Our next hurdle

Now as the new school year has begun, we are faced with a situation that few of us had anticipated. Fortunately, we have had a few months of experience with online instruction. Let us use what we have learned and go forward. We should use what has been found effective and shared by others, as well as share our own successful techniques, to improve our pedagogy. Instruction takes many forms. AACT has become a great platform for teachers to share successful methods and techniques, including these new articles in the September issue of Chemistry Solutions:

  • With technology becoming such an essential consideration for teachers, in our featured article, Amy Roediger shares her favorite technology tools for teaching remotely and in-person.
  • If you are looking for ideas to incorporate teamwork and collaboration in a remote-learning environment, read about a virtual twist on a scavenger hunt, in another tech-based article.
  • In a strategy to increase student understanding and engagement, a teacher shares about the use of thinking routines. Useable both virtually and in-person, this approach helps students reflect more carefully on content and make deeper connections.
  • Similarly, teachers can implement the use of sketch notes to help students better prepare and understand the steps of a laboratory procedure.
  • Since safety is always at the forefront of planning for a chemistry teacher, I’d like to point you to the newly designed 5E lesson plan for teaching students about the use of RAMP in the laboratory. In addition to the many safety activities presented in the lesson plan, the author describes the benefit of integrating the ACS Chemical safety videos throughout the entire year.
  • For AP teachers who are reviewing stoichiometry, or for regular chemistry teachers looking for a new approach to teaching limiting reactant calculations, you won’t want to miss this article about teaching students to use the mole of reaction in their calculations!
  • Finally, as we know that so much can be learned from our fellow teachers, I encourage you to read about Michael Morgan’s reflection on his career as both a mentor and teacher-trainer. The 2020 Conant Award Winner shares about a number of his experiences, and the valuable impact they have had on both himself, and many other teachers.

I encourage you to share what you have done, and materials that you have found successful, with various education groups. Write an article for Chemistry Solutions, present a webinar, or share a classroom resource! Even though we never planned for the situation that now exists, we can still be successful. We have to learn to adapt, just as I had to adjust my lineup for a high school softball league championship game when my starting shortstop and number three batter was unable to play due to a major injury. We do our best, regardless of the circumstances. We will get through this together.

I want to welcome you to this new year of teaching — new in the strictest sense of the word. Most of us will begin the year teaching from home to an audience that is also at their home. As educators, we are used to doing what is best for our students. We adapt.

The driving force of humans to adapt is strong. I witnessed this first-hand, when I was going for physical therapy about eight years ago. I observed elderly people who, having injuries that I would think would cause them to stay at home and have someone taking care of their every need, instead did exercises that would test the physical ability of individuals far younger than they were.

As scientists, we know the importance of laboratory activities. We can still accomplish this aspect of the science course, but if we are to do this virtually, we must make certain that all labs we do are performed with safety of the student in mind. Some labs can be done with household materials; others might require that you create a video in which measurements are done by the student, virtually, by focusing the camera on the area when and where the measurement is to be taken. We can do this.

As Heather Weck put it in an article last year, “AACT has so many valuable teaching resources to offer — webinars, lessons, videos, simulations, and animations to name just a few.” She also said, “Stay positive! Disorganization, grading backlogs, and administrative mandates will get in the way, but don’t let these things stop you from being your best.” These statements hold true regardless of the situation. So, as the new school year begins, please take advantage of all that AACT and other resources have available. As the President of AACT for 2020-2021, I want to welcome you to a year that nobody ever predicted nor planned for; a year that we will all strive to make successful for our students — because to do otherwise is not in our nature as science teachers.

Jesse Bernstein

Jesse Bernstein
President, AACT

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