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The Pandemic Hit

© Igor Rogov/Bigstockphoto.com

As the COVID pandemic closed the doors of schools across the world, teachers were faced with finding new ways for students to engage in content and build the skills to solve global issues of the future. Personally, I felt lost!

My high school has been a 1:1 technology campus for more than seven years. Even so, I didn’t have the skills to ensure students were grasping the content, or to provide the rich lessons that normally occur through scientific discourse within the classroom. Although I had managed to triple the enrollment in my AP Chemistry classes over the past four years, it felt as though I had to put all that progress on hold while I worked to address the new concern of reaching students in a time of absolute uncertainty.

My school district supported teachers by offering online professional development related to technology. Expert educators shared their resources and ideas for implementing a wide range of activities to engage students, but none of them seemed to be working to help my AP chemistry students prepare for their AP exams.

Looking for new ideas, I turned to social media to see how other teachers were reaching their students, and noticed that I was not alone in feeling lost. However, I was still too nervous to post anything in a public forum. As schools adjusted and readjusted plans, I knew that I needed something new in order to move forward through the school year and continue my passion for teaching.

Finding APTeach

After a couple of weeks, I saw a post on social media inviting participants to attend a free professional development session presented by APTeach. Since I didn’t have much going on at the time, I decided to attend a session on review strategies, led by Emily Hart and Samantha Ramaswamy.

The presenters spent the first 15 minutes of the session sharing resources and describing how they implement their strategies in the virtual format. They were very positive about the current situation, and provided solutions that I could implement immediately, as well as adapt for later uses.

The session’s most incredible moments happened after we broke into small groups of 4-6 teachers. While sharing our current situations related to the pandemic and discussing some different ways we had connected with our students, I felt at ease for the first time since the pandemic closed schools. After about 30 minutes of discussion with five other educators, I felt more confidence about how I was going to transform my virtual classroom.

I kept coming back every Thursday to participate in these sessions, where I made more and more connections, both with content as well as other educators from across the world. At the end of each session, a small group of participants stayed on to continue discussing content or future ideas. Even here, I noticed that people seemed hesitant to present their teaching strategies, just as I had earlier felt when I was exploring the topic on social media. Yet I knew that the success of any professional development group requires leaders to emerge who are willing to share their ideas.

Maybe it was the uncertainty of the pandemic, or having extra time to become inspired — but I decided it was time to step up and present. Within three weeks of first attending my first APTeach session, I collaborated with Anthony Tedaldi to present “Kitchen Sink Questions.

Confessions of a newbie presenter

I must admit that I had never presented before, nor had I ever written my own AP Free Response Questions. I don’t even have a degree in chemistry (it’s in biology). Fortunately, in my classroom I emphasize teaching content alongside real-world applications. As a result, I found it easy to use lesson examples to write a question that included content across a wide range of AP Chemistry learning objectives.

As we worked to prepare our presentation, we met with a small group that included Dr. Gregory Rushton and Dr. David Yaron, who enthusiastically provided feedback on the questions I had written. This shaped the way that I was going to present, and helped prepare me for questions that might be asked. Michael Farabaugh and Paul Price, two additional advocates for STEM education, also joined the small group to provide feedback. Sitting in a room with all these chemistry education experts, I was a little star-struck — yet still felt comfortable enough to ask questions that helped me think more deeply about content and make key revisions.

As a first-time presenter, it was helpful to share my ideas in a small group before presenting to an entire group. Eventually I came to see these meetings as an opportunity to dig deeper into the content, and my nervousness about presenting subsided.

Soon, I got my first opportunity to virtually present to over 50 AP Chemistry educators from all over the world. It wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be, and I walked away from the session proud that I had contributed to a program that had already given me so many resources and opportunities for professional networking.

For years, I had focused on providing high-quality, laboratory-driven chemistry content to my students — but presenting for APTeach was my first step toward embracing the importance of teacher leaders within the chemistry education community. I believe that each educator who shares impactful classroom strategies can help influence the growth of teachers across the globe, ultimately leading to even higher levels of student achievement. 

Growth as a leader

During the 2020-21 school year, I invited Baylor University’s Present Your Ph.D. program to have a Ph.D. candidate present their research. A student question prompted the presenter to discuss the idea of “imposter syndrome” as the reason why so many researchers do not feel their ideas are research are exceptional enough to publish.

I had felt this effect myself, when I doubted that I had anything good enough to share or present to a group of other chemistry educators. Likewise, the anxiety of having my work critiqued prevented me from posting social media messages to help others. I will admit that it took a pandemic for me to overcome my own struggles with imposter syndrome and find my place as a collaborative leader in the chemistry education community. This journey has encouraged me to continue taking chances to collaborate with other educators and contribute in the leadership needed to move chemistry education to the next level.

Educators involved in APTeach continue to meet virtually every other Thursday, discussing a wide range of topics based on the needs of the participants. Involvement is still engaging (and free)! I walk away from every session with new ideas to implement, even if I was one of the session’s main presenters, because the small group discussions allow all participants to play a role in advancing the chemistry curriculum.

We also encourage participants to attend specific AACT professional development sessions, or find recordings of past sessions available in the webinar archives. For example, “Big Questions to Help Your Students be Ready for the AP Chemistry Exam,” presented by Dr. Paul Price and Dr. Linda Cummings, can lead into further discussions and ideas for future collaboration. Additionally, an exciting upcoming session hosted by the Chief Reader, Kyle Beran, “Lessons Learned from the 2021 AP Chemistry Exam” will be available on September 22, 2021. As our APTeach group moves forward, we still need more teacher leaders to become involved by presenting their best teaching concepts or sharing their experiences in teaching the most challenging content. Groups like APTeach and AACT require educators to really step outside their classroom (and comfort zone) to inspire other educators in transformative classroom practices.

Getting involved

The impact of educator collaboration and the development of leaders has not gone unnoticed in the education community. On September 9, 2021, ACS and ChemEdX will launch a free professional development program for General Chemistry at the high school level, hosted by Deanna Cullen and Jo King. In this one-hour meeting, I will be sharing some unit ideas for the mole, after which we’ll break into smaller groups to share ideas and best practices. Be on the lookout for invites through ACS, ChemEdX, or your regional organizations. My hope is that you’ll be inspired to come to this session to listen or collaborate — or even to help us present future content at one of our monthly meetings.

After the 2020-21 school year, I have no doubt of the impact that involvement in professional chemistry organizations can have on the academic classroom. If you aren’t already involved in a professional organization, I definitely suggest you start there! Being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean presenting sessions, but rather sharing ideas with other educators to help improve the quality of teaching in every classroom. 

Some places to start include:

An imposter no longer

Photo courtesy of Midway ISD.

While I had presented for my district leadership team in the past, I never imagined presenting to chemistry educators. This year, I will be presenting at New England Association of Chemistry Teachers (NEACT) and Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching (CAST) on how to implement Desmos interactive activities in the chemistry classroom.

Over the course of this past year, I’ve learned that although I may not be an expert in all aspects of chemistry, I can still share certain topics and learning strategies that will help other teachers. While I remain somewhat nervous, I know that educators walk away from these professional development sessions excited to implement new ideas. I hope that in each session, I can help teachers build their confidence, find their own areas of expertise, and showcase their leadership skills.

We need to become a network of leaders who are willing to share their experiences and best practices in the classroom. You may also find that you grow as a leader by encouraging others, taking on some duties in a regional organization, or presenting at a conference. Imagine how transformative the chemistry classroom can become when we work together to provide the best chemistry education to all students. Challenge yourself, just as we challenge our students, to step outside your comfort zone and embrace the innovative educational leader who is waiting to emerge.

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