September 2023 | Classroom Commentary
Empowering Preservice Teachers Through Mentoring
By Jennifer Whitley Dasinger
I started my career in education 26 years ago, when I decided to change from my career path in environmental chemistry. I was working long hours every day in a laboratory — a setting that I had enjoyed, but I was still missing engaging with others about research and various scientific phenomena. Then a family member who worked in education recommended that I think about becoming a teacher.
My family members had known of my past work experiences in high school and college, including lifeguard, swim lesson instructor, tutor, mentor, and camp counselor. They also knew how delighted I was in breaking down science principles so that kids could understand them, and how much I enjoyed sharing about the ways science impacts our daily lives.
Based on that advice, I quit my job to see if teaching would be the right fit for me. I wanted to see if I would truly like this career, so I became a secondary high school substitute teacher in a rural school system. This opportunity was invaluable in my transition, as in just a few months I experienced a variety of classroom settings and encountered both the challenges as well as the rewards of teaching.
I started by looking into the criteria to earn a degree in secondary education. In Alabama where I live, the state offers a Provisional Certificate in a Teaching Field (PCTF) for individuals entering the field of education in certain K-12, 4-8, and 6-12 teaching fields, such as math and science. Certification based on the PCTF must be requested by a city/county superintendent or eligible nonpublic/private school administrator who is unable to fill a position with a certificated educator.
I found a job posting for a secondary science teacher in an alternative placement school located in a nearby school system. This path gave me up to three years to earn a master’s degree in education certification, while teaching full-time. With a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and my double minors in chemistry and physics, I was only required to take education courses to finish my master’s. It took me just one academic year to earn a general science teaching certification for grades 6-12.
My first year of teaching in the alternative school gave me the opportunity to work one-on-one with students who struggled in traditional school environments due to their behavioral issues. This experience gave me perspective on how to address the social and emotional needs of my students, and also gave me practice in modifying my instructional approaches based on students’ needs.
I also encouraged my students to see how much science impacts their understanding of the world around them, which in turn helped me to rediscover my love of science and passion for teaching. Today, I’m certain that teaching is the right career path for me, because I can provide opportunities for my students to investigate problems, make observations, ask questions, test possible solutions, and become critical thinkers. I also see the importance of mentoring preservice teachers so they can gain practical experience and insight from a seasoned educator, including getting a clearer understanding of the day-to-day expectations of their profession.
My mentoring journey started 14 years ago, when I began as a state trainer of current science educators. I quickly realized that my fellow educators needed help not only in content, but also in lab management and lab safety.
Science teachers in Alabama and elsewhere were being asked to teach chemistry with little or no background in the subject. According to a 2000 national survey of high school chemistry teachers,1 99% of respondents had completed a college course in general introductory chemistry, 93% in organic chemistry, 68% in analytical chemistry, and only 51% in physical chemistry. More than half of chemistry teachers said they needed help using technology in science instruction, teaching classes with special needs students, and using inquiry-oriented teaching methods. Between one-third and one-half of teachers reported needing help in understanding student thinking in science, learning how to assess student learning in science, and deepening their own science content knowledge.
|Figure 1. The author is shown facilitating training on the proper use of technology in a calorimetry experiment using Cheetos.|
In my experience of teaching teachers in chemistry, most have little to no professional development support at their district levels. According to my state research, almost 10% of teachers are teaching outside of their degree field. My investigation into why chemistry teachers lack adequate content knowledge and background revealed that between 90 and 96% of chemistry teachers in my state are teaching under non-traditional certificates.
My research has helped me to focus some of my mentoring activity on creating curriculum aligned to our state and national standards. As I learned through state-supported surveys and training, my fellow educators were especially interested in such curriculum pieces as planning guides for unit learning cycles, teacher notes, and student-friendly “chunked” notes aligned to the curriculum.
In response, I’ve developed lessons incorporating the effective use of technology to support science teachers, and also have helped to create self-guided teacher/student curriculum pieces, planning guides, and proficiency scales for fellow educators to help support them to be more effective chemistry teachers.
In addition, I helped develop laboratory lesson plans that modeled inquiry-oriented teaching methods and created proficiency scales aligned to state and national standards. Proficiency scales help educators better meet the learning of their students by providing clearly stated learning goals and related performance levels is required. Upon reflection of my own teaching practice, I have been able to incorporate these best practices in my work with preservice teachers, and they have come to value the insights as part of their own teaching experience.
The level of resources and support I have received from Mrs. Dasinger has been one of the most amazing experiences in my journey to become an educator. -- Ms. Feazell, preservice teacher
When I attended my son’s graduation ceremony for his undergraduate degree four years ago, I was shocked to see that there were only three graduating students who were earning degrees in science education. This realization inspired me to read articles on mentoring preservice teachers, and I contacted a local university to explore opportunities to become part of its mentoring program for preservice teachers seeking to become chemistry educators. This mentoring program has just gone through a realignment process to ensure that preservice teachers are paired with highly-qualified educators. The university’s dean of education was highly receptive to my willingness to participate in this program, and I’ve continued working with the program ever since. I am the only science teacher in the program who is National Board Certified in Adolescence and Young Adults, and who teaches chemistry curriculum.
Importance of mentorship
In my opinion, mentoring is vital in the professional development of new and preservice teachers, particularly in the field of chemistry education. Chemistry teachers in their “novice years” experience a steeper learning curve in pedagogical development than teachers of all other subjects, due to the rigors of the content. The abstract nature of chemistry itself can overload a student’s working memory due to the sheer amount of information a learner needs to comprehend, coupled with the multiple ways (macroscopic, molecular, and symbolic) in which chemistry is viewed and represented2. A high turnover rate among these novice teachers has had more of a negative impact on student learning in chemistry than for is the case for other subjects3. Some of the reasons for this, in my experience, may include the demanding nature of chemistry, laboratory requirements, lack of knowledge about Occupational Safety Health Administration’s Laboratory Standard (29 CFR 1910.1450), and lack of equity in pay compared to other chemistry fields. These may also be reasons why novice teachers in chemistry leave for other employment opportunities in the chemical industry.
My personal belief is that a mentor serves as a guide, facilitator, and role model, providing invaluable support and guidance in utilizing best instructional practices. I feel that as a veteran educator, it is my obligation to mentor teachers as they navigate the complexities of becoming competent chemistry educators.
Responsibilities of a Mentor
I have learned that mentors in chemistry education can have a multifaceted role that goes beyond imparting subject knowledge. You are responsible for providing guidance and support to teachers, by helping them develop their pedagogical skills and fostering a deep understanding of content.
The student-teaching mentorship experience
Each student-teacher I have worked with has had a limited background in chemistry. To obtain certification in Alabama, where I am employed, chemistry student-teachers usually need to have a general science certification, and to have taken one or two introductory chemistry courses in college. As a result, in order to help build their confidence while providing guidance, I have developed a sequence of steps that I follow as the mentor.
First, I establish a supportive and trusting relationship by conducting an interest inventory assessing their prior knowledge and experience. We then have multiple asynchronous and synchronous conversations, so that each student-teacher feels comfortable in seeking guidance and or sharing his/her concerns about teaching. This part of the process occurs before the student-teacher begins their teaching internship. Based on the shared communication (both online and in-person), we create clear expectations and guidelines to gain a shared understanding of our mutual roles and responsibilities. These shared expectations and guidelines vary based upon my mentees’ level of prior knowledge, interpersonal skills, and confidence as beginning teachers.
Next, I model effective research-based practices of classroom management and pedagogical strategies for my students. I also encourage my student-teachers to use an observation tool to provide constructive feedback on my own teaching, helping them become familiar with the tool and at the same time, providing me with feedback. Then, I coach my student-teachers on how to “backwards plan” their curriculum design. This entails setting yearly, monthly, and unit S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) goals aligned to state/national standards, giving students multiple opportunities to reach proficiency. We also collaborate on proper student-engaged laboratory management strategies concerning equipment usage and materials storage and disposal. In addition, we discuss the use of instructional resources to differentiate instruction for all learning levels within the classroom.
Last but not least, I provide a sequence of co-teaching lessons to my student-teacher mentees. This helps to foster a nurturing environment in which they can grow both personally and professionally as they prepare for solo teaching. Collaborative lesson planning and observations have allowed me to provide targeted constructive feedback and facilitate reflective discussions on each student-teacher’s instructional practices.
We also videotape the student-teacher’s solo lessons, after which I use the observation tool the mentees have already used to provide constructive feedback on their teaching. Each student-teacher takes time to self-reflect on the video of themself teaching, and then we compare and discuss the observation tool in a debrief of the lesson. The cycle of regular formative evaluation and feedback helps to identify areas for improvement for their instructional practice, as well as my own. This encourages my student-teachers to engage in self-evaluation that enhances their ability to critically assess their teaching practices and make necessary adjustments.
As one of my student-teachers said, “I am so grateful for the experience of learning how to responsibly use technology, learn effective teaching strategies, use of instructional resources, and develop a deeper understanding of chemistry content.” Through my mentoring experience, I have learned to foster a reflective mindset which has promoted continuous growth in my self-efficacy and confidence, enabling me to overcome new challenges and obstacles.
Mentors in chemistry education play a vital role in nurturing the growth and development of preservice teachers. By implementing robust mentorship programs, we can ensure the successful transition of preservice teachers into teaching professionals, ultimately benefiting the field of chemistry education as a whole.
If you are interested in further research on mentoring, I recommend reading Improving Teacher Development & Evaluation, by Marzano, Rains, and Warrick. I want to personally challenge you to give back to our profession by becoming a mentor or volunteer to new teachers within your school or district, or by contacting a nearby university to join a mentoring program of student-teachers.
1. Smith, P. S. 2000 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education: Status of High School Chemistry Teaching. Horizon Research, Inc.: Chapel Hill, NC, 2002.
2. Johnstone, A. H. Chemical Education Research in Glasgow in Perspective. Chem. Educ. Res. Pract. 2006, 7 (2), 49–63.
3. Palermo, M.; Kelly, A. M.; Krakehl, R. Chemistry Teacher Retention, Migration, and Attrition. J. Chem. Educ. 2021, 98, 12, 3704–3713.