Sunday, February 28, 2010

Advice to a new (Science) teacher

So Aaron T. wrote on my wall...
"I'm currently in the process of being hired for a position that would make me a Middle School Biology Teacher at a new school in Oro Valley AZ. This school is a BASIS school which have been ranked in the top ten public high schools in the nation for a couple years (to graduate students are required to pass a number of AP exams). Do you have any advice for a burgeoning middle school/ high school biology teacher? What would you do if you had to start from scratch? I know this is kind of unfocused right now but any advice would be helpful at this point.

Your student,
Aaron Tesch"

And I responded and copied it to here...

A tall order, Dr. Tesch!

I checked out their web site.  I like their focus on content.  It is important to focus on students and keep their needs always in sight.  None the less, the center stage belongs not to you nor to your students but to the big ideas you want students to come to include in their lives.

As Parker Palmer says so eloquently, a teacher's job is to create a web of connections between everyone in the class, their lives and these big ideas of the discipline.  If this is your focus you become neither narcissistic nor a counselor but instead a leader with direction who is still sensitive to those placed in your charge.

Another example of balance important for a science teacher is awareness of the balance between conceptual learning (explicit knowledge of concepts) and the daily practice (action/behaviors) of scientists.  Novice scientists--our students--need a healthy dose of each.

And yet another balance or as Palmer would say (the last one was mine, I think) paradox, is the simultaneous awareness that we are a community, an organic unity whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and on the other hand we are individuals with unique strengths and needs.  Focusing on creating a web of connections as mentioned above provides the real world context in which this paradox is honored.

I used to look at things from a constructivist view point, or I tried to, but taking the community nature of the classroom and the focus on connection and theory building in the forefront, I now look (try to look) at things from a knowledge building perspective which utilizes some constructivist thinking, however.

This is where the classroom is seen as a community of scientists whose goal, like that of an actual community of scientists, is to build knowledge objects.  These are abstract things and they are built in the world of the students (they've already been built in the world of the professional scientists!).  Of course, the wikipedia can be helpful with this.

I am concerned with BASIS schools not seeming to acknowledge the deep and broad knowledge required of teachers to teach well. (Though perhaps they were simply not respecting how teaching colleges teach teachers.)

An important though trivial example of simple, semi-generic knowledge required by a master teacher is the knowledge of classroom setup.  What are physical arrangements of classroom furniture relative to the rest of the physical layout of the classroom (door, windows, overhead screen, fire extinguisher, telephone, shelves, cabinets, built-in tabletops, sinks, computers, etc and the different consequences this all has on traffic flow, focus of attention, efficiency of instruction, student to student interaction, whole and small group interactions and student/teacher comfort.

Teachers need pedagogical knowledge that exists only in their specific area of content.  For example, you need the knowledge of which analogies are most useful in helping students to understand the big ideas like evolution, and the inadequacies and misdirections of each.  (BTW, don't forget that you need to teach many students to think by analogy, I use a chart and compare an airplane (an example of an unknown from 100 or so years ago) with a bird (the known at the time).

Anyway, the above is not meant to scare you about what a teacher needs to know--it comes with years of study and practice--but a warning to those who believe that all a person needs is deep content knowledge and a passion to help students learn!  And yes, I too was ignorant in that way when I started 21 years ago! 

Finally, feed your furnace.  Don't pull all nighters like I'm doing to complete my statistics homework!  Exercise is better than coffee, and sleep even better!  Have fun with the students but it is collegial relationships with other teachers that will sustain you through the hard times.

OK, now you got me rambling!  I finished my statistics work and it's time to get some sleep, soon.  Take care and you will do great.  And, patience, it takes time to develop your magic...


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