New Teacher

An Ounce of Preparation is Worth a Pound of Cure…and embarrassment.

“Those that know do, those that understand teach.”
Aristotle

It was the first day of circular motion. My cooperating teacher had a smorgasboard of demonstrations to perform for the class. I walked in fully confident that this would be no big deal. After all, how much skill is required to spin a pie plate around?

The fun part of the demo was you told the students it was a plate of jello. It was actually water that was dyed red. I picked up the plate by the strings whipped it over my head with full confidence and…SPLASH…Red water absolutely everywhere. It was a huge mess, I was thoroughly embarrassed, and the demo was a flop.

Always. Always practice the demos the morning of the class.

I realized that I had grabbed the strings under the knot, rather than above. This caused me to pull unevenly which tilted the tray. I was ready for the afternoon class. Will full confidence I whiled the pie tray over my head. Success! Pleased with myself I began to talk to the class about the forces keeping the water in the tray. As I talked…SPLASH

I dumped the red water everywhere. AGAIN. When I was a student teacher, in my nervousness, I tended to fidget with whatever was in my hands. Often this was the cap of the whiteboard marker, but with the demo in hand I tugged on one of the strings under the knot.

As a student teacher you are entering the classroom with a wealth of content knowledge as well as a solid foundation of pedagogical practices.

But knowing content is not teaching.

It’s challenging to try and anticipate every single question that a student might ask, or point of confusion. This is even more true the first time teaching a topic. The most important thing we can do is prepare and practice on repeat. As a new teacher this means doing every demo, every lab and every homework problem in advance. Even if it looks like something you could do in your sleep. Even if you know the outcome of the lab. Even if you’ve done the demo before. Do it anyway. Weird quirks always manage to pop up, especially on the day you didn’t practice in advance. Lab equipment fails, software decides to be incompatible. Murphy’s Law.

The other component of preparation that I hadn’t previously considered was the importance of thinking critically about the guiding questions I would ask in class. While the concept of not telling students the answer and getting them to build their knowledge came naturally to me, how to do that really well did not. I would often start with a generalized idea of what I wanted to get to and how I’d get there, and it showed. My cooperating teacher pointed out that often times I would pose a question and the students had no idea what I was even asking. Early on in teaching I was told my methods would be good “for honor’s students, but not these kids (which is another post, entirely). Writing down my thoughts ahead of time and then drafting the scaffolded questions was critical in my early years.

Here’s an example from today. I’m having students work through the impulse-change in momentum relationship. Students had the item below and were asked to rank by change in momentum.

A student asked me a question, “So D is first because it has the biggest force right?” I could have jumped to the answer “yes” but students often oversimplify and “correct” answers lack deep understanding. So I asked her how she knew to rank by force if change in momentum is m∆v. At first she was puzzled, but then she realized, “well because impulse and change in momentum are the same thing!”

It’s too easy to rush through these important conversations to “get to the point” of the lesson. However, once again, we must ask ourselves, what is actually important? What are the enduring skills and understandings we hope students leave us with? If I really think about it, I could care less what my students can name and calculate. What I want my students to do is to be able to question, discern and analyze. I want them to engage in deep, critical conversations. I want them to be able to listen and argue logically and with evidence. These skills are all developed while students are engaged in the process of doing science, not “the point” of whatever the lesson is that day. Only recently I’ve begun to learn how to get the students to be the drivers of these conversations rather than myself.

If you thought my embarrassing story was over on the second splash, it’s not. A month after the pie-plate water fiasco I attended the national winter AAPT meeting that happened to be in Chicago, where I lived. I was in a room for “Take 5’s”, where teachers took five minutes to share an idea or demo. I sat in a row with some of the most well-loved and respected teachers in the Chicago-area, including my cooperating teacher and my former AP Physics teacher. The teacher presenting was sharing the brilliance of using the cardboard pizza circle for nothing less than…you guessed it…the spin some water in a circle demo. The teacher asked if anyone wanted their sample. My cooperating teacher stands up and points at me, “this one! Right here!” I was mortified all over again. Naturally the story then had to be told of my epic disaster. The cardboard circle did not get to me until it was passed around all of the Chicago-area teachers who signed it with words of encouragement and advice. I still have it as a reminder to always prepare, never take myself too seriously, and remember that there are a lot of people in my court to help and encourage me each step of the way.

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