Infecting Students with Passion, Infusing Family with Love
Author: Marianna Ruggerio
Marianna is the Physics teacher at Auburn High School in Rockford, IL. She currently teaches AP Physics 1 and AP Physics C. When she's not in disguise as Nerdy Physics Teacher she is busy at home as Nerdy Physics Mom with her husband Fr. Jonathan and sons Adrian and George.
Teaching during the pandemic has created a heightened sense of every emotion imaginable. Teachers were shocked and enraged that districts would ask them to return to the classroom in the fall. Scared about the safety of themselves, their own families and their students. Overwhelmed by the demands placed upon them to reinvent their craft while simultaneously needing to engage more with students, connect more with families, communicate more with colleagues. The sheer amount of “more” is enough to feel like we are drowning.
As many schools begin to reset, and in some cases reinvent themselves, it’s easy to ask “can I really do this any longer?” the answer to that question inevitably will have to be “yes” for most teachers, but how?
Teach with compassion. Many teachers have been doing this from the start, but it remains an important reminder. What is it you hope to truly teach and instill in your students? Is it a large collection of facts or is it more than that? It is easy in any year to say “that child is failing because they will not engage” and place the blame on the student, the parents or the environment. While this is never the right approach, it is even more problematic under the current circumstances. Behind the black boxes and muted microphones there are real, live children. Many of whom want desperately to not fail this year, but often lack the courage to ask for help. Many of them already blame themselves for their apathy and lack of motivation. It is upon us to teach with abundant and unending compassion.
Practice genuine gratitude. When yet another change comes down the line it is easy to quickly become upset, apprehensive and defensive. The complaints begin to gush like an open hydrant, often directed at individuals who barely have more control than we teachers do. When everything is manageable we tend to keep our heads down and just do the work. Take a moment to look up for a moment and express genuine, specific gratitude. Share it with your students, your colleagues, your administrators. We all need to be teaching and leading with compassion, and part of compassion is the ability to share appreciation.
Find and celebrate the bright moments. There is no doubt that this is one of the most challenging school years for all of us. There is no debate that the vast majority of this school year is dark. For this reason it is all the more important to find the bright moments. What has the pandemic caused you to do to or learn or focus upon that you might not have in another year? Who has been a source of comfort or stability at this time? When did your students impress or surprise you, even in the face of everything we are struggling with today? Name those moments. Write them down. Share them with someone trusted.
When met with the fire of adversity we have two choices. We can let it burn us alive, or it can refine our personhood leaving us stronger, wiser and more compassionate towards those around us.
Physics Education Researchers know that active learning is better for students than lectures. At the same time, anyone who has attempted active learning environment knows that students do not always believe this to be true. The same holds true for study methods and habits. Instead students will balk and complain that “my teacher doesn’t teach”. Most recently a student told me they believed that by asking them to actively learn and collaborate, “the burden of the teacher has been placed on me”. I believe it was at this point I was ready to post Rhett Allain’s Telling you the Answer isn’t the Answer on every tangible and virtual learning environment I occupy. I didn’t do that.
At the end of Chapter 6 of The Science of Learning Physics, Mestre and Docktor share that students should learn about the research surrounding effective studying. I would argue that the same should be true about the active learning environment. In the past I have mentioned this casually to students, however the challenges of COVID required me to shift casual mentions to intentional direction.
Brian Frank shared that Jennifer Docktor had a webinar on the book. Excited and curious I watched the video. I was most excited that it was only 30 minutes, meaning it would be digestible for my students. The talk is an overview of the highlights of each chapter of the book. If you haven’t already ordered it and are interested, this is a great entry point!
Shortly thereafter I assigned the video in google classroom and provided the following:
As you prepare for finals and reset for semester two, I’d like you to listen to this talk by Dr. Jennifer Docktor. She is a professor of physics at UW Lacrosse and recently co-authored a book about how students learn physics. Watch the talk and write a short reflection. Include the following. Remember, you should be digging deep and synthesizing, rather than simply agreeing or disagreeing.
What resonated with you?
What ideas challenged your current thinking about how we learn and learn best?
What do you now wonder after listening to this talk?
What resulted in an “aha” moment for you.
Lastly, as a student, what can YOU take away that you’ve learned in order to improve your learning next semester?
I will be completely honest. I have a few students who have been extremely verbal about their hatred for active learning. I read their reflections last. I was also nervous because as a teacher, I’m a life-long learner. There are components that Docktor discusses and shares that I haven’t yet implemented or perfected, especially thanks to the COVID monkey wrench. Would students call me out? However, I was really impressed by what the students had to say.
Some students reflected on recognizing the intentionality put into our classes:
“I like our weekly practice tests, but I didn’t know they had an educational backing. When she started talking about interleaved practice, I thought about the momentum problems with a twist and some other homework problems that we’ve had.”
I had several students comment about applicability and connections to education outside of physics
“I now wonder, after listening to this talk, if other fields of science education, and other education in general, put this much effort into how material is taught to students, or if I have just never been aware of how I am being taught in the past.”
Another student actually posed that physics exposure happen at the elementary level so that kids have a better scaffold of experiences, rather than needing to uproot firmly held misconceptions in high school. (Big YES to that!)
What I really enjoyed, however, was students seeing themselves in the studies. Many students admitted to equation-hunting rather than starting with the big picture. I found this particular statement to be really fascinating about why they default to equation-hunting,
“I do this myself sometimes the reason why I do this is when I don’t feel confident in the work or I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Students overwhelmingly reported that an idea that resonated with them was how they are not blank slates, and experiences shape misconceptions. They saw themselves in the research and were shocked (and in some cases bothered) to hear that lecture and note-taking are ineffective, along with many of their tried and true, but passive study habits. One student who has been particularly insistent shared “the studies she talks about seem to prove me wrong about the lecturing method being more effective”
After completing this excersise here are my lingering questions:
Given the demands of AP 1, how can we encourage students that they are growing and learning by leaps and bounds, even if they aren’t at a 4 or 5-level for AP yet? I feel this is easy for me in my non-AP courses because I set the bar, and so I can raise the bar as the year progresses, without students realizing this has occurred.
Many students shared the sentiment of “well everyone is different, and this doesn’t apply to me” neglecting that this is a large body of work and research spanning decades and involving thousands of students. I’m wondering if more work in the realm of cognitive science and how we learn would be beneficial. But how to weave this into the structure of my courses?
Launching off of my previous post about sharing, I thought I’d share some ideas for putting together a presentation. Let’s be honest, we might all be teachers but if you’ve been to any meeting we’ve all definitely sat through really bad presentations.
First you choose the technique, demonstration, resource or activity you are going to share. Even a twist on an tried and true idea is valuable!
Rather than start talking, draw your audience in with the main conflict. For example, if I were sharing one of my testing strategies I might open with:
Perhaps your conflict is a demo where students missed the point, or a lab that where students missed the big picture.
The next part is causality: what were the series of events linked to the conflict that make you adapt something new or shift? In the example I provided I would probably follow up with something like:
“AP Physics 1 has these exceptionally challenging multiple choice options on the exams. I need to give students real AP items as much as possible, but it’s not uncommon for students to miss EVERY item. “
It is at this point that you can start presenting your idea. Walk us through what you set up and why, making the your thought process visible to your audience. Did you run into challenges on the way? Or perhaps you had some concerns, initially. Did students end up doing something you hadn’t intended? All of these additional complications build a compelling story, and also help your audience begin to envision themselves going through your process.
Lastly, don’t forget your main characters! Your students! You know that, in truth, sharing of ideas is best done when you can actually do it yourself like in a workshop. When that isn’t possible lean heavily on pictures of students working, student samples and quotes from student feedback.
What about Slides?
While the meat of your presentation is truly in what you say and do, if you prepare slides it is equally important that they receive the same kind of care. Generally speaking you can plan on 1-2 slides per minutes of talking. Avoid font under 24. Avoid bullets. Avoid typing out anything you’re going to say. You know literally no one wants to hear you read your slides. If you need to say “I know you can’t really see this but” then you need to take it out. If you include any data, graphs or charts the point of the chart should hit you in the face. Don’t make your audience need to analyze the graph like an ACT exam! It’s a presentation!
Ok, so I’ve clearly nixed everything on the slides right?
Slides are a visual, so they should literally be that. Can you boil your idea for slide 3 into three words? Better yet a single word? What high quality images can you put on the slide? Keep the color schemes simple and readable. Bear in mind that if you have anyone in the audience who is colorblind pure colors might not be visible. Stephanie Evergreen has lots of great resources on this topic. Here’s a checklist for your presentation.
You Don’t Know Until You Try!
It’s ironic that as teachers we effectively present daily, and yet presenting in front of collegues (or god-forbid college faculty!) is terrifying! Remember a few things:
Everyone is together to learn and grow together! No one is going to chew you out. Even the absolute worst presentations I’ve seen still get a few questions asked afterwards.
You Got this! You’re talking about something you do in your own space. You are the master of it! I mean.. in as much as you can get up with confidence that you’re not going to mess up.
The positive feedback loop is real and addictive! Once you start you won’e stop! The encouragement and continued conversations from your peers after that first time make it so much easier to present again and again. Before you know it you’re running workshops!
When I student teaching my former AP teacher told me I should come to a Physics Northwest meeting. PNW meets monthly during the school year at different high schools so teachers from all over can get together for “Phood, Phellowship and Phun”. The host school provides dinner and after an hour teachers get up and share different ideas from their classroom.
After attending several my former AP teacher nudges my shoulder and tells me next time I should get up and present.
Mentally I scoffed at the idea. All of the teachers presenting had 15-20 years of experience. They were incredible at their craft and obvioulsy way better than me. (cue imposter syndrome). There is NO WAY that I could possibly have anything of worth to share!
However, as I continued to attend meetings what I noticed was that often teachers did share something familiar, and other teachers would share hints, tips or a twist. This was truly a collaborative environment. So eventually, I got up and shared. Feedback was really positive. About two years later another new face shared the same resource, and still received positive feedback! While I still get anxious about sharing (I presented at a national conference for gifted education before any AAPT meeting), sharing makes everyone better. Even if you think you have nothing to share. Everything is new for someone in the room.
I presented at my first state section AAPT meeting only recently. Those presentations are far more formal than PNW, last 15 minutes and typically include a slide deck. I decided since I likely wouldn’t know too many people at the state meeting I could present something possible valuable. I got up to present and there wasn’t a single high school teacher in the room. I was presenting exclusively to college faculty. Add to this that one of the long-time, major members, who tends to comment and ask tough questions on every presentation was in my room. I was so anxious. Yet, by the time I was done I had great interactions with everyone (including the one faculty member who made me most anxious).
About six months later I signed up to present at the Chicago Section. This was the most nerve-wracking of all. There reason being that Chicago Section is packed with teachers I admire and aspire to be like. Teachers who have all been teaching since I was in high school. Teachers who train and speak and publish. I know that we all support each other, but for me the stakes were high. I was pregnant so my already elevated heart rate peaked to 120 as I sat in my seat during the presentation before mine. On top of this, I had decided it would be a great idea to bring four students with me.
Once again, I was shocked and surprised (I really shouldn’t be at this point). My presentation had one of the highest rates of engagement and conversations lasted all the way through lunch break. Naturally, the positive feedback loop makes it a little easier to share the next time around.
Not only are sharing or presenting a way to build connections (especially hard if you’re super introverted like me!) but it allows you to get some great feedback. After all, we are better together. Everything is new to someone in the room.
Find your local section of AAPT, post some pictures of something you did this week on twitter using the #ITeachPhysics hashtag and welcome to the family.
25 minutes. In the length of time it takes to watch a sitcom on Netflix, I’m expected to engage 25-30 students in physics. Time has a funny way of shaping our priorities.
This week I started reading Ainissa Ramierez’ book The Alchemy of Us. It is a new release and if you are the kind of person who loves fascinating connections I strongly recommend this read. In the first three chapters Ramierez focuses on time and clocks, steel and the railway system and the telegraph and communication. What endures for me is the thread within these three chapters of time. Modern transportation and telecommunications effectively shrink our world, bringing all of us closer together by reducing the time required for an interaction.
The time permitted for interactions with our students has been slashed dramatically. In a normal school year I would have 50×5=250 contact minutes with each class. In our pandemic model that time has been cut in half.
Teachers have panicked about “getting through” material and wondering how much more they can sacrifice from their curricula. Meanwhile administration and society continues to discuss the “learning loss” or COVID-slide, which, mark my words will end up being measured by some new costly exam from Pearson.
When time is stolen from us, we have the opportunity to recognize what is important.
As a teacher it’s important for me to recognize that the enduring teachings and understandings my students will walk away with have little to nothing to do with physics content. It would be arrogant to think otherwise. Who would I be, to think that my teaching of physics content is so life-changing that it is absolutely critical to a student’s future? The sheer diversity and variety of curricula attest to this fact. Yet, students can choose to pursue whatever field they desire, provided the opportunities, the awareness, and most importantly, mentorship.
What is enduring?
Problem solving skills. The ability to question. Discernment. Attention to details. Skepticism.
If we can teach our students to think like experts, and masterfully tackle a challenge, does it really matter the volume of content we use to teach these skills?
I’ve had similar conversations regarding final exams. At 20% of the overall grade, finals do very little to move a student’s letter grade. Final exams provide me with little information I already know from weekly assessments, except for showing me who studied for finals and who did not. Our administration has directed us to give “holds harmless” finals, meaning a final exam cannot hurt, but only help a student’s grade. Many teachers are insistent on giving their traditional finals, even though the district is not providing us with a traditional finals schedule. Add to the fact that the PSAT has taken away one day during finals week (because, clearly the answer to learning loss is running the PSAT/SAT not one, but five times this year), and a second day is purely for enrichment and student support, yet teachers are going to force this upon students anyway. I cannot help but ask “to what end?” What is engrained so deeply in our own academic culture that we feel this is the only way learning can and should happen? Is it, perhaps, a byproduct of the Puritan mentality that every minute must be spent in productivity, that “time is money?”
There have been numerous reports that black and brown students have thrived in remote learning. Many of these reflect specifically on microaggressions in schools, but I cannot help but wonder if perhaps a component has been the ability for students to take ownership of their own time through asynchronous learning opportunities. I consider how, in my own circles, we often joke about “Greek time” or “Arab time” and wonder if the strict, factory-like bell schedules and “on time every time” mentality potentially creates another layer of hostility to the learning environment.
In a time of great opportunity to shift the narrative of what it means to teach and learn, so many have dug their heels into the ground of a crumbling system. If Schitt’s Creek and Arrested Development can tell a compelling story in 30 minutes, why can’t we teach meaningful academic lessons in the same time?
Why do you teach? It’s certainly not for the competitive salary, the great respect from society or the flexible work schedule. Do you remember writing that philosophy of education statement? What did it say then, what does it say now? Most statements say something along the lines of “I believe all students can learn” “students learn at different rates” “students need to be met where they are at” so on and so forth. What is critical here, is the use of the word “all”.
The reality is that while every teacher might say they believe in “all” our school systems are not designed for “all”. They never were designed for all. When the rubber hits the road and we’re deep in the muck of teaching we categorize “those” students, whatever that means. “Those students” will go straight to military/factory/automotive shop so “they” aren’t interested in higher math or physics. “Those” students don’t need physics because they aren’t majoring in science. A far more insidious part of this reality is that “those” students are overwhelmingly growing up in poverty and are often our Black and Hispanic students.
Furthermore, in spaces such as physics, this idea of “who” does physics is even more exacerbated in the larger scientific community. The work of identity building, literacy development and social justice do not exclusively live in the realm of english and history courses and “African American Study” courses, it is work that belongs to every single teacher who claims “all students” deserve the opportunity to learn and grow.
This work is challenging and it begins with most of us sitting with a lot of discomfort. It also involves a large volume of reading and listening on our part. In physics, especially, this work can seem even more challenging (and some argue unnecessary!) because it is not clear how this work fits in the scope of a physics class or perhaps if you are ready to tackle the work you are unsure where to begin.
I had the pleasure of diving into two incredible books this year, Culturally Reponsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond and Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Mohammed. I truly believe that these two texts together serve as an excellent foundation for engaging in the work of narrative shifting within you classroom. Hammond shows us how our cultural underpinnings shape the way we interpret and learn information while Mohammed brings hundreds of years of Black excellence and literacy to the forefront of education in today’s classroom.
Muhammed lays out what she calls the Historical Relevant Literacy (HRL) framework. In the framework she identifies four critical components: identity, skill development, criticality and intellectualism. One of the most important details of the framework is that culturally relevant learning should not be a one-off lesson in a particular month to celebrate a particular group, but rather engrained in every fiber of the curriculum to consistently give students the opportunity to learn about others and themselves within their coursework.
Physics Identity Encounters
For the last few years I’ve made a deep dive into issues of representation in physics and the largest recurring theme is the importance of developing a physics identity. It became clear to me how the HRL framework could apply to my own classroom. With the added challenge of the pandemic I knew that trying to recreate and do everything with excellence would quickly lead to burn-out and failure, so I made the decision before the year began that I would make connections and relationships my number one priority, with identity development as a critical component of that priority.
Twitter and the sweeping social justice conversations has made it easier than ever. With everyone working, teaching and learning from home, many people began to develop content that was accessible to all in the form of webinars and other livestreams. I began to integrate these opportunities in a rather fluid manner into my classes. For each, I asked students to reflect on what they had heard. Specifically, I asked them to do the following:
Discuss a concept or theory that resonated with you
Discuss a concept or theory that challenged you
Discuss a concept or theory that left you wondering
Discuss a concept or theory that resulted in an “aha” moment for you.
Last, (if not included already), discuss how the concepts discussed might apply to you as a student.
In October I livestreamed an event from Women in Science that featured Dr. Jessica Esquivel (here’s a link to the talk). She talked about identity and the sciences, but perhaps more importantly she told her story as an AfroLatinx woman from Texas who wanted to pursue a PhD in physics and what that meant as she navigated conversations with her family, peers and colleagues.
Dr. Esquivel was also a foundational member of the #BlackInPhysics movement, which was primarily geared towards college physics students. The movement included a roll call, in which black physicists used the hashtag to introduce themselves and their work. Through this movement I learned about Tamia Williams who has put together an incredible project called Being Seen of interviews where physicists and physics students talk about how they integrate physics into their passion for the arts. Her participants reflect an immense diversity of backgrounds. Aside from the obvious coolness of this, many of my students are part of our district’s highly competitive creative and performing arts program.
The last guest of the year was a former student of mine who is finishing her physics degree. She already has an incredible story about her own journey and future plans. Not only did my students get to interact with someone who is underrepresented in physics, they heard it from someone who has truly been in their shoes.
Students shared how much they enjoyed the assignments. Many of my students saw themselves in the stories that were shared. One of my students, after reflecting on her shared experience ended her reflection with, “I think videos like this should be shown more often to high school students. It was inspiring to me so I know it will be to others as well.”
Students shared themes of resilience and recognition of the systems in play in their reflections. “a theory that blew my mind was that if you can’t go down the path that you want. then you should make your pack and do not let anyone bring down your path and not let you reach your goal.”
Another reflected (unknowingly) on stereotype threat, “Most of the time I do ask whatever questions I have to those around me but I often hesitate in doing so for fear of sounding unintelligent. But like Olivia Lowe said, we’re all learning. No one in the class is an expert in physics. It’s likely everyone’s first course and even if it isn’t, physics is a difficult subject. It’s okay to be confused. No one should have a fear of getting the help they need.”
I was also really impressed by the impact the assignments had on my white students. One shared “I was just wondering why people struggle for being different. I don’t understand because I have never had that experience.”
I could say all of these things to my students all day long, but hearing it from someone who is in the field, who is a current student and who has shared lived experiences is far more powerful than anything I could ever lecture them about.
In case you were wondering, this is what I believe about teaching and learning. As a teacher in physics, and as a female teacher in physics, I believe it is my obligation to give all students who come to me the opportunity to expand their minds not just as students of science, but as stewards of our world and society. I belong to a school where the rich student diversity in background and expression is what gives life and vibrance to our school hallways. As an educator it is my responsibility to show students that they belong and are capable of success in any course of study they desire, because we need that same vibrance from diversity of thought and experience in order to tackle the complex problems in our world.
Teaching is so much more than ensuring students have content and content-related skills. We have the very special opportunity to help children envision and create their future trajectories in life. This is a great responsibility that we can never forget.
I need some space to pause and reflect and I’ve chosen to do it here. Perhaps you might relate to some of these reflections and we can recognize and accept our shared experiences admist these impossible hardships.
I’ve been reflecting on the stages of my own emotions and disposition over the last few months. While the commonly known 5 Stages of Grief are recognized as unfounded in empirical evidence, I feel it serves as a decent framework through which to organize and express my own experiences.
We have often discussed that the experience of the pandemic is one of ongoing trauma, and with trauma as a current “hot topic” in the education world having conversations from that frame have been helpful to many. I also feel that it is important and valid to frame our experiences as teachers as one of grief and loss. These reflections are mine and relate to my situation in my school, district and community.
I mourn for energetic and busy hallways that are now empty or less full I mourn for the students who find a safe haven in our buildings that we can no longer provide I mourn for the silly interactions with students I mourn for normalcy.
Yet I’ve found myself growing increasingly comfortable with our current normal, while still yearning for what was and what could be.
Over the summer many of us assumed districts would make the choice to go fully-remote. If districts opted for in-person learning we assumed we would be closed by Thanksgiving. We talked about how it’s impossible to teach with spacing and masks covering mouths and facial expressions. How everything that is good teaching is forbidden. How students cannot learn under the constraints of an in person setting. Yet Thanksgiving came and went without much incident. Our district, like others, put students on an “adaptive pause” and then after winter break we were back.
I felt this in my absolute core. If you caught me in the hallway and asked how I was doing I would say, “I’m fine. I’m always fine” the reality was I was not fine at all. I was feeling like a failure daily. I felt unsupported from every angle, even if that wasn’t the reality. I felt enraged about what we were being asked to do. I felt disheartened that no one seemed to value our thoughts and opinions on anything. I felt helpless in supporting my students and families. And I blamed everyone with fire from my core.
Some teachers made pleas for a shift to fully remote learning. Some tried to find a way to get by, bargaining with themselves that trying to do one mode well would be better than juggling two modes poorly. We struggled with student learning losses “if only they would turn on their cameras” “if only I could connect with them more than twice a week” “if only we taught full remote instead of hybrid”. I spent many days wondering what life would be like “if only”
I think I cycled though the first three phases every time a change was laid out, and not only when school started but also leading up to school. I had a meeting with teachers from other districts a week before my school started. They had already begun. While I was still eager and hopeful I could make things work, the exhaustion and frustration was already apparent on their faces. I would soon join them the following week. Once the anger ran its course depression took center stage. I found myself plugging my headphones in to listen to cathartic music and just cry, something I haven’t done since I was a high school student. Simultaneously realizing I was at my edge and also recognizing I had a lot of anxiety as a high schooler. I didn’t care about finishing my master’s. I wanted to not care about anything at school. Seeing cases rise and hospitals fill again, coupled with increased mitigations brought on the cloud of despair that this was unending.
I’m not entirely here because every new curveball sends me though all of these emotions all over again. (We are starting a new schedule in two weeks). However I’ve realized a few things.
The end is in view. Every day another friend of mine is getting vaccinated. Every day treatments are getting better in the hospitals. Every day we creep a little closer.
I am more resilient than I realized. I generally have a strong dislike for change, but each time change has come around I realize that certain things I was worried were going to be the worst thing in the world aren’t quite as bad as I imagined. We have shifted so many times I’m now able to tell myself to wait and see.
I am continuing to focus on my circle of control. I don’t have the emotional energy to complain about everything that I cannot change.
I am surrounded by a lot of good people. The colleagues in my hallway are all similar-minded. We can agree this sucks, but we keep finding ways forward.
My kids aren’t actually doing as bad as I feel. This last one is enormous. I told my husband in October (the usual teacher slump month) that teaching right now feels like being a failure every day. It’s true because I know what my best teaching looks like. It’s true because there are students who might otherwise be succeeding right now. It’s true because of a million things that are out of my control. And yet, when I look at my student work, they are actually doing ok. They are resilient and brilliant.
I have to also be very real with myself that I have not had a normal year in three school years. Last year we started the year with ransomware and ended with the shutdown. The year prior I had a baby in April. I am constantly reminding myself that this too will end. We will not, and should not go back to normal. I’m still working through so many emotions daily and everything is intensified with the backdrop of events in our nation and world. There is a lot I’ve learned and in many ways I’ve grown. I will continue to practice gratefulness and seek the bright spots, even in these dark days.
In my letter to a student teacher the first piece of advice I shared was that sarcasm has no place in the classroom. I want to take that a bit further to discuss not only communication with students, but interactions on a broader scale.
My first encounter with the importance of language was working with 4th-6th graders at Northwestern’s Gifted summer program. I had only completed my first year teaching, but it was my 5th year working for this program. This blog is about physics teaching, and that typically means high school. If you’ve never taught 4th-6th grade: they don’t hold back. I had collected some surveys for feedback from my kids and one comment in particular stood out, “when you said “what” to me it felt like you were annoyed with me” I had a stone drop in my stomach. I knew exactly what the student was referencing. They were busy creating mousetrap cars. Summer programming often put classes in the most absurd spaces and I had 18 nine, ten and eleven year olds crammed in a conference room for 10 adults. We only had the large conference table for workspace each 8 hour day for two weeks. In the chaos of building if I heard my name I responded “what” not at all with any poor intent, but simply “what?” as I would respond to anyone. However, this student communicated to me that single word made them feel uncomfortable. With a single word I had destroyed what should be a safe space. From that moment on I made it a point to always respond to my name with “yes” or “how can I help you” or something comparable. Perhaps it seems silly, or even obvious that I should have used a different response, but in the moment it can be hard to be intentional until intention becomes habit.
How we respond and who we respond to shapes our classroom in subtle but massively impactful ways. Research has shown that boys often blurt out answers and be called upon than girls. Studies also show that when race is layered into the mix teachers will not engage or primarily engage negatively with Black and Hispanic students. None of us wants to think that we do such a thing in our classroom, but our preconceived notions, stereotypes and biases, all of which are founded in our previous experiences, shape how we interact and respond, especially when we do things without intention.
It is a common practice during an observation that the observer will ask you what you would like them to focus on during the lesson. It’s really hard to think critically and reflectively on our own practice, especially as a new teacher. Ask your observer to keep a log of who you are interacting with and what those interactions are (alternatively you can record the lesson and do this yourself). This can be done easily by giving the observer a seating chart where they can indicate positive (+) , redirection(⤾), neutral(Ø) and question(?) interactions with simple marks. When the lesson is complete you can look at the marks and analyze and interpret your data. Who received the most interaction from you? The least? The most positive attention? Negative attention? Are there any trends in terms of race and/or gender? Awareness is the first step in course-correction.
There are so many ways to ensure voices are equally heard and respected (and no, not just with cold-calling). Creating this space is part of building your classroom culture and climate. If you were to implement a single thing today to begin to create this culture it would be this norm: when a student speaks they have the right to the space to speak without interruption, and the rest of the class (and you the teacher!) has the right to listen without distraction.
I would be remiss if I skipped this opportunity to discuss conflict in the classroom. The biggest challenge regarding conflict is taking your own emotions out of the equation so you can work through the conflict with your student. You might be agitated or frustrated, you might feel indignant if the behavior is directed towards you. You might be anxious about what happens next. All of these emotions are real, and necessary and important. You can acknowledge these but then you need to move forward. This conversation deserves it’s own blog post, so for this one I will leave you with this: be curious. Have curiosity with your own response and emotions. Be curious about why your student feels the way they do right now. Consider what alternatives might be available to your gut response.
Your students have developing minds and we cannot forget that. We have a responsibility to keep our own cool so we can help our students work through their struggles while also giving them the tools to work through future conflicts independently. We also have a responsibility to ensure our classrooms are safe spaces for each and every voice to be heard and for each and every student to learn and grow.
The other night I ran across this tweet from a first year teacher asking for some perspective
There is a lot of good advice in the thread, but I couldn’t help but notice the teachers who shared that this is a normal career thing.
Let me be very clear: it is not normal for the rest of your career.
Maybe let me clarify: Normal is what you choose it to be.
To answer Caroline’s actual question: yes. As a first year teacher you put in ridiculous hours. Full disclosure: every teacher is putting in ridiculous hours right now thanks to the pandemic. However, it is something that can and should get better as you gain experience.
I know plenty of teachers who work 10+ hours on the weekends. They wear it like a badge of honor, talking in the breakroom about how much work they put in over the weekend. My observations have lead me to understand that experienced teachers (5+ years) who put in this time fall into one of three camps, although I think the vast majority of teachers (and likely you, reader) fall into the last one:
The Aggressive Complainers: These teachers spend every valuable minute at school complaining about every aspect of their job. They rarely complete any work at school so it all comes home with them. Side-note: it’s really easy to get caught up in this, and often the complaints aren’t wrong. However, constant complaining is toxic and leads to burnout. If you find yourself caught in a word-vomit spiral, step out and away. Write down three things you are grateful for or appreciative of today. You need to find your own bright spots to avoid the death spiral.
The Chronic Obsessors: These teachers feel that every minute detail is of utmost importance. They struggle to see the bigger picture and feel that the only way their students will learn adequately is by meticulously offering feedback for each fraction of a point they award or remove.
The Compassionate Perfectionists: These teachers often have the biggest hearts. They want their students to succeed. Each and every one. They also want to ensure they are doing their absolute best work in every single aspect of teaching and learning. None of this is a bad thing! This was (is) me, and I think the overwhelming majority of over-worked teachers are in this camp. This is a really hard thing to reconcile. Many of us were “good students” in school and our perfectionism drove us in a positive way to excel in all of our classes. When you are good at the school game, doing well at everything is within grasp. Life is not like that though. We have to realize that being a teacher is being immersed in the lives of our students, our colleagues and teaching is only an aspect of our own life. We cannot be a perfect teacher in all ways at all times. It’s not reality, and it quickly leads to burn-out.
I know that the answer “it gets better” does nothing to help a new teacher right now. So instead I’m going to leave you with a few questions. Bear in mind that these questions are really part of a career-long journey and they will shift and change as your career progresses. As such I think these questions are important to circle around to each year.
What is most important to you this year? This question really drives a lot of decision making. You cannot excel at all things, so you need to pick a single thing that you can really focus on. As a new teacher this might very simply be routines and reflection. I distinctively recall that feeling as a new teacher of needing and wanting to make everything about my teaching excellent now. Over time I have come to terms with the fact that in order to make anything excellent, I need to focus my efforts in a very specific place. In light of the pandemic this thing for me has been building relationships and forming science identities in my class. In other years I’ve focused on a specific prep or a skill for students. What is your one thing that you want to rock? Feedback is important, but are you giving students the kind of feedback that they are actually reflecting upon, or are they just looking at the number? How much of the grading you are doing is directly correlated to the demonstration and encouragement of student learning? What do you want your students to walk away from your class with more than anything else?
What is absolutely critical for your students? I’ve had to give up a lot this year. In the past I frequently mix my student groups, I do a lot of collaboration and student-led discussions. I do the traditional homework and lab experiences, I have unit exams. With the pandemic, its critical that my students demonstrate evidence of learning and growth. I’ve significantly cut down the homework I normally assign. I’ve eliminated all late policies. I am ok with letting students skip assignments all together if they can demonstrate mastery of the learning objectives. At the same time if you were to ask what the most important thing students learn from me is, I would answer scientific thinking. I have made it a focus to continue to get students to observe, question and structure arguments based on evidence. I continue to emphasize structures for students to solve problems, pushing them a little closer to expert thinking every day.
What is the specific learning outcome of (fill in the blank practice). If your answer to this question ultimately comes down to it was how you were taught, then you need to reevaluate its place in your work. Homework points, late policies, grading schemes, there is a lot that we often do without thinking critically about the practice. Is your practice helping or hurting your students? If it’s helping, how does it help? Does it help because it inspires growth and learning or because it instills fear of losing an A? If the practice is neither helping nor hurting then can you forgo it all together? Practices that hurt or have no purpose might as well be scrapped so you can expend your energy elsewhere.
Who can you talk to? Start building your network. There are a lot of incredible people out there who want to mentor you and help you out. No one needs to reinvent the wheel and no one’s circumstances are so unique that you have to do this alone. Find your people. They might be at your school, but they might not be, and that’s ok. Find your professional organizations and tap into them. Find folks on Twitter and tap in to the conversations.
Somewhere there is a statistic that teachers make more decisions in a day than brain surgeons. It’s true that teaching is an incredibly dynamic, mentally-challenging art. As such, choosing to reflect and think critically on our practice feels like extra, unneeded work. However, in the long run, thinking critically about our practices makes us more efficient and more intentional in our work.
“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.