Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dear New Science Teacher

Dear New Science Teacher,

You're going to get lots of advice, too much really, much of it self-contradictory. Let me add to your growing pile of nonsense.

*Children are innately curious; students, however, are not.
Unless you're getting a fresh crop of toddlers, most children learned long ago that questioning in a classroom leads to all kinds of problems. If your kids do not rise like flies to the wonderful poop you bring to class, don't get all sour-pussy about it.

If your enthusiasm lasts until November--which it will if you stop expecting the kids to care how much you spend out of class "for their benefit"--they'll start spilling out their curious guts, which leads to a different kind of problem.
My recommendations:

  • Treat your students as you would human beings that have been traumatized by years of schooling. Because they have.
  • If a child want to know what happens if... let her try it (provided it's safe to do so). Memorize the state standards that pays lip service to exploring science, and be ready to rattle it off should an administrator wander in just as Brian attempts to see how long he can stand shocking himself with a hand-cranked generator. (In New Jersey, it's NJCCCS 5.1.12.B.1 "Design investigations, collect evidence, analyze data, and evaluate evidence to determine measures of central tendencies, causal/correlational relationships, and anomalous data." This covers pretty much everything.)

  • *Demos usually suck.
    Why? Half the kids can't really see what's going on, and traditionally demos are followed by some inane worksheet, or quiz, or some kind of assessment that just sucks all the cool factor out. Even if you don't zap them with a quiz, their response is Pavlovian. I'm not saying don't--just don't expect the students to fawn over you like the Pied Piper.

    My recommendations:
    • Do 'em anyway. If you singe an eyebrow or two (yours, I mean), you'll be an instant legend. 
    • Accidentally trigger the smoke alarm during a chilly rainstorm in November--your fame will spread beyond your classroom.

    *Live critters reproduce.
    And poop. Your lovely tank of cute roly-polies will become a teeming mass of stink by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, and you won't have time to clean them.
    My recommendations:
    • Do it anyway, and let 'em stink, tell them it's the natural world, and keep a butterfly net around so that when some horribly fierce looking critter breaks out and buzzes around the room, you can non-chalantly catch it as you meander through tables of differentiated groupwork. Kids learn more from these tiny reeking cesspools of life than they'll ever grasp from a PowerPoint.
    • Forget using filters in fish tanks--they're loud and need maintenance.Just use water plants--they'll take up the nitrogen, then scrape the algae off the sides every month or two with a microscope slide.
    •  If something stings you, smile, pretend it doesn't hurt, and keep the EpiPen handy.
    • Never, ever bring in spiders. You'll get a few thousand anyway wandering in to eat the various flying critters erupting from your terrariums, and you can honestly tell your principal you didn't bring them in.

    *Science teachers stay late...
    So what? We do what we love! We get the big rooms! We blow things up! We have showers in our rooms!
    My recommendations:
    • If you'd rather be streaming out the door at 2:45 PM like a lost lemming, go take a few courses and get certified in...well, email me privately, I don't need to get into a pissing match with about 4 other departments. Just stand by the door and see who streams out first. (Be careful, though--those English folks carry out enough papers to fuel the Netherlands for a week in December. They may work more than we do.)
    • Squirrel away a lot of granola bars, power drinks, and a toothbrush.
    • Quit. This isn't for you.

    Stop reading advice and go teach!
    Bust your butt, enjoy the good moments, move on past the bad--the children know who's in this for real, and who's mailing it in. You'll find your way if you fundamentally like kids, and you stick with it.

    No shame if you don't. This profession breaks a lot of people. The kids are here because they have to be. They deserve teachers who are there because they want to be. 

    If you like, please send words. Dopamine beats alcohol.


    Mary Ann Reilly said...

    This made me laugh. I once observed a science teacher who began a small fire and failed to notice. Sometimes admins can be helpful:)

    The only thing I would add is the value of finding someone local (down the hall) who you can share thoughts, exchange ideas, raise questions, & most importantly--laugh with--in addition to the online discourse.

    Both benefit me.

    doyle said...

    Dear Mary Ann,

    I once had a child start a small fire under his desk--ah, the joys of science!

    I forget that other departments don't all share the person-to-person stuff we share in our hallways. It's not unusual for another science teacher to wander in and just watch. And we laugh a lot.

    Reflections of a Science Teacher said...

    Great advise. I envy the schools with collegial departments, people who share and laugh and are willing to participate in the adventure of learning. Lucky you. ;)

    I love science and I love the kids! (Remind me I said this in March - haha!)

    Reflections of a Science Teacher said...


    Unknown said...

    I'm trying my best to teach science well. It's difficult and sometimes I wonder if I am doing the right thing teaching every subject (but no subject truly well). What are your thoughts on those who are teaching science to fifth or sixth graders?

    Mr McCracken said...

    Thanks for the hearty dose of writ, candor and outside the box perspective. The kids miss some of your best stuff im sure. 2bad

    doyle said...

    Dear Reflections,

    Having a collegial department is huge! I learn more from hours of chatting about methods and strategies in the late afternoons than I ever will sitting in a meeting. We boost each other up when needed and, just as important, kick each other in the butts when needed as well.

    And loving kids and science is easy--even in March. It's the rest of the nonsense that catches up with us!

    doyle said...

    Dear John,

    My hope is that those teaching 5th and 6th grade know what they teach inside out and that they freely admit to what they do not know--something I hope for at every level.

    At a minimum, I hope that teachers (again at any level) do not kill nascent interest in science.

    I'd rather a teacher spends a year doing everything he can possibly imagine with a simple tool (a prism, a magnifying glass, maybe a class hand-cranked generator), exploring the many possibilities the tool presents, than surveying content.

    Most of all I hope that any teacher who approaches science shares the joy and human-ness of exploration and discovery.

    You'll be fine on all three counts. =)

    doyle said...

    Dear Ms. McCracken,

    Thanks for your kind words.

    The things the kids do miss are the loud events--I don't do much with hydrogen, as much as I'd like to, though I might do some small level hydrolysis this year. I need to be a little careful with sophomores--don't need to get called down to the office explaining how a few kids in Bloomfield managed to fill a weather balloon with explosive gases.

    Bill Vining said...

    I agree, adventure is part of the key. Keep it up.

    Luann Lee said...

    Sage advice. Funny, true. I have one question: WHat is on your head in the photo?

    doyle said...

    Dear Luann Lee,

    That would be my "tinfoil" hat, except it's made of aluminum instead.

    I use it to deflect thoughts from the Gatesians from Planet MS. 'd use it more often if it wasn't slightly radioactive.

    (I actually use it during the year to convince my students I'm even crazier than they thought....)

    Fran said...

    Oh Mike,
    I wish I had Sciences teacher like you in high school!
    Maybe I would like it more.
    Hope you have a great start to your school year and hope to see you and the lovely wife again very soon.

    doyle said...

    Dear Fran,

    Thanks for the kind words. Hope your year has started strong--as much as folks complain in Jersey, the real heroes are those like you in Cali doing more with less every year.

    You know where to find us!

    Leslie said...

    Hi Fran,

    We missed your annual visit--you really have to make it to Jersey next year! Or sooner!

    This fall,I'm teaching a sort of gen ed science appreciation/understanding kind of course that Bloomfield College just started requiring for new freshmen. Far cry from my Comp classes, so I am picking Michael's mind for every possible piece of advice this year!

    Have a great school year!

    Oolong said...

    Thanks for this, Mr. Doyle. I may well join you in the profession yet...

    hOMESCHOOLING 2020 COVID-19 said...

    what happens if you use your tongue on the van der graaf? i dunno...let's try it....i did it first....others lined up after.....