Empowering Students To Become Leaders

To take a science class is to learn a body of knowledge and a way of knowing. In my opinion, the goal of middle and high school science teachers shouldn’t just be for students to know enough to pass an end of year exam. While that is important, it’s equally as important for students to learn science relevant to their lives, to have an opportunity to do science, and develop skills related to STEM careers. The time that students can have that opportunity is in your science classroom.

In my class, I have five lab activities that are directly related to STEM, that is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. My favorite one involves making play-dough. During our study of mixtures, students tweak a play-dough recipe and test their results on a wide range of features. At the end of the lab, students must determine the best recipe to use in their scenario’s “play-dough factory”. In another lab, students have to design and build a toy that makes a popping noise based on their knowledge of acids and bases.

A typical science teacher doesn’t have to go that far to empower students with science skills. Keep in mind that some students may have very little experience with experimenting at home. A basic lab activity on solubility may still have the “wow” factor and allow students to feel confident in their science skills. For example, having students test the solubility of different substances (how well a substance dissolves). So many skills are involved: accurate liquid and solid measurement, how to weigh a substance on a balance, what tools to use in a chemistry lab, temperature (if using hot and cold water), and many more.

A science teacher can empower his or her students by doing activities that will help build their science skills. For some teachers, advanced activities will help their students grow. For others, more basic activities will set the foundation for advanced activities later. Either way, doing hands on activities in the classroom is a way of building their confidence in their science skill level and will possibly inspire them to select a STEM based career in the future.

—Jesse New York City Teaching Fellow

5 Things Teaching Taught Me

Being a teacher is an education in and of itself, one you can’t possibly get any other way. I’ve learned a lot in my eight years, but here are a few of my favorites.

1.) If you’re not a great bargain shopper already, teaching will help you become one! You’ll swoop down on piles of free books like your life depends on it and you’ll set reminders on your calendar for the penny sales at Staples.

2.) Your coworkers don’t necessarily have to be your best friends, but I think teaching is a career in which it’s nice to have someone to lean on. Some people aren’t comfortable mixing work and friendship, of course, but I appreciate my friends at my school a great deal. Be open to socializing with your coworkers outside the staff room—stop by the happy hour or trivia night every so often. It’s so easy to NOT do this your first year—you will feel tired and busy a lot—but make time for it.

3.) Days at school can be long. Take care of yourself. Drink plenty of water (on top of your seven cups of coffee…at least in my case). DON’T SKIP LUNCH. Take every bathroom break possible. Get out of the building in the middle of the day if the weather is nice, even if you just walk around the block. Keep some healthy snacks around to keep your energy level stable and avoid hunger-related crankiness.

4.) Teaching is also a career in which it’s easy to feel powerless. You have to teach the kids in front of you, exactly as they are, in the numbers and configuration they are. While all those facts are immutable, don’t feel powerless. If something is deeply wrong and you’ve exhausted your own capabilities, ask for help and backup. In a well-functioning school, administrators, deans, counselors, and other staff understand that helping to ensure a stable, safe environment for learning is everyone’s job.

5.) You will find yourself advocating for children like never before. You will see, up close and personal, the effects of laws and policies usually made by people quite remote from the situation; you will hear people complain about kids and teenagers. But you will stand up for the great kids in your life. You’ll tell stories about the kids you know who work to support their families, who overcome long odds to make it to college, who make painful and unpopular choices in the hope of a better future. You’ll come to know that believing in our kids and helping them to be the best they can be is crucial for a thriving society, and you’ll say so—as nicely as you possibly can—to the naysayers.

You’ll learn your own lessons (just as many as you teach) in your own career; I look forward to seeing the new Fellows’ lists of lessons in a few years!

—Abigail NYC Teaching Fellow

Highlighting The South Bronx: Reflecting on Schools and Their Communities

Schools are microcosms of the communities that surround them. The sizes may differ, and the participants may be unique, but ultimately what is happening within a school building is a direct result of what is happening in the world surrounding it. New York City public schools are a in a particularly unique place, as there are so many different ways a school can reflect the community surrounding it.

My school in the South Bronx was largely a community school, with almost all of the students coming from less than a mile away. Often, these students had known one another in elementary and middle school, usually hailing from the same streets and apartment buildings. As a school, we used this to our advantage. My school counselors arranged community partnerships with organizations throughout the area to create relationships with organizations in the community that could offer the students services that we could not provide for them. We tried to create programming that would be helpful to parents or guardians of students in the schools, offering things that parents may need for themselves or to help navigate complicated processes in the lives of their student. Every Thanksgiving we hosted a pot-luck where students and their families could contribute a dish from their cultural origin and come and share with others.

The grocery store, dollar store, deli, and all other local businesses were really a part of the school community as well. The stores had student specials, allowing students to feel as though the business owners really had their backs. The gentlemen at the deli still remembers how I take my tea in the morning, always being extra kind to teachers and sending over goodies during exam week.

The teachers and administration took special care to spend time in the community, planning trips to local parks and getting to know the area surrounding the school in a meaningful way. When students saw that I understood where they lived and could point to it on a map, they were able to see that I was part of the community that they lived in.

—Bridget New York City Teaching Fellow

The Funniest Moment In Your Classroom

My students have a great sense of humor and it was most apparent when we played a game called “Don’t Say It”. I was teaching a unit on how to use details and descriptions in writing and was hoping this game would help them really practice and get the hang of describing their ideas to help the read imagine and understand what they are saying. The way the game works is there are cards that tell you the object that you have to describe but gives a list of words that you cannot use in your description. The students had to come up with creative ways to explain what the object was and get their teammates to figure it out based on their use of details, the words they choose to use, and their descriptions.

It was the most fun I’ve had with them! I have seen my students be creative before but not to this level. They were being silly yet really witty just to make sure their team won. I was so impressed with the way they were using details and they were describing things so well you knew exactly what the object was. There were a few times that the students used the words that they weren’t supposed to but when that happened the buzzer would sound and everyone would just laugh as we switched back to the opposite team.

Of course there was a timer involved which added to the excitement because each team was rushing to get the most objects identified. This added a level of competitiveness that I will admit I was a little nervous about. However, one of the reasons my students are in my school is to work on their social emotional needs so working on their social skills was just an extreme bonus that this game provided. Even more than that was how well they did at taking turns, being respectful, practicing good sportsmanship, and handling loss well.

In every way this turned out to be a huge success! My kids had a blast and so did I. They learned the lesson I was teaching them and demonstrated that they mastered the skill. On top of that, we addressed their social emotional goals and had fun while doing it. It was so funny to hear their descriptions that for the entire period all you heard from the hallways was the entire class laughing. This is definitely a game that I continue to use in my class.

Ilana —NYC Teaching Fellow

You Know You Were A Teacher When

I knew when I was a teacher when my students started to listen to what I had to say. It became very apparent to me when I told my students to line up and used a countdown. I was so proud of myself and my students. I wanted to smile all day and shout out a loud “yay!” Instead, I remained composed and told my students “good job.” Deep down I still couldn’t believe they listened to me.

Another time, I had this feeling of being a teacher was when my students discussed a math topic from different perspectives. I listened and watched them debate back and forth. I told them that this discussion was fantastic, and we can prove that both ideas were right with some math equations. They saw the work and understood each other’s ideas. There was nothing more that I could say for that day, but I felt like the luckiest teacher in the world.

Sixto —NYC Teaching Fellow

A Teaching Moment That Changed Your Perspective

When my school moved me to a new site, with a very different population, I was unsure if I could ever be happy there. The students were much younger than my previous students, and all had a diagnosis of autism. I was used to feeling like my science teaching made a huge difference to my students. Many of them had passed their first state tests with me, in science. They were all from low-income families and really needed me. My new students had a much higher-income bracket, and seemed to have all the resources and great teachers that they could need. I felt like I wouldn’t be able to make as big of a difference.

The first few months were hard. I had to revise and rework my entire curriculum to a new style of communication and much younger students. The whole process was a great test in flexibility. I have been at my new site for two years and now I can’t imagine being anywhere else. My impact here is different but just as important. Being moved and the struggle that accompanied that move made me realize that being flexible is really important as a teacher (and as an adult). The more I relaxed and just did my best each day, the more I enjoyed my new position. There is no one way to make a difference, and each person in each position is important.

Cassie —NYC Teaching Fellow

Getting Involved in Your School Community Will Make You a Better Teacher

When I was a first year teacher, I sought advice from everyone. Not just my mentor, but other teachers, the guidance staff, and the principal. One piece of advice my principal gave me that I wanted to follow was to give a school five years before switching. I thought a lot about this- why five years? Despite having a difficult first year, I decided to try and remain in my school for that period of time.

There were many benefits to staying in my school. First, I got a chance to teach many different subjects. In the six years I was at my school, I taught almost every science course to grades 6-12: living environment, chemistry, earth science, and general science. Second, I got a chance to take on different roles in my school’s community. I became a member of the inquiry team and the School Leadership Team. It allowed me to have a say in the school’s decision making to help improve the school. Finally, I was able to get to know every single student in the school. Building rapport with the students in the school was the best benefit. It allowed me to help manage behavior issues not only in my classroom, but through the hallways as well.

I wound up staying at my school for six years. There were many other benefits to staying as well, such as building strong relationships with everyone in the school community. And, knowing where equipment as supplies are located for fast retrieval! But the most important benefit was witnessing all of your hard work and effort make change over a long period time. While the first year may be difficult, I believe in giving one school a chance for a few years. Become part of the community and you will certainly realize how big a of a difference you can make as a teacher.

Jesse, A New York City Teaching Fellow

The 5 things I Learned as a Teacher

Being a teacher is to enter into a career with the highest highs and the lowest lows. When you witness your students grow over the course of one year, it can be inspiring and rewarding. But, it can also be heart wrenching to see a student struggle or fail despite your best efforts. But being a teacher isn’t only about your students growing- you wind up seeing a lot of personal growth as well. Here are five things that I learned from being a teacher:

1. Students learn best from hands on activities. One of the most important lessons you may learn as a teacher is that students will not learn if you simply stand in front of the board and speak to them. “Chalk and talk” as this is usually called. The tough part is, most people imagine a classroom this way. I bet if you did a Google image search for “teacher”, you’d see hundreds of images with teachers in front of a classroom! In reality, students learn best when they are doing something. Doing the talking, doing the problems, doing the lab experiment.

2. A student’s growth happens inside and outside of the classroom. Don’t forget that our students are learning outside of the classroom as well. Sure, not all of them are watching the Nature show or even the nightly news. But they are having experiences outside of the classroom. How can you tap into those experiences to get them interested in your content? That’s a question that teachers constantly ask themselves.

3. Don’t be afraid to change your teaching practices mid-year. Especially during your first year. If something isn’t working, change it. Over the course of your first year, you will see many different teaching styles, classroom routines, and classroom management strategies. Try them all! See which ones work for you, and begin to assemble a toolbox of strategies.

4. It’s OK if a student does not like your subject! You may find that student behaves or performs poorly in your class, while in other classes he or she does very well. Don’t take this personally. Students have preferences on which subjects they like more than others. Try to connect to these students by connecting your subject to others. For example, what was going on in American history while Niels Bohr was working on his model of the atom?

5. Patience is a virtue. When dealing with a difficult student, have patience. You don’t want to be the one to lose your cool. Try to understand what the other person has a problem with, and acknowledge that you may have done something wrong. And remember that a student who is mad may simply be taking their anger out on you from something that happened earlier in the day. By being humble and listening, you can reason with them on solving the problem in a way that benefits everyone. Yelling at a student or going out of your way to criticize how they feel is not the solution.

Jesse, NYC Teaching Fellow

What Was Your Worst Day of Teaching

My worst day of work was the day that Landon cried. Landon is seven and has Autism, but also has so comorbid psychiatric issues. He is a brilliant science student, wears the coolest bowties, and always makes me laugh. I look forward to his banter in class, and I can always count on him to know the science facts that no one else does.

Over a period of two weeks Landon changed drastically. He started act out and seemed distracted. His classroom teacher wrote notes home to his mom, who said she was noticing the same thing at home. The school counselor worked tirelessly to find out what had changed. No one seemed to have any answers. It felt like Landon was slipping away. His speech changed. He withdrew. There seemed to be nothing anyone could do.

In the middle of my science class he had a complete meltdown one day. He tried to hurt the adult working with him, me, and anyone else near by. I cleared the room of other students and tried to remain calm. It was so difficult to look at one of my favorite students self-destructing. His class had spent the last two weeks making butterfly lifecycle costumes out of construction paper and paper machete. Landon started to cry as I reminded him that he was going to be an amazing chrysalis in the performance the next week. In a moment of rage he ripped the costume down the middle and then sat down on the floor sobbing.

I joined him on the floor and patted his back. He finally stopped crying and looked up at me. “He’s gone, and he isn’t coming back,” he said through his tears. When I asked who, it ended up that an older neighbor in his building had passed away a few weeks before. He and Landon were really close, but his mom didn’t realize that Landon was so upset.

We spent the next recess rebuilding the chrysalis costume, Landon got grief counseling through the counselor, and I learned a valuable lesson: Sometimes it take a while to figure out what a student needs at that moment. You have to try different approaches, give a lot of energy, and sometimes just wait until they are ready to talk about it.

Cassie, NYC Teaching Fellows

A New York City Teaching Fellow Tells Us What Makes Her a Good Teacher

What Makes You a Good Teacher?

It would be easy enough to just post my resume here, wouldn’t it? Classroom teacher for eight years. Grade team and department leader. Curriculum writer. Teacher development coach. Committee member. Club advisor. Field trip chaperone. (And, sure, amateur social worker, nurse, life coach, interior designer, vintage-infused-business-casual fashion maven…the list goes on.) But are bullets on a resume really what make you a good teacher? Maybe not. So let me tell you what I think really makes me (or anyone) a good teacher: a commitment to professional and personal growth; keeping relationships with students at the center of what you do; and staying humble and grateful.

I stay committed to professional and personal growth as I move into being (I can hardly believe it!) a mid-career National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT). Being a NBCT (a voluntary, rigorous, national certification for which you can apply after you have earned tenure) means that you are willing and able to regularly reflect on your practice and use a wide variety of tools to improve your practice, ultimately and always in the service of improving outcomes for students. I continue to attend trainings and professional development, read blogs and books, and work with my own instructional coach (even as I’ve begun coaching other teachers myself!) to get better results for my kids.

Professional and personal growth will be obvious to you as you begin your career. You will need, of course, to read textbooks and articles, write papers, attended professional development sessions, and visit your more experienced colleagues. You will need to be honest with yourself every day that you are a tiny part of a vast and pixelated picture, but, as you make your tiny part of the picture clearer and sharper and brighter, you really are improving the whole picture. And you need to keep doing that, too, even (especially!) once you start to think you know it all! (Here’s some good news: you will, in the midst of bad days, sometimes have good days, too, ones will make you think that you, teacher, are full of awesome like no one has ever been.)

That leads me to the issue of personal growth. I’ve grown a lot through my career, and I think a lot of that is actually because I’m a teacher. I don’t know if I would have been forced to develop as much patience, compassion, circumspection, and curiosity if I’d stayed in my career in publishing. You need all of those things to work with students, of course, but you need them to work with yourself, too. I still have to remind myself that the kids who need love the most will often ask for it in the most unloving ways, and that maybe they more than anyone else need to see a calm, smiling face that says, “Good morning. It’s nice to see you. Ready to get out your notebook and get started? Thank you.” That might feel thankless a lot of the time, even most of the time, but it won’t feel thankless when those students graduate and start college because you and your colleagues did that, every single day.

That true story, and others, reminds me that we all have to keep relationships with students at the heart of what we do. A student who feels demeaned, frustrated, and ignored isn’t going to learn much. A student who feels welcomed, understood, and supported, on the other hand, will keep coming back, keep trying, and will ultimately succeed. I’ve heard kids express frustration with teachers who don’t maintain high behavioral standards in their classroom. But all kids like to feel like the teacher is happy to see them; they secretly like the teacher who, for example, stands at the door and smiles and says “Good morning!” and compliments those new sneakers. I look for opportunities to have those small, warm moments with kids, to enjoy the in-jokes that grow out of classes, to go on trips, to chat in the hallways with kids who are sluggish and shepherd them gently but firmly to class.

As I think about how to conclude this post, maybe my reaction to being asked to write about “What makes you a good teacher?” suggests one more criterion for being one. I thought, “Well, I work hard, and I care about kids, and my students have achieved great things, but boy, do I still have some bad days! Thank heavens I work in an excellent school with a lot of terrific kids and I get to teach with books I love so much.” So I try to stay humble and grateful. Take pride in your hard work and enjoy the kids, but expect that, as skilled and comfortable as you will (eventually!) become in your role, you, too, will still have bad days and will still have things to learn. Express gratitude for the support offered by your colleagues and for the unexpected kindnesses you will receive from kids and their families. Treasure the notes in which kids write that you were always there for them, took the time to slow down when they didn’t understand, and helped them feel strong, smart, and successful.

If you commit to being a lifelong learner, keep relationships with students at the heart of what you do, and stay humble and grateful, you can and will have a wonderful career as an educator. Am I a good teacher? Well, only to the extent that I do all of those things. If I do them, and I keep doing them, I think I’m doing all right!

- Abigail