My Role as a Teacher

As a beginning secondary education student at William and Mary, I held very different ideas of what it meant to be a teacher than I do today. Entering the program, I felt that my primary role as a teacher was to share my love of science with students. Of course, this goal is still at the front of my mind, but my practicum work has quickly shown me that there are far more important concerns than what I hope to share with my students. Gradually, I have come to a more student-centered mindset, and my overall goals for my role as a teacher have changed. As a teacher, I feel it is my role and responsibility to gain a sense of each individual student’s learning preferences and then determine the best possible ways to engage that student in scientific inquiry/investigation. Additionally, I hope to get to know each of my students on a personal level to better understand their home and community environments and prior learning experiences. After all, learning does not occur in a vacuum, and the experiences that students bring to the classroom will significantly affect their ability to retain and apply knowledge.

During my research regarding teacher preparation for high need schools and my science methods course, I came across a paradigm for effective teaching known as “warm demander pedagogy.” Warm demander pedagogy, as described by Bondy and Ross (2008), is “a teacher stance that communicates both warmth and a nonnegotiable demand for student effort and mutual respect” (p. 54). If one of the ultimate goals of education is to help each student to reach his/her full academic potential, then adopting a warm demander teaching stance will help me to fulfill my role as a teacher. By holding high expectations for my students and providing both the emotional and instructional support they need to reach these expectations, I can increase my effectiveness in the classroom. In my student teaching placement, I found that students began to visit me during lunch and after school to share details of their days. To me, this indicated that they knew I cared about their lives and emotional well-being.

Content Knowledge : Admitting When I'm Unsure

Before beginning my secondary education program, I thought of a teacher as the “sage on the stage,” so to speak. To a certain degree, I envisioned myself as the ultimate authority on whatever science subject I was teaching. I anticipated that my students would see me as such and would ask me questions to which I knew the answer. Though I have a very strong background in biology, my students in my field placement classrooms ask fantastic, high-level questions—many of which I could not begin to answer without consulting outside sources. As such, I have come to understand the value of admitting when my scientific knowledge is sparse or even incorrect. Sometimes it’s alright to say, “That’s a great question! I don’t actually know the answer, but let’s look it up and find out!” In fact, the students seem to respect teachers who admit gaps in their content knowledge far more than teachers that blunder through and give an obviously self-fabricated answer. I’m proud of my scientific background, but I know that I am not perfect and to portray myself as such would be doing my students a major disservice. I have made a couple blunders in my student teaching and have given incorrect answers to student questions, but I have done my best to acknowledge my mistakes.

Preferred Instructional Methods

Particularly in science courses, I feel that it is incredibly important for students to gain experience with scientific investigation through hands on inquiry activities. I could lecture for a lifetime about the pigments found in plant leaves, but my students would not learn nearly as much as if they had conducted an inquiry-based paper chromatography activity. As a framework for incorporating inquiry into my lessons, I plan to use the Learning Cycle Model, which is a research-based lesson model broken down into five phases: Engagement, Exploration, Explanation, Extension, and Evaluation. In my lessons, I have incorporated a number of activities during the exploration and extension phases that serve to introduce new content before any teacher explanation occurs and to reinforce student understanding of concepts. For example, one lesson I taught regarding Mendelian genetics incorporated a coin-flipping activity about elephant genetics that was designed to bring students to a basic understanding of the concept of dominance/recessiveness without simply writing definitions up on the board. Additionally, I am a strong proponent of differentiating my instruction to meet the needs of all my students. Recently, I taught a lesson that addressed reading comprehension issues in a collaborative classroom through the use of an anticipation guide and whole-class read-aloud.

Creating Effective Learning Environments

In my future classroom, I have attempted to foster a learning environment that is above all supportive and safe. Students cannot learn effectively when they feel at all unsafe or feel that their basic needs are not being attended to. That said, I plan to create a clear set of rules that are consistently enforced. According to Weinstein and Novodvorksy (2011), "it is unfair to keep students guessing about the behaviors you expect [...] it's actually an act of caring to explain your classroom norms to students. Not knowing the norms for appropriate behavior causes insecurity and misunderstandings, even among 'school smart' adolescents. In contrast, clearly defined classroom rules and routines help to create an environment that is predictable and comprehensible."

Similarly, I feel that classroom organization is a key component in creating and maintaining effective learning environments. In the future, I plan to use a variety of different classroom layouts to fit the nature of the activity and to encourage/facilitate group collaboration. Though I know that keeping desks in tight rows facing the teacher is the preferred method for some experienced teachers, I want my classroom to feel more open and cooperative. For discussions, I may chose to use a horse shoe desk layout, and for group work, I may organize them into "pods" of four. At any rate, I feel that classroom management and organization are absolutely key to encouraging respectful open discourse, which is absolutely vital to the learning process. In my student teaching placement, I have created mixed-ability cooperative learning groups to help maximize student success and collaboration. No matter what career they go into, students will need to work with others, so why are we teaching them that the recipe for success is, "Sit still, face the teacher, and keep quiet!"?

Evaluating my Effectiveness as a Teacher

There are several criteria that I plan to use when evaluating my effectiveness as a teacher. Most importantly, I hope to track the improvement of my students by identifying challenging areas for each student and providing them with strategies for addressing these challenges. This is where pre-assessment and ongoing formative assessment become vital to student success. If students are not continually assessed throughout the learning process, it becomes close to impossible to identify gaps in understanding or deficits in academic skills (e.g., reading comprehension). Additionally, students may make perfectly preventable mistakes on summative assessments (e.g., unit tests) in the absence of ongoing formative assessment. This will likely result in students feeling helpless to improve their learning. Stiggins (2007) writes, Understanding the emotional dynamics of the assessment experience from the student's perspective is crucial to the effective use of assessments to improve schools." In my own classroom, I hope to continuously use formative assessment in a variety of different forms to avoid student frustration and help them to identify gaps in their own understanding. For a unit I taught regarding the Chesapeake Bay during my student teaching experience, I had students complete a pre-assessment before beginning instruction. This enabled the students to identify areas for improving their own knowledge, and helped me to plan instruction and future summative assessment.

On another note, I hope that I will end each year knowing my students' learning preferences and knowing them on a more personal level. I hope that my students leave the classroom saying, "Miss Ottolini really cares about me and my life." Indeed, knowing my students well will help me to teach them more effectively (Moore 2008). For example, one of my students, John, might be particularly interested in hunting and would greatly enjoy/benefit from an activity involving food webs in the forest. Another of my students, Maria, may not be a native English speaker and may benefit from visual representation of the material. At any rate, I hope that at the end of the year, I can identify points where I adapted my instruction to meet each student's unique needs and preferences. To accomplish this, I will need to be flexible and constantly reflect on the effect that my instructional methods have on student learning.

As a science teacher, my hope for my students is that they will finish the year with a greater appreciation for science in the world around them. I hope that my students will be in awe of the amazing organization of a DNA molecule or the delicate balance of ecological interactions. To accomplish this, I plan to make relevant current events an important part of my classroom instruction. If I can confidently assert that my students left the class with a sense of how science fits into the bigger picture of their lives, I will feel that I have taught my students effectively.


References:

Bondy, E., & Ross, D.D. (2008). The teacher as warm demander. Educational Leadership, 66, 54-58.

Moore, F.M. (2008). Preparing elementary preservice teachers for urban elementary science classrooms: Challenging cultural biases toward diverse students. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 19, 85-109.

Stiggins, R. (2007). Assessment through the student's eyes. Educational Leadership, 64, 22-26.

Weinstein, C.S. & Novodvorsky, I. (2011). Middle and secondary classroom management: Lessons from research and practice (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.