How I Got my Second Wind
By Teresa Butler-Doran
In 2013, my mother handed me an issue of USA Today. In it was an article titled ‘U.S. Students Still Only Average on Tests.’ I had been teaching sixth and seventh grade science for fourteen years at this point, and remember feeling frustrated as I was about to read about how poorly schools in the United States were performing in comparison with their global counterparts.
Nevertheless, this is a pressing issue in my field, so I read the article. I learned about the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an assessment that analyzes student performance in reading, mathematics, and science. I learned about Singapore’s and Finland’s excellent educational system, and about the different ways they approach education. This article sparked an interest in me. I noted how Finland approaches education with an emphasis on equality, trust, and teaching the students to learn how to learn.I yearned to visit Finland to study their education system, but the challenge lay in balancing this aspiration with my family's needs. Despite searching for international teaching opportunities, including those in Finland, I struggled to find a suitable option that accommodated my family's requirements. As a result, I postponed my dreams and continued with the teaching job that I loved and had brought me satisfaction over the years.
With my children grown, I decided to investigate again. With low expectations, I typed into a search engine, “International Teaching Opportunities” but this time, Fulbright Teacher Exchanges appeared in the list. I read through the different programs, and came across the Distinguished Awards in Teaching Research Program which involved completing a research project in one of ten participating countries. One of the countries was Finland. I read the requirements and my heart started to race as I realized that I was eligible to apply. I decided to go for it.
With the application window three months away, I proactively immersed myself in the Fulbright program. On the Fulbright Teacher Exchanges website, I found a listing of resources and came across free open courses available for educators. I enrolled in the “STEM Innovations and Global Competence” course sponsored by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. While I had never taken a self-paced online course, I was shocked at the course changed my teaching perspective. I found a second wind for the rest of my career. The class taught me how important it is to bring global competence into our science curriculum. It also gave me resources for how to establish connections for my students with learners from around the world. The course taught me how to bring this connectedness to our students through project-based units and transdisciplinary teaching. And finally, I learned about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 and how they can be seamlessly woven into our lessons. I happened to also notice that the content in the course aligned with my district’s strategic directions.
Having completed this rich course, and with my decision to apply for the Fulbright, I now needed to make a plan for my research proposal. I knew that I had to pick something that was not only important, but something that was meaningful to me. I concluded that climate change was this topic. In our sixth grade NGSS integrated science program, climate change is an integral unit that we cover every year. During these lessons, my students perform a variety of activities, where they learn about climate, greenhouse gasses, and the carbon cycle. They perform an investigation on carbon sources and sinks and complete a final reflection on reducing their carbon footprint. I decided that restructuring this unit would be my focus for the research proposal, with the goal of developing global competency, and a sense of agency for change among students across borders. With Finland’s excellent education system, I could observe best practices in teaching climate change and establish relationships with schools so that students could work together.
This past summer, I found out that I was awarded the Fulbright. In January, I will embark on a semester abroad to Finland to perform this research. When I return to school next fall, I plan on teaching the unit that I designed during my absence and to start establishing connections between the students in both countries with the focus on climate change. I want to provide my students with a sense of hope. Teaching climate change can sometimes cause students to become overwhelmed with a negative outlook on the future. My research project aims to not only build students’ critical thinking skills and cultural empathy, but also help students take climate action, one of the SDGs. If we give students the opportunity to work with peers from different parts of the globe, hope is fostered along with mutual respect and understanding. If we continue to build these relationships and connections for our students within all classrooms, I wonder what amazing things might be achieved.
Teresa Butler-Doran is a 6th grade science teacher in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District. She is a recipient of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Research Grant and will be traveling to Finland in 2024 to research best practices in climate change education. Her research project will involve connecting learners from the United States and Finland, so students can research their local effects of climate change, report to each other, and deliberate on possible solutions and action plans. Follow Teresa’s journey at Teacher Teresa Gone Global.