Mentoring the Next Generation of Science Teachers
By Dr. Edward Lyon, 4-Year College Director
Field experiences (i.e., student teaching) early in teacher preparation programs affect new teachers’ practices and beliefs more than any other component of their teacher preparation work. Yet, very few teachers mentoring teacher candidates receive adequate mentoring support, beyond a basic orientation or expectations from the district or university. Not surprisingly, like new teachers, mentors often revert to their own experiences rather than enacting more reformed based teaching or mentoring practices. Candidates in turn duplicate the methods of their mentors, which may not be effective in retaining them. How do we break this cycle and take serious the work of mentoring the next generation of science teachers? I describe several key elements below based on research in science teacher education and partnerships that I have been involved in with teacher educators and mentors across California.
Key Element #1: Commit to justice-oriented work
It is essential to discuss and address educational inequities with your candidate through a belief that all students can learn academically challenging material and that educators can influence students’ science learning and opportunities in life. This does not mean that you or your candidate will have the solutions right away, but rather that you share a common commitment to justice-oriented work to guide decisions made in the classroom and in learning to teach. For one, help the candidate know how to learn about individual student strengths, interests, life experiences, and learning challenges. Help the candidate learn about the school and community culture and resources that will inform teaching.
Key Element #2: Target core teaching practices
Moving away from a laundry list of knowledge, theory, and skills that new teachers must learn, recent teacher education scholarship has identified core teaching practices, which can be specific to a subject area, or work across subject areas. Core teaching practices are observable and doable, even by new teachers, and help target elements of teaching that research shows has high impact on learning for diverse students (not to be confused with science and engineering practices). Below are the six core teaching practices I have emphasized with my own secondary science teachers:
- Planning through big ideas in science
- Eliciting and leveraging student ideas and experiences
- Engaging students in authentic science practices and texts
- Making student thinking visible
- Pressing for reasoning and evidence-based explanations
- Interpreting and acting upon evidence of student learning
There is not enough space here to delve into each practice, but the takeaway is to be focused. Throughout the year, your observations, feedback, and conversations can target a particular practice so that there is something manageable and tangible for candidates to get better at instead of throwing the whole world of teaching at them at once.
Key Element #3: Engage candidates in experiencing, deconstructing, and approximating practices
Scholars have developed an explicit teacher learning cycle to facilitate candidate enactment of core teaching practices. First, provide opportunities for candidates to experience the practice. In your classroom, this would mean time to observe you and your students - with a targeted teaching practice in mind. For example, you may be facilitating a discussion with students around a phenomenon observed during a youtube video. Let the candidate know to “look out for” specific questions and follow up probes (what we call talk moves) you use as well as the various ideas that students bring to the discussion. Next, have a debrief with the candidate asking them what was observed to deconstruct what it means to enact the practice of “eliciting student ideas.” What questions need to be planned ahead of time? What structured and resources will support student participation? What ideas about the concept would you anticipate from students? Finally, provide a short, yet meaningful opportunity for the candidate to approximate the practice him or herself. Seeing the specific discussion once already, the candidate might try to facilitate the same discussion with a different period. The goal is not to emulate exactly what you did (there may have been areas of improvement even in your own facilitation), but rather rehearse a particular set of teacher moves with an understanding that you only get better with practice. Like we want to communicate to students, it is beneficial to take risks. Before the candidate engages with the students, you might have the candidate rehearse with just you and plan out some key questions and probes to start the discussion.
Key Element #4: Facilitate reflection and feedback through collaborative inquiry
There are a variety of ways to give feedback to candidates - in writing and orally. Regardless of the method, the focus should not be on correcting how he/she taught and just offering suggestions, but rather collaboratively reflecting and engaging in inquiry around how to better support student learning. Start with a common goal. What did we want students to learn in this discussion? What happened? What were they able to do? What did they still struggle to do? Why? What did we learn about individual student experiences? What can we now do to respond to student learning and support all students? Your role becomes a facilitator so that the candidate learns to analyze and reflect on teaching the way an experienced teacher intuitively would do. Together, you problem solve and learn from each other. The candidate is likely to have picked up on new research, strategies, and priorities that you are working through yourself or might even be novel to you - like implementing features of Next Generation Science Standards. Be vulnerable and realize that your candidate brings perspectives, experiences, and ideas that might inform your own teaching.
Key Element #5: Participate in professional learning communities
Finally, we learn not as individuals, but rather as part of communities. Incredible work has been done when science mentors are part of a learning community around common goals - like mentoring candidates with a commitment to justice-oriented work and focus on core teaching practices. It is an uphill battle to initiate, structure, and sustain these communities alone. Fortunately, university teacher preparation programs might have the resources to partner in this work. Recently, I collaborated with a math education counterpart and local mentor teachers to develop a professional learning community with the five math and science teacher candidates in one district, the mentors, and various school leaders and community representatives. We met once a month to let candidates rehearse targeted practices with feedback from a range of voices. We also brought in guest speakers and panelists (former students, community representative, principals) to help candidates understand the school context and lived experiences of the students they will be interacting with. This learning community allowed information to flow freely between the university and school site so that we worked together to make decisions about the best ways to support our candidates.
In conclusion, like teaching, mentoring is hard work. Yet, it is something we can strive to get better at with structures and supports. The key elements listed above provide guidance into what matters most when mentoring the next generation of science teachers.
Dr. Edward Lyon is an Associate Professor of Science Education at Sonoma State University. He teaches credential courses for secondary science teachers and engages in research that examines instructional and assessment practices in support of English Learners in science classrooms. Dr. Lyon is CSTA’s 4 year college representative.