CSTA Classroom Science

Never Forget, You'll Need It Tomorrow

By Gail Atley, CSTA High School Director

Brain researchers claim that the average person will forget 70% of what they experience within 24 hours.  The ‘Forgetting Curve’ is a well-known graph that shows our brains have enormous capacity for memory, but those memories fade within hours of the experience. Clearly this curve does not apply to science teachers!

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Here are some musings and words of advice from science teachers across California. If this is your first year, stay strong because you are not alone in the struggle. For the veterans, remember why you decided to stay in this glorious profession. As schools move to distance learning platforms to answer the need for ‘social distancing’, many of us will experience a new ‘first’ in teaching our students remotely. 

Why do we remember so much about our first year of teaching? For many of us, the first year represents the start of a life-long commitment to teaching. Melissa shared this story about her experience as a first year teacher. “I was in Girl Scouts and I mentored a lot of kids before I started teaching. I went to school to become an engineer, and settled on a specialized degree in Avian Science. When I graduated I had multiple job offers, but I decided to teach.” On her first day of school, she received a basic outline of what to teach. Luckily, she met an experienced teacher who was also new to the school. She stopped using the outline and developed ‘Introduction to Science’ lessons. Melissa’s suggestion to new teachers: “Find a support network.” Now she has found other like-minded teachers on Twitter and Instagram, and has built a network through the Exploratorium’s New Teacher Program. “There are so many ways to connect with other teachers like joining professional groups like CSTA. Seek out your support instead of waiting for the district to give it to you. “

We remember our first year of teaching because it was hard. Kyla recounted her first-year experience of being ‘schooled’ by her students. She was excited but had no idea what she was walking into. “In my first year, I had three preps – 9th grade Earth Science, Senior Science, and Physics. Senior Science was sex and drug education course. The class was during the last period of the day. Her students told her, “You know school gets out at 3:15, right?” In her Freshman Earth Science class, a student raised her hand and said, “You’re new here, but you should know we don’t do homework!” Kyla’s words of advice: “As long as you care about the kids, whatever you are doing for them is good for them.” “Lesson plans are crap? You don’t understand the community? ‘You’re not this? …’ ‘You don’t’ have that? ...’ Don’t worry about it. If you can connect with the kids, you can change their lives.” 

Nearly everything we thought about how students learn and what motivated them was challenged. Lennar shared his story: “My pre-service program was about supporting students with high needs, particularly in disadvantaged socio-economic communities. I was a suburban kid, living in a gated community.” His bubble was burst right away. “As a new teacher you have the mindset, ‘Oh, I am going to rescue these kids.” When he started his teaching job, he quickly realized that “The kids were amazing in every way possible.” Realizing that his students were facing a lot of obstacles in their community, his perspective and messaging changed. “Looking back it was difficult to do the work. They were doing their best in spite of the trauma they were faced with.”  Lennar’s advice: “For some of your students, the world that they are growing up in is not the one they envision staying in. They care about what is happening with the world. They understand that what is happening at home doesn’t affect their plans and goals. Continue expanding their world. Someone has to teach them. Who better than you and me?” 

The first year served to shape us and clarify our mission. When Joan started teaching she did not think that she would have so many behavior problems. She told a friend, “If this doesn’t get better, I’m not going to stay here.”  She mused, “I later learned that I wasn’t giving my students what they needed. Although the kids were supposed to be at grade level, they were not. This is why I loved teaching kindergarten. I could teach them skills at the beginning of their schooling to prepare them for the future.” Joan’s advice: “On my first day, I didn’t realize that I needed to learn about my children and they needed to learn about me. Take some time to get to know your students before you start teaching content.” 

We learned the importance of work-life balance. Kristofer described his first-year challenges. “The biggest thing I remember was working myself to the bone. I’d go home, eat dinner, then prep for classes into the late hours. My classes were not very exciting because I gave lots of lectures. It ultimately caught up to me. I went to the doctor for a poison oak rash. The doctor said, ‘You have shingles’. I had poached myself until my immune system was compromised. Early lesson I learned was to take care of myself. It took me a long time to really finally get it.” Kristoff received some good advice from his mentor teacher, who was also a river guide. “Your first year teaching is like running a river for the first time. All that matters is that you get to the end. You’ll get another shot at it – you’ll remember the challenging parts of the river the next time. But remember, rivers and the landscape are always changing.” His advice for the new teacher: “There is always work that can be done. It’s ok to let things be.” Kristofer encourages new teachers to do collaborative work with colleagues. “Focus on what you can control. Rock your classroom and Do You!” 

The next few months represent a significant change in the landscape of teaching as we move temporarily to digital platforms. Perhaps this is the time to remember your first year teaching. With all of the challenges, tears, fears and successes. We all wish we could teach our first-year class again, now armed with the knowledge of how to give them an engaging learning environment. Perhaps the new landscape will give us that opportunity. 


Gail M. Atley is a high school science teacher and department chairman at Animo Watts College Preparatory Academy in Los Angeles, California. She is currently serving as the CSTA High School Director for the 2018-2020 term. 


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