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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Teach High School Science
Professionalism – For Science Teachers
Judy Jones

One of the most valuable resources for science teachers is professional organizations such as the National Science Teacher Association. They prepare position papers on many different topics that can be accessed from their website.

It is well worth your time to look over the list of almost 40 papers on different topics ranging from the responsible use of animals in the classroom to teaching science to students with disabilities to safety in science education.

One of the papers lists five “Principles of Professionalism for Science Educators.” These principles are well worth reviewing, even for experienced teachers. For new teachers, these are goals to be achieved. Don’t expect to achieve them all in the first few years of teaching! Developing as a professional is a life’s work.

Below is a summary of each principle. I’ve also added a few of my personal thoughts about these principles.

Principle 1 deals with the importance of helping all students grow and learn. I think most teachers have heard this so much that it is almost seems like a cliché, and like any cliché, they don’t stop to think about what it really means. Probably the most important thing that we do as teachers, and specifically as science teachers, is make sure that every student has the opportunity and encouragement to learn. We are charged with treating each and every child with respect. This includes recognizing the many different backgrounds and heritages of our students and helping them find their places within the science classroom and curriculum. We need to discover the different learning needs of each of our students and prepare our lessons to meet those needs so that they can become active in scientific inquiry and learn to be successful problem solvers. As science teachers, we are focused on using evidence to support scientific theories and hypotheses, but we are also responsible for respecting the viewpoints of our students.

As a biology teacher, I am sometimes faced with students who do not “believe in evolution.” I remember one young man a few years ago who told me that he would learn what was in his book but that he did not believe any of it to be true. I know that it sometimes takes a lot of courage for a young person to stand for what they believe in the face of teacher authority, so I said to him, “Thank you so much for feeling free to share your thoughts with me. I don’t need you to ‘believe’ the material that I will be presenting, I just need you think about it. And it is always a good idea to know very well what you don’t believe in!” He agreed. He went on to do very well in our Evolution Unit; he could describe the theory and evidence very well. I am not sure if he ever changed his mind, however, we remained very respectful of each other. I knew I was successful in creating this environment of respect when he requested to be my lab assistant two years later!

Principle 2 states that teachers will take “personal responsibility for their professional growth.” This means that teachers will actively seek out opportunities to learn more about science content and the pedagogy of teaching science. This is one of my favorite aspects of teaching science–-the opportunity to learn. There are so many wonderful conferences and workshops that are offered to science teachers. I am one year from retirement and yet, I still find myself irresistibly drawn to a Bioinformatics Workshop this summer. I literally could not help myself! The opportunity to spend a week learning more about my favorite topic was just too enticing. Growing as a professional also involves reading about science and how to teach science. I find that the NSTA journals and the “American Biology Teacher” (NABT journal) are great sources for learning more. But I also read Discover, Scientific American, and other science journals. I am an avid reader of science books such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Bryan Sykes’ The Seven Daughters of Eve, Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape, and even more popular books such as The Botany of Desire (Michael Pollan). The list goes on and on. Although I get great personal pleasure from reading and attending workshops, it is still my responsibility to learn because my own learning will enhance the educational experiences of my students.

Principle 3 is about the “importance of being leaders in the profession.” This is an area that will be hard for new teachers, who are just struggling to be leaders in their own classrooms. But remember, the ultimate goal as a science teacher is to be a leader for the profession. Science teachers become much more effective when they collaborate with each other, sharing successes and problems and seeking solutions together. By developing professional learning communities, we can support each other and create a solid base of strength in our departments. I have never been impressed by a school that has one or two science teachers that all parents want their children to have. Those excellent science teachers bear a responsibility to make sure that the entire department is developing excellence so that every student in the school will have a strong science experience no matter who the classroom teacher is. Science teacher leaders are eager to collaborate with other science teachers outside the walls of their own school as well as with parents and community members. They are “ambassadors” of science teaching. They get actively involved in their professional organizations at all levels. In addition, experienced science teachers have the responsibility to help nurture the next generation of science teachers by serving as “mentors and coaches.” When interacting with the public, a science teacher leader strives to promote understanding of the nature of science teaching while also learning about the community and its needs.

Principle 4 is not unique to science teachers but rather speaks to the entire profession of teaching. It stresses the “importance of upholding personal and professional ethics.” It is vital that all teachers remember that teaching is about the learning and the physical and psychological health of their students. Teaching is not about the teacher being “liked” or “loved” by his or her students. The goals for teaching are centered in the students. Teachers must model ethical behavior in all aspects of their lives in order to expect it in their students. One of my favorite administrators often reminded teachers, when they were complaining about various students, “Parents send us the best kids they have. They don’t keep the good ones at home!” I love that quote. I always remember that parents have entrusted their children to my care and I owe the parents and their children respect and protection. It is my job to help “empower” their children to become active, independent learners. I model for my students a positive, hopeful, and joyful approach to learning. I also model a deep respect for and celebration of diversity. I vow to never harm my students through deed or word. I remember that I am the adult!

Principle 5 takes a different turn. It discusses the types of “support needed for professional teachers of science,” because, indeed, for science teachers to develop the type of professionalism that equates with excellence in the classroom, many support systems need to be in place. The workplace needs to be safe and encouraging of professional growth. There needs to be time to plan and collaborate with colleagues and others. New science teachers need to be protected from unreasonable workloads. In our school, our department determines our teaching schedule. We are very careful to make sure that our new teachers have no more than two preparations (preferably one). We also minimize traveling from classroom to classroom for our new teachers. As a result, I have traveled many years in order to keep a new teacher from being burdened with this. I argue that even if an administration does not promote these values, we as professional science teachers can request what we know is right. However, it does take a committed administration and school system to support teachers as they seek out professional development and work to develop relationships with each other and with the wider community.

As new teachers, this list may seem a little overwhelming, but my goal is that it will also give you hope! Science teaching is a deeply satisfying career. But much of that satisfaction comes from the opportunity to develop as a professional. Most of that will come from you and your desire to learn and grow. Hopefully, you will be surrounded by like-minded administrators and colleagues. But even if you are not, you can still work toward making a difference by chipping away at the obstacles and leading the way toward a professional environment for science teachers.

As always, if you have comments or ideas, please share them with me.


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