As I consider details of my professional development as a teacher over the last decade, I like to share a story that relates to my own career pathway. It’s a story that goes back to 1989, when I accepted a position as an Education Field manager for an outdoor education and advocacy group called the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. My job was to live and work on a remote island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay and create three-day residential field trips for middle and high school kids from around the region.
Groups are 20 students arrived on a boat with a few teacher chaperones and I would lead the group for three days of exploration and study. This was my dream job. I had just graduated with a degree in Wetlands Ecology and grew up on an island off the coast of New England. Teaching science in an outdoor setting on a remote island with a boat… wonderful. As I nervously prepared for the first group, I considered what type of science content I was going to teach. I prepared extensive notes and handouts for the evening lectures I added to the schedule.
The 23 ninth-grade inner city kids showed up on a boat on that first morning in late March and were dropped off on Fox Island. The students and I explored the marsh together, went out on the boat to set some crab traps for the next nights dinner, recorded the current weather data, and wrote in science journals some of the things they noticed. After dinner was cleaned up, I prepared to stun them with my science content knowledge. As I laid it out for them in my best lecturing stance, I started to notice that their eyes were glazing over. Some students were restless; others were fast asleep. The teacher chaperones felt bad for me, and tried to keep everyone attentive but I learned some really valuable lessons at that moment.
I learned that teaching and learning requires engagement from BOTH teacher and learner. I learned that lecturing after a spaghetti dinner and a full day outside was not good option for teens. But I think the most important thing I learned was that in order for these students want to save the bay (our goal for the program), they had to learn to love it before they cared enough to learn about it. I had to reach their hearts before their minds.
The story is important because I eventually ended up as a classroom science teacher, and then as a PhD student, and now as a university professor that works with beginning teachers. My scholarly work centers on early-career teacher development. Early career refers to the continuum of development from pre-service through the first five years in the classroom. I am interested in how beliefs about teaching and learning impact practice.
I began that job on Fox Island with a strong belief that kids learn best by listening to a lecture (and indeed, some do), but I was able to observe the resulting lack of engagement from a majority of them and change my style and beliefs to keep them motivated to learn. Of course this story refers to one night, but I observed that if I invited students to explore the environment before applying terms and scientific concepts, they were able to relate and apply that knowledge more readily.The majority of work that I do for my own professional development tends to revolve around these questions.
What happens as a teacher transitions into the classroom? What factors influence her growth and retention? How can I support and guide her in confronting her core teaching beliefs and invite her to explore contemporary ways about teaching and learning through everyday practice?
A recent article in the SEU magazine called Save the Teachers describes one teacher that I have worked with for some time. She is part of the Noyce Scholars program, and learning about the beliefs and practices of that group has been a theme throughout career as evidenced by the conference papers, proposals, and articles I have published and attended.