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Ashley Dawkins's picture
I can’t say that I have had the most wonderful experiences with science and math education. Some how my interests prevailed over experience and here I am; working in both Physics and Mathematics. This is not the case for many other people. Some claim they’ve been turned off to it because of a teacher or something very similar. Or perhaps a bad (or even scarring) experience that left them kissing these areas good bye. I take comments like this very seriously because I want to be the one who teachers these subjects in the future. In so doing, I realize the power I may have over a student that could help push them away from science and math forever; or at least have them decide that they would not want to continue education in these areas.

Science and math are difficult, and don’t come easily to many. There are a few gifted people who seem as though they were born knowing it, but this is not the case for the majority. It seems as though the teachers of these subjects tend to be the ones that understand what’s going on, or at least catch on fairly fast. This situation can cause instantaneous problems because the teacher is unable to connect with the student who is having a difficult time. I have seen more of this situation at a college level, but it does happen at lower levels as well. There are good and bad things about a teacher who seems to know it all but cannot convey information. A good thing is the teacher has a grasp of the content area. This is very important and later I will touch on what happens when the teacher does not have a grasp on the subject material. The bad part about all of this is, someone can know and understand many things for themselves, but the point of a teacher is to do exactly that; teach other people. We run into problems when they cannot be understood.

Another issue in science and math education is related to the previous problem, but in this case the teacher cannot convey the information. I’ve come to believe that the traditional way of teaching is not as effective as some may believe. In this classroom the teacher is the knowledge source that speaks the words of wisdom that the students must absorb and take in as they write notes on their lined paper. Maybe this style has its place, but compared to newer inductive ways of teaching, it is not as valuable and effective. But what is the best way of teaching? I don’t think there really is one. This is where the role of the teacher needs to change from what it was in that traditionally setting. Every class is different and will learn differently. It is the role of the teacher to develop what is called social capital. This requires the teacher to know, understand, and develop a relationship with their students. Because every student and class is different, there is nothing cookie cutter about teaching them, it’s important to change and adapt to your students.

Sadly, teachers that do not have knowledge of subject matter seem to be the main problem in science and math education, especially in urban public schools. There is a shortage of qualified teachers for various reasons. One being teachers don’t earn a comparable salary along side an industry job; there can be a $20,000 difference. To date, there have been steps made to make teaching jobs more attractive, but never the less, the pay is still poor. There also are also differences between urban and suburban schools and what they can provide. Because suburban schools can offer better salaries and don’t appear to have school districts that are falling apart, urban schools are most likely to get whoever is left over.

This leads to something called alternate route programs. These programs allow under qualified teachers to work in schools. They may come for a program like Teach for America or perhaps they are doing emergency certification. I don’t agree with these programs, in fact, I find them to be disrespectful to the students and their families. I believe, especially when working in urban public schools, the teacher needs to be as prepared as possible before entering the school. I don’t believe that you can ever be fully prepared, but useful information and possible tactics are learned when studying education. But, because there is such a shortage and schools are hiring under qualified teachers situations arise. For example, my high school is a large (4400 students) urban public school that has a hard time attracting people to work there. I was recently talking to a high school teacher who told me that is possible to go through my high school (9-12 grade) without ever having a certified math teacher. I was fortunate to have qualified teachers in high school, but I was still behind mathematically when I entered Bryn Mawr after having math through AP Calculus.

Addressing science and math education more specifically, I believe people can be afraid of these areas. This may not be the case for everyone, but from what I have seen, people don’t like these areas because they think they are difficult or they won’t understand them. But, something that I have noticed working in several high school classrooms is that students don’t realize how much they know. Whenever I work with students I like to do what I call “pulling the information out of them”. This process requires you to ask questions and be patient. What you want to accomplish by doing this is to trigger something in the student so they have a better idea how to approach a problem. This also requires that you are comfortable with the subject matter!! For example, the students I was working with said they didn’t know what conservation of momentum was. In this case I asked them about their previous lesson about the conservation of energy, they couldn’t quite remember what that was, so I asked them what it means to conserve something. Just by mentioning this, it triggered ideas in their head. The ideas may not have yielded what was needed or appropriate, but it started a dialogue amongst the students to figure it out. They went from feeling completely lost to heading in the right direction. I was not there to give them answers, but I was there as a resource. I have also dealt with students who have trouble with math. I find it to be helpful if what they are working on is also related to something they learned already. For example, a student was trying to do complicated algebra for a physics problem that seemed to be overwhelming. When he asked me to help him I gave him a simply algebra problem to review the process of solving for variable. I then told him that the same concept could be applied to the problem he was trying to do. That simple reminder that he knew what he was doing helped him to move forward.

These are some successful examples of my approach, but one thing to note is that I was working one on one with these students, which may be a challenge in a very large class. I think it would help if the students were taught the proper way of working in groups, so they can use each other as resources and not answer givers. Also, something that’s important to remember is, it’s okay if they make mistakes and let them know that it’s okay to make mistakes. I have learned a lot from the things I’ve done wrong. Often times when you do something wrong you find out why it’s wrong and you remember it.

So far I have discussed problems with educators, a little bit about urban versus suburban schools, and that students can actually fear science and math. In these situations it is easy to place blame on the on some one or something other than the student themselves. But, in the end, whether you had a terrible teacher or were a victim of a terrible school district, you are ultimately accountable for your own education. I believe it’s important that students understand this. With that said, this does not dismiss the job of the educator or the school. Education is a complicated thing that can tend to look rather circular. The teacher can affect the student, the student can affect to teacher, the school can affect both, and both can affect the school (and you can also mention the community).

In the end, I’m not sure where all of this puts us. All I know is what I believe and how I want to be as an educator. I plan on making an effort to spark interest, to connect with students, find out how I can be most useful to them, and maybe along the way we’ll learn something from one another.