Sunday, January 16, 2011

Christina Sierra's Interview with a Science Teacher

This interview was done with a teacher who has twenty plus years of teaching experience and is considered an exemplary teacher. This narrative will focus on explaining what I learned about the school setting, teacher's professional experience, philosophy, instructional strategies and how this teacher maintains enthusiasm for teaching.

The public high school is located in a quaint rural area two miles out of the nearby town. The short drive to the school gently winds past a field with cows grazing and fields being prepped for new crops. The school has a small vegetable garden in its courtyard. I arrive at the high school as the students do at 8:30am. It is a small high school school serving approximately 420 students. The teacher states that "the school is roughly divided 50/50 between White and Latino students. Give or take. There are a high number of special needs children served as well…. The school is sought out by parents." Parents get inter-district transfers from as far as thirty five miles away to have their children attend this high school. The teacher believes it is because they have many highly qualified teachers that enjoy teaching and an effective school wide instructional and advisory system.

The teacher shared that all of her teaching experience has been in high school science. She has been at the current teaching site for about sixteen years. There have been times when she taught a research or health when it was needed. This is only her second school setting. Her first teaching setting was a very large high school serving over three thousand students. It seemed that she had a small shudder at recalling this and followed up with commenting that "in this school site, students don't get lost… This is a small public school. It has a charter like feel."

The small school has been like a home to her. It has been a good place to grow and develop her teaching skills. She was inspired by her mother who was an elementary school teacher. "My mother inspires me. She was a teacher. I learned from my mother how to put on a puppet show, have the kids write the puppet show, make the puppets, do an art project about it. Everything was woven all together. I just try to do the same with science." She remarked on her early years after completing student teaching and said she started volunteering in a kindergarten class with a teacher who implemented many hands-on activities; "I really became good when I started volunteering in the kindergarten class. I started saying to myself 'I can do this for science!' It taught me the most." Since those early days she has developed a personal philosophy and belief on the purpose of public schooling. "The purpose of school is to help students to use their minds well… My personal philosophy is to have a lot of fun."

The classroom setting reflects that she cares about children using their minds. The white board at the front of the class has the teacher's name, an agenda, a 'starter activity,' and a vocabulary list related to cell structure. Below the white board and at eye level throughout the classroom are several posters made by students on cell structure. The teacher has a desk in the front corner of the room, but has a chair pulled to the front and center of the classroom away from the desk. The classroom is bright with a wall of windows on one side, allowing in natural light. The window sill is lined with several healthy green leafy plants. The counter by the window is lined with neat stacks of books and trays of papers, with labels like homework, handouts, with a period number. Three rows of seven tables that each seat two students are clean and clear. The class feels organized, open and accessible.

Typical classroom instruction for the 90 minute class periods involves several teaching strategies and activities. Classes begin with a 'starter activity' that students are able to do on their own. During this time the teacher sees to administrative tasks like taking roll. Then she does a small segment of direct instruction. The largest portion of the class period is hands-on activities in groups or on their own. She does not believe that class time is spent well taking notes or reading. She said "they can do that on their own when I'm not with them. I limit my talking. Teachers and students should be doing the same thing, learning. I believe when they are doing something they are learning." 

This teacher had a great deal to share on how she meets the needs of diverse learners.  "A girl who is totally blind, kids that are ELL's, and others with special ed. titles or learning difficulties; I teach every child with the same scaffolding and strategies. I make it accessible and use accessible vocabulary for everybody." She expanded explaining how she strives to provide multiple ways for students to learn the information, by writing it out in more than one way, drawing a picture or diagram, and creating an experience for them to learn it, like going to the garden or to the library. Her goal in addressing the needs of diverse learners is to "create and make lots of opportunities to get the information into their mind." The teacher does not allow adult special education aides into her classroom. With strong resolve she said "No adult aides, because I believe children can help each other. If a child needs a scribe, other children can scribe for him. Children need to feel good about learning and helping one another." I believe this builds a sense of community in her classroom that strengthens the learning experiences and confidence of the students.

The teacher shared her ideas on maintaining enthusiasm for teaching. First she advised that it is important to recognize that every group is a new group of kids. While the teacher may have taught the subject a thousand times before, it is new to them. She says you have to "Keep remembering it's not old hat. It's really, really exciting! How very, very cool it is to look at cell under a microscope for the first time." She says she holds onto "the magic of science and the parts that are unbelievable. I have held onto them like I'm still a child. Not losing the wonder myself." She says this with excitement and convinces me not only is this true for this teacher but as real truth in staying enthusiastic about teaching. Her last advice from her own experience is to be affected by the students' learning, by what is new and unpredictable.

This interview taught me that many of the teaching strategies I use in pre-school teaching are transferable skills to teaching any age. Hands-on activities and multiple ways of teaching a concept are just as important at three years old as they are at sixteen. I also took in a great deal about the school setting that confirmed to me that not only are small schools best to learn in they are best to teach in. Just as students get lost in big schools, I believe it is possible that teachers do too. I believe that a great deal of this teacher's success and continued enthusiasm for teaching comes form her small, family like school setting. Teaching is as much of a passion as it is a vocation. Teachers want to make a difference in the lives of students. I believe that small schools give teacher's the forum they need to make a difference and be successful.