Why is Collaboration for Chemistry Teachers Difficult?
Let’s face it. Teaching chemistry is not easy! Besides being one of the more difficult high school subjects, teaching chemistry presents many challenges that are unique to the subject. But, one of the biggest challenge is the availability of collaboration among chemistry teachers.
There are approximately 3.2 million public school teachers in the U.S. Of that number about 1.1 million teachers are secondary, 9-12, teachers. Included in that number are approximately 30,000-40,000 high school chemistry teachers. It is difficult to get a close number for chemistry teachers because, as reported by the NCES, many chemistry teachers are teaching outside of their field of study.
When I started teaching, my principal told me that he was very hands-off. He said that if my test scores came out where they should be that I would not be bothered with seeing him in my classroom. He was true to his word. After ten years of teaching in that school, he had never been in my classroom.
After that initial meeting, I walked into my classroom/lab, and found it to be completely empty with the exception of about 175 chemistry textbooks. I was able to secure a teacher’s edition some time during the first month. There were no files or materials left by the previous teacher. There were two other chemistry teachers. However, they were not interested in sharing materials. One of them occasionally shared printables very begrudgingly. The other teacher taught advanced honors and AP chem, and explained that anything that he did would not apply to me.
Content Knowledge is Just a Beginning
This was all before the internet, and I proceeded to work 60-80 hours a week trying to develop a chemistry curriculum that would work for my 150 standard and honors students. I have to say, I could have used some collaboration with other chemistry teachers! So many questions! Even if your content knowledge is strong, that does not inherently guarantee that you will be able to be able to convey that knowledge to your students.
What are best practices for teaching high school students? How can you build upon core concepts in a meaningful way? What misconceptions do my students come with? How do I run a lab that is safe and meaningful? And the questions go on! That was 23 years ago, and I have had many successes, and many failures, but I’m convinced that today things don’t have to be that difficult for teachers with the options in communication that we have readily available today.
Problems with Collaboration for Chemistry Teachers
There are several circumstances that cause collaboration between chemistry teachers especially difficult. The first being proximity. I taught in a large high school with a student population of 2000. Chemistry or physics is required for graduation in my state, and even so, there were only three chemistry teachers in the school.
Many smaller high schools have only one chemistry teacher, and some schools have a chemistry teacher that also teaches other science courses in addition to chemistry. I have heard from many teachers that have been assigned a section of chemistry even though they are not certified in chemistry. This situation is not uncommon as teachers are asked to handle “overflow” students as another section. Collaboration for these teachers in particular is difficult because during PLC meeting times they usually meet with “their” subject – usually biology.
According to NCES, about 1/3 of the teachers teaching chemistry have three or more preps a day!
One half of all high school chemistry teachers will leave the profession within the first five years.
What can we do to keep our chemistry teachers teaching? Professional development is a problem for administration with such a variety of needs among secondary teachers. As a result, most of our PD ends up being motivational, management, testing, or other general topics.
One size does not fit all – even among science teachers. Across the country, the proportions of students taking chemistry in high school range from 87% in Texas to 13% in West Virginia. Seven states now administer an End-of-Course statewide test in chemistry. And, finally, there are 16,000 school districts in the U.S., and just about as many curricular standards for chemistry.
Online Collaborative Community
To this end, it is my desire to cultivate a community for high school chemistry teachers. Define a place to be among “my people”; a place for active collaboration among chemistry teachers; a safe place that is supportive, uplifting, and interactive.
Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, connect with like-minded teachers. Take a moment to share your experience with collaboration, or share some of your concerns that you would like to see addressed in a collaborative format.
Until next time,