From Beakers to Blackboards

From Beakers to Blackboards preview image. Title on blackboard.

Helping the Next “Gen” of Chemistry Rockstar Teachers! 

My 30-year teaching career felt like a whirlwind! I cherished the moments of being in the classroom, creating new labs and lessons, connecting with students, and celebrating the successes of hardworking students. Retirement brought unexpected opportunities, including a part-time role teaching future chemistry teachers at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. With six classes to teach per semester, this position allows me to continue sharing my passion for teaching while embracing my newfound freedom to travel, learn, and explore the world.

In some regards, I have felt like a green rookie teacher fresh off the turnip truck! New curriculum, a different level of learning, and unfamiliar students nearing the end of their formal academic training created a whole new world for me! Despite my ability to teach teenagers I questioned whether I could effectively transfer my knowledge to this new setting and to these altogether new students. I relied on my tried-and-true emphasis on tactile learning. While academic papers offered theoretical insights I decided to rely primarily on practical experiences from my own high school teaching career. My teaching philosophy has always revolved around the following: 

A) “Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire” – Inspired by Rafe Esquith – his fabulous book urges its readers to bring lots of energy to the classroom;

B) “Be flexible and Have a Sense of Humour” - Allowed me to recognize that unexpected events are inevitable, and thus one ought to embrace same with humour!

C) “Don’t have an Ego” – This allowed me to freely acknowledge my own imperfections and mishaps.

D) “Safety never takes a vacation” – I learned this slogan from a former colleague, and I’ve used it well. I am always mindful of this approach in most everything I do. 

My goal in teaching was NOT to produce a “mini-me” but instead to give these future students some tools for their teaching toolbox. My lessons were carefully curated to encompass a broad spectrum of strategies and topics, including:

  • First Day Activities that create Dinner Table Conversation
  • Demonstrations, Labs, Activities, and Games: Hands-on demonstrations, labs, and engaging games/activities that foster learning and critical thinking.
  • Interactive Notebooks: A different approach to learning which emphasizes active learning, organization, reflection and critical-thinking.
  • Evaluations: Guidance on fair and effective assessments. How to address students who do not hand work in (a never-ending battle.) As well as the newer concept of ungrading was shown to these future teachers.
  • Diversity in the Classroom: One of my favourite lessons utilized the CHEM 13 News Special Edition on Chemistry and Inuit Life and Culture to develop engaging lessons which focus on Inuit Life

My second goal was to help students discover their unique “teaching vibe,” understanding the type of educator they aspire to be, and recognizing that this form of self-awareness naturally changes over time. I was fortunate to host two exceptional guest speakers. We had a class zoom with Scott Milam, author of “Teaching Introductory Chemistry,” who shared invaluable insights with the students. One of his key points resonated deeply: unlike many disciplines, becoming an outstanding chemistry teacher requires years of dedication and refinement. Chemistry education is uniquely challenging due to the prevalence of misconceptions. When teaching chemistry, it is crucial to find the balance between addressing misconceptions without delving too deeply into the intricate details which may not be appropriate to the level of student being taught. 

A standout lesson included having Michael Jansen as a guest speaker. Michael ran a significant figures lab with my students, and was enthusiastically received, serving as a great addition to their toolbox on a way to start their classes in the beginning of the semester. Michael uses a great concept called a "soft introduction." This entails introducing a word or topic early in the course without providing a detailed explanation. By doing so, the idea becomes less daunting when it is covered in-depth later in the curriculum. Michael wrapped up the session by sharing some valuable teaching strategies. Guest speakers like, Scott and Michael, enrich the student experience greatly! 

I was pleasantly surprised by my student teachers! They demonstrated a solid grasp of the content and showed great enthusiasm for using hands-on methods to teach the material required. They demonstrated a real willingness to learn. I did, however, identify an area where we can offer support to our new chemistry teachers entering our schools. Our new teachers may have had limited exposure to the lab setting. As such it's an area where experienced chemistry teachers can provide guidance and assistance. Furthermore, it's widely recognized that conducting a demonstration or lab as a teacher differs significantly from observing or participating as a student. Therefore, whenever possible, sharing demonstration and lab materials with new chemistry teachers and taking the time to physically guide same through the process is highly beneficial for all parties. It is essential to emphasize safety concerns during these interactions.

As the saying goes, "it takes a village" to cultivate outstanding chemistry teachers. Each of us plays a role in this endeavor. When a new chemistry teacher joins your department, please extend a helping-hand of support to them as they proceed on their journey to becoming excellent educators. I've recently experienced firsthand the challenges and stress, albeit the enjoyment, of starting a new teaching position and I too am immensely grateful for the support and guidance provided by more experienced Faculty of Education educators! For those experienced teachers reading this, if given the chance to shape the learning experiences of future students, how would you approach this opportunity? Please feel free to share in the comments section! 

Acknowledgements:

  • Thank you to Matthew Clifford, my editor-in-chief.
  • Thank you to Jean Hein for supporting and editing.
  • Thank you to Scott Milam and Michael Jansen for taking the time to visit my classes by zoom and in-person.
  • Thank you to Brock University for the wonderful opportunity to teach future chemistry teachers. 
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