Working Effectively With Teachers
Helping one or more teachers enhance the quality of their science instruction is a
great way in which nearly any technical professional can enrich precollege education.
There are several significant advantages to concentrating your efforts on teachers. First,
since each teacher interacts with many students, the results of your efforts are greatly
leveraged. Second, even after you are no longer directly involved, the enhanced teaching
skills continue to impact students for years to come. Third, since our professional
interactions are mainly with adults, communicating with teachers comes more naturally for
many of us than does communicating with students. Finally, while working with students
involves a substantial element of motivation, most teachers are eager to improve their
knowledge, skills and effectiveness.
Pilot programs in which engineers and scientists have provided support to teachers have
been quite successful. For such efforts to be productive, however, people on both sides
must have realistic understandings of each others' backgrounds, strengths and limitations,
and must be sensitive to and appreciative of one another. The purpose of this chapter is
to help you understand how to interact effectively with teachers, and to suggest some ways
in which you might help them enhance their science teaching abilities.
Things You Should Know About Teachers
Most people enter the teaching profession genuinely caring about kids and believing
that teaching offers them a way to positively impact lives and improve society while
earning a living. Along the way they undergo extensive training and become highly skilled
professionals. Their work is very demanding, frequently frustrating, and often thankless,
factors which sometimes lead to burnout. However, those who learn to cope effectively with
imperfect people and bureaucracies, maintain their idealism and flexibility, remain
positively focused on their students, and continue to grow in their teaching abilities
often derive great satisfaction from their teaching careers.
Preparing for a teaching career involves studying a variety of topics: the theory and
psychology of intellectual development, methods of teaching, the content of subjects to be
taught, as well as most of the topics common to a well-rounded liberal arts curriculum.
Student teaching must be completed prior to certification, and continuing education
courses must sometimes be taken to maintain active teaching credentials. In addition, many
teachers pursue graduate work -- a master's degree is virtually required for teachers in
many parts of the country.
The mix of courses taken by prospective teachers varies substantially depending on the
age level of their intended students. Elementary education majors are typically required
to take very little science. As a result, many elementary school teachers have very
limited understanding of technical principles or applications and often avoid
incorporating science topics into their classes.
Secondary teachers, on the other hand, are required to take numerous courses in their
intended instructional area. As a result, high school science courses are usually taught
by people with good understanding of the subject matter. Even outstanding high school
teachers, however, are frequently unaware of many relevant applications and fascinating
career opportunities that could be included to stimulate increased student interest in the
science principles they are teaching. In addition, staffing constraints in some schools
can result in teachers being assigned classes which are outside their area of expertise.
It is difficult to generalize about middle school teachers because in many regions they
can have either an elementary or a secondary education background. As a result, they
frequently exhibit a wide range of subject matter knowledge. You can best accommodate this
on an individual basis, keeping in mind that the middle school teacher's primary task is
to develop descriptive understanding of scientific principles in students who are just
beginning to think abstractly.
On completing their training, teachers are typically filled with enthusiasm and
creative ideas that they are eager to put into practice. Once in the classroom, their
training is tempered with and strengthened by practical experience.
Unfortunately, their enthusiasm is often dampened by the discoveries that they have
significantly less academic flexibility than they had anticipated and that many changes
are difficult to implement. Funding limitations frequently prevent them from purchasing
the books, support materials, and supplies needed to improve the curriculum. State
departments of education dictate the competencies that each student must master in a given
year, and local school boards often add further requirements. Standardized tests are often
required for progress assessment, and teachers are pressured to ensure that their students
perform well on these tests. Some teachers disagree with the priorities embodied in the
mandated competencies and question whether the multiple-choice standardized tests provide
a meaningful assessment of students' ability to think creatively and solve complex
real-world problems. Nonetheless, they recognize the necessity of satisfying these
requirements, and do their best to balance "teaching to the test" against
providing motivational instruction in the areas they believe will best meet the long-term
interests of their students.
While new teachers enter the classroom eager to work with students, many of them find
classroom management and student interaction to be far more intense than they had
expected. Providing focus, direction, and control for the normal exuberance of 20 to 35
active elementary school children over a six-hour period can be a challenge for nearly
anyone. For middle and high school teachers, this is compounded by much larger numbers of
students and the wide range of physical, social, and emotional changes that accompany the
transition from childhood to adulthood. In addition, nearly all teachers have at least a
few students whose serious personal or family problems require special empathy, attention,
These "normal" challenges are compounded by a growing fraction of today's
students who are undisciplined, uninterested, socially maladjusted, and sometimes openly
hostile. Increasingly, our society expects schools and teachers to develop in students not
only intellectual skills, but also to fulfill what has traditionally been the family's
role of imparting good citizenship, self-discipline, values, and a host of other personal
qualities (all without compromising anyone's individual freedom or offending their
religious and moral beliefs, of course).
Teachers are also subjected to a wide range of responsibilities and time demands. In
addition to their in-class teaching time, they must make time to help individual students
who have questions or are progressing slowly, to lead school clubs or sports teams, to
attend a variety of staff meetings, parent conferences and parent-teacher organization
meetings, and to serve as monitors in halls, lunchrooms, and playgrounds. They must also
review and grade homework, papers and tests from the previous day's classes, as well as
prepare interesting and varied programs for the next day's classes, usually with no more
than one free period per day. In all of these activities they are expected to comply with
the varied, and sometimes contradictory, expectations and priorities of numerous parents,
administrators, fellow teachers, and special interest groups.
All things considered, teaching is a demanding job -- one that requires a lot of skill,
hard work, sensitivity, and endurance. Most teachers are idealists who care deeply about
kids and their educations. Considering the challenges inherent in their jobs, however,
it's not surprising that some of them have their enthusiasm dampened or become burnt out
along the way. If we are to interact effectively with teachers, we need to admire their
idealism, appreciate their dedication to working under frequently difficult conditions,
and respect them as highly skilled professional peers.
Ways You Can Help
So what are some of the things you can do to help teachers, particularly in the area of
science? Before discussing specific options, it is worth reemphasizing a couple key
principles from the overview chapter. The best way to help a teacher is to become a
trusted friend and teammate who respects and is responsive to his or her expressed needs.
Don't enter into your new relationship with a predetermined notion of what is needed or
what you will do. Worse yet, don't insult the teacher's intelligence by assuming that
teaching is easy, that it's a part-time job, or that he or she is doing it because they
can't find a "real job". Instead, find out what the teacher is trying to teach,
then help them do it with excellence. You can suggest some possible ways in which you
might contribute (see below), but be sure to also solicit the teacher's ideas, and then
let him or her be the judge of which option(s) you should pursue.
Help Teachers Implement Hands-On Discovery-Based Science Activities
It's well known that students learn best not from textbooks or lectures, but from
interesting activities in which they get to do hands-on experiments and discover key
principles for themselves. Many courses, however, remain essentially devoid of meaningful
hands-on activities and discovery experiences. You can help teachers implement such
activities with their classes.
Worried that you dont have the creativity, education background, or time to
develop these yourself? Thats good, because lots of activities have already been
developed, tested, and refined. These are almost always better than the ones the we
scientists and engineers dream up. Brief descriptions of many sources of individual
activities are provided in the chapter, "Sources of Ideas for Hands-on K-12 Science
& Math Activities." Help teachers become familiar with these, as well as with
hands-on discovery-based programs that are being implemented at other schools.
Perhaps you could arrange for your employer, a group of local professional society
chapters or a service group to establish a science education resource center for your
community and purchase some of these materials to stock it. Then you could help teachers
discover and use these resources in their classes. This should be done in close
collaboration with the school system, which may already have a resource center that you
could help strengthen. Be sure that the materials you purchase are pertinent to the
curriculum and that you involve teachers in their selection. Otherwise they are likely to
end up collecting dust.
Many hands-on activities require supplies and simple equipment. Schools frequently have
very limited budgets for such purchases. Your resource center can make such items
available. Some of them might have to be purchased, but many can be acquired by simply
alerting local companies and technical professionals to the types of items that the school
would find useful and asking that they donate surplus items to the resource center rather
than discarding them.
Some supplies and equipment are typically available at the school, but are often poorly
organized, not working, or not well understood by the teachers. You can help by
inventorying these items, fixing them, and conducting seminars or writing instructions on
how to use them.
Complete inquiry-based science curricula are even better than individual hands-on
activities. Such curricula are becoming available from a number of suppliers, and are
being adopted by an increasing number of school systems. You could help introduce your
teacher contacts to these curricula and/or serve as an advocate for the adoption of such a
curriculum in your community.
These curricula typically provide everything that teachers need to lead their students
in hands-on activities in which they discover key scientific principles for themselves.
Background information, instructions, discussion guides, and even suggestions for
assessing student progress are provided to the teachers. In addition, kits containing
equipment, supplies and student guides provide everything needed for the entire class to
conduct each activity. Classes are typically broken into pairs or small groups of
students, so that everyone gets directly involved in each activity. In addition, each
topic area is subdivided into 10 to 20 sequential activities which the students do over a
period of a month or two. This facilitates the systematic development, application, and
reinforcement of knowledge over an extended period. Perhaps most importantly, students
experience the process of science as they are conducting these activities. This promotes
the development of logical thinking skills in the context of their investigations of
specific science topics.
Extensive information about these hands-on curricula are available from a number of
sources, particularly the National Science Resources Center (NSRC) in Washington, DC. NSRC
also has written materials and conducts periodic workshops for scientists and engineers to
prepare them to become advocates for the adoption of such curricula in their local
Help Teachers Understand Technical Subject Matter and Its Applications
Many elementary teachers are not only unfamiliar with science, they are intimidated by
it. As a result, they avoid teaching it as much as possible. The good news is that most of
them recognize their weakness in this area, are eager to improve, and welcome whatever
assistance is available and proves to be useful.
One way you can contribute is to help elementary and middle school teachers become
comfortable with the relevant principles and applications of science topics scheduled to
be covered in their classes. This can be done one-on-one, but is even better in a group
tutorial or workshop setting, provided various classes (or the entire school) coordinate
their science curricula.
It is essential that you keep the discussion at a level that the teachers can clearly
understand and enjoy and that is appropriate to the age level and interests of their
students. Your efforts will be counterproductive if you reinforce their preconception that
science is very hard and that one needs to have a Ph.D. to understand it.
A frequently effective format is to engage the teachers in a hands-on project --
something that they can take back and use in their classrooms. Students learn best when
they are actively involved in hands-on activities, and so do teachers. The most effective
projects are ones that fit nicely into the curriculum and district requirements.
For example, if next month's science topic is magnetism, you could lead a teacher's
workshop in which they do experiments to determine the effects of various parameter (wire
length, voltage, and core material) on the strengths of electromagnets (how many washers
or paperclips are picked up. Following this, you could answer questions the teachers have
about magnetism, perhaps giving them a brief tutorial on magnetism. You could then provide
them with the materials they need to conduct this activity with their students, as well as
give them ideas for other possible activities.
Teacher workshops must be relevant and demonstrate how scientific principles are used
in practical applications. For most people, teachers included, interesting and relevant
applications provide the hook that stimulates initial interest in a topic. If your
workshops concentrate totally on theory and underlying principles, they will be
unmotivational and boring. If you couple scientific principles with interesting and
relevant applications, your workshops will not only be much more interesting, they will
also model a method for providing motivational science instruction to students.
These workshops should also be convenient to attend. This can be accomplished by having
them at the school, free of charge, and reasonable in length (one hour to one day).
Ideally, your company might pay for substitutes to enable the teachers to participate.
Printed background materials can also be developed, copied, and distributed to the
teachers in conjunction with the workshop. Such assistance to the teacher has proven to be
particularly effective when it is combined with exciting in-class student activities in
which technical professionals reinforce the content being covered by the teachers (see the
"Working Effectively With Students" chapter).
Familiarize Teachers With Career Opportunities Related to Science Topics
While high school teachers usually have much less need for assistance with science
content, they frequently need information on relevant applications and interesting career
opportunities related to their subjects. You, your coworkers, and your company can provide
this by means of periodic seminars, lab and/or plant tours, personal meetings, part-time
or summer employment, or various combinations of these. In larger communities science
teachers from all area high schools can be encouraged to take part in these activities.
Interactions with high school teachers can usually be carried on at a substantially
higher technical level than is appropriate for elementary school teachers. They should,
however, remain focused on the big picture and on relevant applications, rather than
getting bogged down in technical details and esoteric issues.
Don't fall into the trap of thinking that only "the latest and greatest"
applications will stimulate interest. Some of the most captivating topics are those that
provide clear demonstrations of how scientific principles are used to solve scientifically
"mundane" but socially relevant problems, such as increasing the crash
resistance of cars, reducing or detoxifying hazardous waste, and so on.
Teachers are frequently interested in hearing about the nature of your work and what
science principles are involved in it, particularly after you have developed good rapport
with them. Explaining your work to them, however, usually isn't the best place to start.
Help Teachers Access Information and Expertise
Teachers are often eager to supplement their classroom activities with interesting
presentations, demonstrations, field trips, and other curriculum enrichment programs, but
dont know where or how to find such assistance. In addition, they sometimes have:
students with particular interests or questions who would benefit greatly from contact
with specialists in the appropriate technical areas; students with ideas for science fair
projects who need assistance, advice, or access to specialized knowledge or equipment;
students who are struggling and need tutoring; female or ethnic minority students who need
empathetic mentors and role models; and so on. Many individuals, companies, and
professional societies would gladly provide these kinds of support, but don't know what or
where the needs are.
You can help by linking the teachers and their needs with the appropriate individuals,
groups, and resources in your community. Find out which people in your workplace or local
professional society chapter are interested in supporting science education and ways in
which they are willing to help. Then create and publicize a local mechanism to connect the
needs with the resources. On a national scale, many professional societies are becoming
increasingly interested in K-12 education and are developing resources that could fit some
of these needs. You can access these through your society's K-12 education coordinator, or
the organizations listed at the end of the introductory chapter.
Help Teachers Understand and Do Activities That Develop Science Process Skills
Specific content isn't the only thing that teachers and students need to learn about
science. Perhaps even more importantly, they need to learn about the process of science:
how hypotheses are constructed and tested, how information is evaluated and logical
conclusions drawn from it, how risks are assessed in terms of probability and statistics,
how priorities are set as a result of cost-benefit analysis, and so on.
While a relatively small fraction of today's students will need to know Newton's laws
as adults, they all will need an appreciation for these science process skills in order to
be intelligent shoppers and rational shapers of public policy. The alternative is a public
that makes decisions based strictly on who has the slickest advertising or can make the
most emotionally appealing argument.
You can help teachers recognize the importance of science process and engage their
classes in activities that develop logical thinking skills. Experiments in which students
have to think about what conclusions can be drawn from their observations are outstanding
in this regard. You can help teachers learn to engage and lead their students in thinking
through information, developing sound conclusions, and identifying faulty logic. Many
individual activities and inquiry-based curricula lend themselves very well to such
All of your talk about science process won't have much effect, however, if you
inadvertently reinforce the misconception that scientists can provide correct answers to
every question asked them. Admit to teachers that you don't know the answers to some
questions, even in some cases where you do. One of the best ways to encourage teachers to
engage in science process is to model it in the way in which you interact with them.
Instead of providing answers to all their questions, engage them in simple experiments
through which they can discover the answers for themselves. Guide them as they process
data and observations, seeking to identify the appropriate conclusions. Help them see that
not all experiments lead to a unique conclusion and eliminate all alternative hypotheses
Allow them to go down some blind alleys and struggle with confusing results, then tell
them about how this also happens to you in your technical work. Encourage their
understanding that negative results aren't necessarily failures since from them we also
learn -- in this case that we need to develop a different hypotheses. In short, guide them
in experiences where they are doing science, and encourage them to do likewise with
Help Teachers Engage Parents and the Community
Many problems in U. S. education stem from society's tacit assumption that education
begins and ends in the classroom and that teachers and schools are solely responsible for
its success or failure. Imagine the educational impact of parents and children doing
interesting projects and experiments at home to complement the science topics being
covered in school. You could help organize such an effort through the parent-teacher
organization and assist by either developing activities or accessing programs that are
One of the reasons teachers hesitate to do hands-on discovery-based activities in class
is that many of them require small groups each needing adult guidance. You could organize
a program through which parents volunteer to serve periodically as classroom assistants to
facilitate such activities.
How about working for the establishment of a hands-on science museum in your community,
or helping teachers access an existing one? Or getting the Chamber of Commerce or a group
of companies to provide financial support to send teacher representatives to science
education training events, or provide rewards for teaching excellence? Or getting your
local Boy Scout, Girl Scout, or 4-H group involved in some exciting technology oriented
events? The possibilities are limited only by your imagination!
Serve As An Advocate for District-Wide Reform of Science Education
Are there teachers in your area who are doing hands-on inquiry-based science in their
classrooms, but are having trouble getting this approach more broadly accepted in the
district? You can provide a great service by actively supporting them at meetings with
their principals, district administrators, and school boards. Tell these individuals that
your learned science most effectively when you actually did it, rather than when you just
read about it. Help them understand how students can learn skills such as logical thinking
and teamwork in the context of inquiry-based science lessons. As a technical professional,
your experiences and opinions carry a lot of weight with these policy making individuals
and groups, particularly if you've also invested some of your time working with teachers
or students and if you're knowledgeable about the constructivist reform movement. For help
in this regard, contact the National Science Resources Center or the National Research
Council (see list at the end of the overview chapter).
and Interacting Effectively
These ideas represent only a few ways in which you can help teachers with science
education. You can probably think of others. Why not present these and your own ideas to
school teachers and administrators in your area, ask them to add their own thoughts, and
determine those areas in which they would most like your help?. Then follow up vigorously
on their suggestions and watch the good things start to happen.
While you might want to have preliminary discussions with a teacher you already know,
it is usually best for your first formal contact with a school to be with the principal.
At this meeting you should indicate your interest, outline the wide range of ways in which
you think you might contribute, and solicit official approval for your initiative.
Assuming a favorable response, have the principal arrange a time for you to meet with the
teachers, either all of them or a group of the most creative, flexible and proactive ones.
When you meet with the teachers, give a bit of personal background about yourself,
describe how you became interested in supporting science education, and present a sampling
of some of the ways that you think you might assist them. It might be good to give them a
printed list of some of the ideas in this chapter plus some of your own thoughts. Take
along a sample activity or kit to illustrate the types of resources that are available.
Having them actually do an introductory activity can be very effective, provided it
doesn't take too long. Perhaps you could leave some resource materials and supplies for
them to look over or try out with their students -- teachers love to get useful
Keep your initial interaction as short as possible (25 minutes maximum), as teachers
operate on tight schedules. Because they are so busy, one of the most effective points you
can make is how your activities will either save them time or significantly enhance their
classroom instruction for just a small investment of their time.
Solicit their questions, discussion, and initial reactions, but don't press them for a
commitment at this point. As you leave, ask them to discuss your ideas among themselves,
add their own, and prioritize them. Then set an appointment to meet again and get their
The purpose of the follow-up meeting is for the teachers to indicate whether they are
interested in your assistance and how they think you can best help. Your job is mostly to
listen and to clarify their priorities. Out of this discussion should come a mutual
commitment to a plan of action and to a specific set of initial activities.
If additional meetings are needed to clarify details it would be good to schedule them
for non-school hours. During the school day teachers' lives are filled with a myriad of
activities and concerns, making it difficult for them to concentrate for extended periods
on detailed planning. Brief meetings right after school usually work better than ones held
during the school day.
You should also ask whether, before initiating activities, you can visit a class to
observe a typical science lesson. This will give you some first-hand insight into how
science teaching is approached, as well as give you and the teacher(s) an opportunity to
get to know one another better before you start.
As emphasized in the overview chapter, it is important to recognize that your long-term
impact depends critically on the development of positive interpersonal relationships. You
can maximize your chances of doing this by treating the teachers as respected peers,
responding to their expressed needs, following up on your commitments, giving them lots of
encouragement and positive feedback, seeking their evaluation and constructive criticism
of your efforts, and modifying your future efforts in response to their comments. In
short, seek to work as a team with them, be flexible, and view yourself in a subservient
role as a behind-the-scenes supporter. As you do this effectively you will gain their
trust and respect, and win the right to be heard -- even when your later comments involve
suggestions for ways in which they can improve.
So what are you waiting for? Get involved! Start the ball rolling now! But commit
yourself to sticking with it for the long haul -- at least one year. Remember that all of
the needed changes will not occur overnight. The effort to enhance science education is
more like a marathon than a sprint. Your support will be a process rather than an event.
But the results are well worth the effort!