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Working Effectively with Teachers (Eckelmeyer, 1995)

Helping teachers enhance the quality of their science instruction is a great way for nearly any technical professional to 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 amplified. Second, even after you’re no longer directly involved, the enhanced teaching skills continue to affect 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 other’s backgrounds, strengths, and limitations and must be sensitive to and appreciate one another. The purpose of this section is to help you understand how to interact effectively with teachers and to suggest ways you could 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 affect 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 that 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, and 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 before 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 stimulate student interest in the science principles they are teaching. In addition, because of staffing constraints in some schools, teachers are sometimes assigned classes outside their area of expertise.

It’s 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 need to satisfy 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.

Although 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, and counseling.

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 not only develop in students 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 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.

Getting Started and Interacting Effectively

In "Ways to Support K-12 Education," you’ll find many ways to 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 and ask them to add their own thoughts and determine the areas they would most like your help with. 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’s 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 you think you might contribute, and solicit official approval for your initiative. Assuming you get 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. Although the most interested teachers may be the least in need of your help, working with a cooperative group with which you can show successes will help motivate other teachers to join you down the road

When you meet with the teachers, tell them a bit about yourself, describe how you became interested in supporting science education, and present a sampling of some of the ways you think you could help 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 you’d like to draw on. 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 "freebies."

Keep your initial interaction as short as possible (25 minutes maximum), because teachers operate on tight schedules. Because they’re 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 feedback.

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 nonschool 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 the teachers approach science education, as well as give you and the teachers an opportunity to get to know one another better before you start.

It’s important to recognize that your long-term impact depends 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 improvement.

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 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!

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