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Things You Should Know

About Schools and Teachers

Before you get started, you should be familiar with a few basic principles and facts of life about schools and teachers. The following observations might not be universally true, but they are broadly applicable.

Schools are not autonomous. Requirements are imposed on them by various oversight groups. Typically, states mandate certain competencies for students for each grade level and subject area and local school boards impose additional requirements. Principals and teachers do not always agree with all of these, but ultimately, they have to give an account for each student in each subject area. The preoccupation with these competencies might make educators initially skeptical of your involvement, particularly if it will occupy class time on topics they feel are not directly tied to the requirements. It is fruitless to fight against this. Instead, find out what these competencies are, and tailor your activities to help meet them. This will go a long way toward winning teacher support for your efforts.

In addition, educators often feel that parents and special interest groups also presume to be their bosses. They can be faced with a wide range of competing demands, expectations, and objections from people and groups who are each convinced that their own point of view is correct. You will have a difficult time building relationships if you become viewed as part of this problem. Don't be dogmatic!

Schools have very limited funding for purchasing supplies and equipment but know how to stretch a dollar and scrounge for things. One of their initial requests may be for help in obtaining equipment and supplies. If your institution is willing to donate or lend materials, this can be a boon to the school. We have found some of the most popular items to be simple things such as paper and copier use, educational kits that teachers need to do particular experiments or demonstrations, and small computers that are outdated for scientific purposes. Generally, schools aren't interested in specialized equipment or things that need extensive repair.

School principals and teachers are frequently idealistic by nature, but their idealism can be tempered with reality through years of experience. Those who have maintained their enthusiasm, flexibility, sense of purpose, and love for the students will usually be eager for your involvement and a pleasure to work with. Some will have been ground down over the years, and these qualities will have dimmed. They might be more skeptical of your involvement at first but can become enthusiastic supporters if, through your commitment, ingenuity, warmth, and useful assistance, you help them discover new ways to be effective. Others will be very set in their ways and simply will not want your involvement. Move on. Treat them courteously and work with those who welcome your involvement.

Teachers are pulled in many different directions and are very busy. Try to make their lives simpler, not more complex. Seek to enhance their efforts without imposing a lot of extra demands on their already hectic schedules. Avoid becoming viewed as a time sink or just another person competing for their attention. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

The same kinds of cliques, power struggles, and honest differences of opinion that you find in most work settings also exist in schools. Try to get along with everyone, and avoid becoming identified with one group or point of view. Learn the "do's and don’ts" at your school, and do your best to comply with the school's written and unwritten rules.

Schools get numerous "offers of help," many of which either don't come to fruition or turn out to be very short-lived. This might make them a bit skeptical of you at first. Don't be discouraged. Once you've made good on your commitments and demonstrated that you're in it with them for the long haul, the educators will warm up.

About Students

Students come in all sizes, shapes, and levels of emotional and intellectual development. A few of the generalities that you need to know, even if you're working primarily with teachers, are outlined here.

Children younger than 10 to 12 years of age base their social values and find their primary security in their family. As they approach puberty, they not only change physically, but also socially and emotionally. Their peer group becomes increasingly significant in their lives at the expense of family, and they begin to question values and try on new behaviors (some of which seem pretty strange and others of which are genuinely dangerous). This is a natural stage in their learning to interact with and function in society and establish their own value systems. It is a time of great emotional upheaval for many children and parents alike. For some, it settles down by age l5; for others, it goes on into their 20s. Young people and their parents have to live through it, and educators and youth workers have to accommodate it. Do not overreact!

A decline in interest in science and the development of negative attitudes toward it typically occur between the third and eighth grades. These are the critical years for inspiring interest, building basic skills, and avoiding premature burning of bridges. High school is the time to begin focusing more on specific content and future career options.

Applications and hands-on activities are the keys to generating interest and promoting learning! The traditional approach of teaching theory first and applications later is fundamentally non-motivational. Applications that are interesting and relevant to the students, as opposed to things that you and your professional peers find interesting, provide the hook to stimulate interest in principles. If you or the teacher wants to arouse students' interest, start with an exciting activity or demonstration.

In addition, programs that involve students doing hands-on activities are far superior to those in which adults merely show them things or, worse yet, just talk to them. And hands-on activities in which students discover things for themselves are the highest-quality learning experiences. Students forget most of the things their teachers tell them. But when adults lead young people in experiences where they wrestle with an interesting personal observation and then figure it out "by themselves" — those things are remembered forever. Seek to be more of a guide to discovery than a conveyor of information and a provider of answers.

Science process is at least as important as science content. Students need to be immersed in examining information, developing hypotheses, proposing critical experiments, making observations, collecting data, testing ideas, and developing logical conclusions. These elements should be woven into every content area. If students fail to develop these scientific "habits of the mind" they will become adults whose decisions and positions will be easily swayed by slick advertising or emotional appeals.

An increasing number of children are carrying a lot of heavy personal baggage with them. Things like family disputes and break-ups; substance abuse (by either themselves or their family members); families with little commitment to the importance of education; inadequate or improper food, clothing, or parental support; self-doubts; and the need to impress peers (particularly in the middle school years) weigh heavily on far more youngsters than you might like to believe. Sensitivity to such problems is a valuable asset.

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