As a new school year begins, I'd like to encourage you to nurture connection with your students and to continue developing your leadership skills. Let me share a few examples that have worked for me in these two areas.
Connections in the Classroom
At the start of a recent school year I tried something new. Realizing that students are excited to see one another and catch up, and wanting to cultivate connections from our first shared moments together, I developed a way to accomplish both of these starting on the first day. While pointing to the “Every Human Is Unique” shirt that I wear on that first day, I tell students that we are going to spend our first day together nurturing relationships and learning about one another. I encourage students to talk with one another and ask them to visit Redbubble to search for “DNA sticker” or “science sticker” and find one that resonates with them. While they are doing this, I individually greet each student and write their name phonetically with the goal of never mispronouncing it, thus showing that I value each student from the moment we meet. Also, I spend time interacting with each student in a one-on-one conversation. Once students settle on a favorite sticker, they copy and paste it into a Google doc, write a few sentences about why the sticker resonated with them, and share that document with me so I can learn a bit more about them. This seems to work; the room buzzes with positive energy and “science talk.”
In 28 years of teaching, this new opening-day activity has become my favorite because I meet each student, engage in individual conversations with them about topics such as favorite summer memories, writing screenplays, sports, cliff diving, being stuck in a hurricane, family reunions, a grandmother's 80th birthday celebration, siblings, breeding dogs, concerts, scuba diving certification, overcoming fears, and so on. I purposely do not discuss the course content on the first day of class; rather, my focus is on each individual with whom I will share time and space the next several months. Some might see this as a waste of “valuable teaching time,” but I have found that it pays tremendous dividends in setting the tone of valuing each person in our classroom community. As research has documented, and as we educators know, students learn far more when they are working in a safe, caring environment while also engaged in a positive, healthy relationship with their teacher.
During the year I take a picture of each lab group, which I give to students at the end of the class. I remind them that their fondest memories of the class will likely be those associated with their lab partners as they bonded over debate and conversation in the completion of activities. As the class finally ends, I address each student by name as they leave and ask, “Would you like a handshake or hug?” As I reflect on our time together, I always feel a bittersweet tension in letting them go but hope they felt valued and recognize that shared experiences extend far beyond the class.
In addition to providing competent and caring classroom instruction, it is equally important that teachers develop as leaders, a goal NABT sets for each member. One element of the important work of the NABT Board of Directors is to protect and nurture teacher autonomy in pedagogical decision making through position statements related to teaching expectations, such as the ethics associated with our profession, cyberlearning, and sustainability. Recently, the board spent significant time creating the new “Teaching Climate Change” position statement and others devoted to teaching evolution and the use of animals in the classroom.
As the leader in life science education, NABT spent time this past spring defending a teacher's right to include dissection in the classroom coupled with a student's right to opt out. After talking with many of our members, NABT wrote a letter opposing California Assembly Bill 1586, which called for the total elimination of dissection in K–12 classrooms. A portion of NABT's letter reads as follows:
NABT maintains that the professional biology educator is responsible for designing meaningful learning experiences that promote positive attitudes toward science, help students better identify as scientists, and protect those students who refrain from dissection. The state's Education Code does this, while AB1586 as written presumes that dissection has a negative impact on student learning and effectively eliminates both teacher and student agency. … The proper and ethical use of animals in science classrooms must always be matched to the explicit standards and objectives for the course and contribute to the educational outcomes for students. Ultimately, it is the professional educator in the classroom who is in the best position to make the determination about using non-living animals for dissection.
One of NABT's value statements explicitly states that “by empowering the individual educator and by fostering a supportive professional environment, we have created a community of educators who continually improve and enhance biology education.” NABT's members strive to become excellent classroom instructors while providing leadership as advocates for science education in their schools and communities. Our organization will continue to assist in developing teacher-leaders at all levels. Our annual conference in Chicago (November 14–17, 2019) is an excellent opportunity to nurture leadership skills by networking with other biology educators while learning content and pedagogy.