Help! We need to do better.

One of our recent physics teaching graduates took a mid-year vacancy teaching 8th grade physical science in an struggling urban area. There are many factors making this job particularly difficult for the student, operating under survival mode.

  • The new teacher is coming into the classroom mid-year, with students who have had a substitute for the past month
  • Between the interview and first day, there were four days, little to time to prepare and get oriented.
  • The school appears to have no induction process for new teachers
  • The school really is a struggling / failing school, both by qualitative sense and quantitative measures
  • The population this teachert is working with is very different than populations he experienced while student teaching
  • Our existing program does too little to prepare students for classroom management
  • Both the students’ content and pedagogical knowledge better prepared him for teach high school physics than middle school
  • Our program doesn’t yet properly support students in making job decisions and initial/ongoing  support.
  • Our program doesn’t yet have students leaving us with any fail-safes like, if all else fails, “Here is exactly what you are going to do the first month you are teaching, and here is a basket of all the things you’ll need to pull that off.”

By far the biggest problems he is facing is typical for new teachers–classroom management. One of the things I’m wondering is, what role can the physics department play in preparing / supporting students in this way? I mean, I can say, well, “Shouldn’t the education classes deal with that?” But I think that’s just punting on responsibilities to put our physics teacher in the best possible position to succeed.

I feel like that last bullet might be the thing that we can change the most in our department. Make sure that when students leave, they have very specific plans in place, including activities oriented toward setting classroom expectations. A kind of thing that can carry them through that terribly difficult beginning. And the second thing is for us to be more involved with them in the decisions they make for jobs.  And obviously, we need to better coordinate with education side on initial and ongoing support, because we can’t do that alone. But we should be involved.

Help! What do we need to do? What do we need to think about? Grace, I’m looking at you especially.


The first two days of the teaching of physics were a bit unnerving for me and for students this semester. Students ended up being confronted with a lot of things they didn’t know, or weren’t able to do, or didn’t understand–mostly things they were confident they knew, were able to do, and understood. The feeling in class was tense-confidences shaken, identities threatened, feelings of shame rising…

But, today, for whatever reason, we emerged more gracious, more accepting, more willing to be wrong, more willing to open up, more willing to sit with confusion, to listen to others’ confusion, more willing to lean into to the unknown and face it admirably.

More than anything, that constitutes significant progress.

I am asking a lot of these students this semester–a lot of reading, a lot of synthesizing,  a lot demonstrating mastery of physics concepts, a lot of practice teaching, a lot of learning about student thinking, a lot of applying what they’ve learned to new contexts. I am likely going to overwork them to more than one breaking point.

But the hardest thing. The hardest thing may be the vulnerabilities I am asking them to step into and embrace. At least for today, we stood together, courageously so.

Readings I’m using in Various Science Teaching and Learning Courses

This semester, I am teaching (i) an inquiry course for future elementary school teachers, (ii) a teaching physics course for future physics teachers, and (iii) a teaching and learning seminar for physics majors who are serving as undergraduate TAs in one of our reform-oriented introductory physics courses.

As semester goes on, I’m going to try to keep up updated reading list for each of the courses. Here’s where we are thus far…

Inquiry Readings:

Week 1:

“The Pendulum Question” from Seeing Science in Children’s Thinking: Case Studies of Student Inquiry in Physical Science by David Hammer and Emily van Zee. [Video portion discussed in class on first day]

Week 2:

“The virtues of not knowing” from The Having of Wonderful Ideas: And Other Essays on Teaching and Learning by Eleanor Duckworth.

Teaching of Physics Readings:

Week 1:

“The sun goes around the earth–Goals of Science Education” from An Inquiry into Science Education: Where the Rubber Meets the Road by Richard Steinberg

“Student Inquiry in a Physics Class Discussion”, in Cognition & Instruction, by David Hamme

Week 2:

Selected sections of “Chapter 2: Rectilinear Kinematics” from Teaching Introductory Physics, by Arnold Arons, paired* with “Building the Constant Velocity Model” over at Physics! Blog! by Kelly O’Shea.

Every student will read one of the following papers and with a group give a brief presentation of the research, its findings, and discuss how a PBI problem they did earlier seems informed by this research.

Teaching and Learning Seminar:

Week 1:

“Unpacking the nature of discourse in mathematics classrooms” in Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, by Knuth & Peresseni

Week 2:

“Questioning and Discussion” from Teaching Secondary School Science: Strategies for Developing Scientific Literacy, by Bybee, Powell, and Trowbridge.

Week 3:

Reflective Discourse: developing shared understanding in a physics classroom” by Van Zee and Minstrell. (1997)


* An explicit goal of mine in teaching of physics to pair readings–one that is closer to the trenches of teaching and one that is closer to research. Both of these reading are fairly close to teaching, but Kelly’s writing is like your are in her classroom, and Arons writing is a bit more distant.

Big Questions for My Teaching of Physics Course

In spring, I’m teaching “Teaching of Physics” again.  Here is my stab at trying to organize my thinking about that course around 3 big questions:

Understanding Physics: What does it mean to understand physics content in deep and meaningful ways? What do such understandings look like in general? What does this look like in particular with respect to the specific domains of physics content that I will likely teach?

Learning Physics: How does meaningful physics learning develop? What do my students need to be engaged in for this to happen? In what ways are exemplary physics curricula / instructional practices organized to engage students in these ways?

Teaching Physics: What do I as a teachers need to know and to be able to do to effectively orchestrate exemplary instruction that supports students in meaningful learning? What practices and habits of mind should I consider high-leverage and generative for me in developing as a teacher?

I’ve tried lots of other ways of organizing it, but this is where I’m at now.

Next steps:  

(i) What specific learning outcomes do I think are most important?

(ii) What would count as evidence that students have learned those things?


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