Sydney, Ph.D., Science Teacher, UT
Sydney has a Ph.D. in biology and teaches a variety of middle and high school science classes at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE). RE-ENVISIONED visited SLCSE as part of our School Spotlight #schoolstour, which aims to understand school communities in more depth. We loved every moment at SLCSE. You can find more posts from SLCSE by searching #slcse on the "A New Conversation" page.
The Salt Lake City Center for Science Education (SLCSE) is a unique lab school serving a diverse 6-12th grade student population in Salt Lake City. From their website: "At SLCSE, we develop the character and skills necessary to "Change Reality." We are courageous and persistent problem-solvers. We take healthy risks. We make mistakes and learn from our mistakes. We care about the quality of our work. We use professional language and kindness to develop learning communities. We take care of our abundant resources and use them to serve our school community and beyond. We use our curiosity, imagination and adaptability to direct ourselves in our quest; as learners, critical thinkers and ethical world citizens." You can find out more at http://slcse.weebly.com/ .
Tell me about a child you care about.
This is really tough for me to think of just one. Just about every kid I’ve had a connection with are more sophisticated than you give them credit for. They’re curious, thinking ahead in a way that you don’t expect from high school students. They’re also very metacognitive—when you really push them to verbalize what they’re thinking, it’s clear they understand their strengths and weaknesses and processing skills. It’s weird in a way we think of them as kids because they’re incredibly mature on many levels.
I have one I’m thinking about now though. She’s an 11th grader and she said she wanted to experience working in a lab so she could be a heart surgeon so I helped her get a job in the lab and would drive her up on Fridays and back sometimes. She worked in the lab through the summer and is applying to colleges.
When you think about her grown up, what do you want for her, what’s a good life?
The most important things are to have a sense of self-confidence. I don’t think being a doctor would make her successful – I feel like as long as she’s confident and empowered in what she’s doing it’s successful. It’s also to feel like she has the skills to deal with problems, whether it’s a little problem – like, my cable went out and I’m not sure what to do right now, or a big problem like, “I didn’t get that scholarship” or, “I don’t have a car but need a way to work”. Problem solving skills would be the second biggest part of a good life.
What would the ideal role of school be in getting her to that life?
Kids need content knowledge and a lot of schools shy away from that and you do need that. But if you can present the content in a way that students can practice those problem-solving skills then that’s the real success. Tricking them into the content knowledge because they have to have it so that they can solve the problem.
Do you think this school has it done that for her? For all children in the school?
Here, yes. At least in the science classes I see her in. It’s hard to use the word “all” for any school. But I do believe every teacher tries to do that for all students. I wouldn’t say that it happens in every single class, but I think we do a good job overall.
Do you think schools broadly are doing that for students in the U.S.?
It’s tough to say. The knowledge I have on it is biased and limited, but I would say from what I know, no. Schools seem to be based on getting them to understand content and the few times you get outside of the classroom its not even connected to the class. It’s like content, content, content. Then, the outside experience – maybe a field trip or lab - isn’t connected to the things you do inside schools. But that’s often where deeper learning happens. It would be ideal if those are seamless.
Why do you think it’s not happening in all schools?
It’s hard. You need a lot of planning, you need a lot of support, and you need role models. I had no experience before this but the fact that every teacher I see in this building strives to do create that kind of learning experience – that no matter where I go that’s the example set for me, it helps me a lot. I don’t think that’s the case in every school. And even with that, I still struggle with the planning. The infrastructure just isn’t there for us.
Also, based on the other teachers I know in other schools, they aren’t given the freedom to try things and fail. Some of my better lessons come from a crappy one before. Principals and admin think they know best, and try to tell teachers what order it should be taught in, and what experiences are acceptable or not acceptable - they don’t let teachers experiment and see works and what doesn’t.
Taking a step back and thinking philosophically, why do you think we have schools as a society?
I would say standardization. It’s clear that every adult needs to have a certain set of skills to be functional: addition, subtraction, or reading. So it probably started so everyone could read or do basic a math and now it provides support so that kids have the meals they should have. I don’t know where it’s gone from there. Standardization is what I would say.
I think as a society people don’t really think about it that much.
When most people think about schools and they send their kids to school I think they think about content skills - they want their students to have a base set of content knowledge. I don’t know if they see it as a place to learn problem solving or perseverance. A “successful” student is one who can pass a standardized test and recreate a food chain or something. That’s not necessarily what I see. You do need to have a base set of skills, but the school is a unique place where you can interact with a huge range of people, have opportunity to practice perseverance and problem solving.
I think I differ from what most people think of it as. It doesn’t mean I want my kids leaving school not knowing how to do long-division, but I also want them to have these other skills.
I don’t know if I know how to do long-division anymore!
What’s a learning experience that has been empowering for you?
My entire PhD. I think it’s not until you get through that gauntlet where there’s no right answer. Even in college, there’s a right answer for everything. The professor has taught you there’s a right answer— and you know this is what I have to do to be successful here. It’s not until your PhD when you realize it’s all in your hands and that its up to you to find the right experience. It was a total independent learning experience.
Once you’re done with it, you have so much ownership over it. In HS or college, it’s not until you realize that you drove that entire process and took ownership over the information that came out of it that you feel really empowered.
How does that influence your teaching?
I still have that feeling. This idea that I’m in charge of my own learning makes me stop a few times every week and ask them to take control of their own learning. For instance, these biomes we’ve created. I have a prescribed set of things they should measure…they’ll often ask me if they can measure other things and I’m like, “sure”. Today one group found that their snail laid eggs somewhere and they got excited and so they all wrote down and had a discussion to take care of them. They were like, “well, it looks like the snail laid the eggs above water.” And I said I didn’t know, we should Google it. So we checked out the information together and now that’s their new thing they want to watch. There are three that have snail eggs and now there’s something else to watch they’re excited about. It’s not part of my prescribed plan, and they want to watch and question it. I never see those as distractions anymore.
Anything that we should have asked that we didn’t?
The one thing that’s been on my mind a lot lately is where do we get our teachers from? Who makes a good instructor? A lot of days I don’t feel that’s me – we all have our good and bad days. I don’t always feel like I am, but I have to have the self confidence that I got hired in a school I think does a good job.
I know a lot of people in my life who would make phenomenal teachers but they were trained as researchers or lawyers and we don’t have good ways of assessing their talent and getting them into the classroom and of supporting them there. I’ve spent the last few years getting my license – it sounds like it should be easy but it’s not. I’ve spent hours of classes that I haven’t gotten much useful information from….we have this defined route for teachers but I don’t think it’s giving us the best educators. And, when you do find them how do you keep them from burning out and caught up on the latest things? I feel like we don’t think about this a lot. People think about everything else about teachers - how do we hold them accountable, etc. But how do we identify the good teachers that haven’t chosen to go into teaching right away, or if we find them, how do we keep them there, isn’t something I hear a lot about.
Could you tell us a little about you and your teaching journey?
This is the beginning of my third year! I’ve only ever taught here. I was actually a graduate student in biology: I finished with a PhD in the spring of 2014. As a graduate student, you have the opportunity to TA and I got a grant to do teaching in GK-12 instead. This was what I would consider one of the best or most successful collaborations that a government agency has put together.
Have you told them that?
You have to tell them!
They problem is they give you surveys and they ask if you feel like a better collaborator or teacher and everyone said yes, but then they’d ask if you consider yourself a better researcher and I was like, “hmm, well I didn’t get worse, but I don’t know if I’m better.” And they canceled the program because that’s what they wanted.
I did that for two years. I spent 10-15 hours a week in the classroom and learning about pedagogy and lesson-planning. I knew I wanted to get into teaching and didn’t know how to get a licensure because there are no great routes if you don’t decide right after undergrad. The principal here called me up and asked if I wanted to start here – in two weeks! He said “don’t worry, we’ll support you.” So I got thrown in and given a group of kids and that’s how I got here. I haven’t had experience at other schools, all of my teaching has been here. I teach 8th grade science, biotechnology – which is a concurrent class with the community college, advanced science research, a science fair class that brings high schoolers through developing an individual project for science fair, and a brand new class called science academy, which is an elective for 10th graders.
What do you love most about teaching?
I like sharing what I know. I am super excited about a lot of things I consider myself kind of nerdy. One of my very favorite things is to learn new stuff. I like where I have a place to share that. They may only absorb 15% of it but I like them to feel empowered, make observations, gain knowledge.
What is most challenging?
There’s so much of it! I would say just being ready for all of it and having enough time to prepare.
Some of these experiences happen organically, but it’s hard in a room of 35 kids to get even 20 of them to have these ah-ha moments without it being planned, without really thinking about how one day feeds into the next day and one unit feeds into the next unit.
You don’t always have time for that. You’re just managing a classroom. Tonight I have to plan for four classes tomorrow! Then there’s grading, and committees…so finding the time to construct a long-term learning experience is really hard. There are a lot of hard things, but I think that’s the hardest.