Classroom Observations, Mentoring, and Co-Teaching Among Strategies to Train New Teachers

Steve Robinson
[Photograph by Michael J. Colella,]

Steve Robinson has been a biologist, a university professor, and a high school science teacher. And now he's helping to shape education policy as a special adviser to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, Arne Duncan. During a AAAS-organized conference for science and mathematics educators, Robinson emphasized the importance of teachers receiving feedback early in their careers.

"As much as possible, you want to ask to be observed and take the time to observe others," Robinson said. He spoke during the opening session of the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program Conference, organized by AAAS and funded by the National Science Foundation.

Robinson told the audience that during the three years he was a high school science teacher, those responsible for deciding tenure observed his classroom only six times. The lack of classroom observation could have stifled his growth as a teacher, too.

"I learned most about teaching by teaching and being observed. I think that's a really important model for teaching," Robinson said. Observation, reflection and working with a good mentor are other essential aspects to training good teachers.

About 400 faculty, students and professionals—all in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields attended the 1-3 July conference in Washington, D.C. The conference is part of a collaboration between AAAS and the National Science Foundation (NSF). AAAS and NSF began the collaboration earlier this year when AAAS organized and hosted workshops for potential grant submitters. The collaboration also entails AAAS organizing annual meetings for the Noyce program participants and maintaining the new Noyce program Web site.

The program taps an underutilized source of future science and mathematics teachers: undergraduate science, mathematics, and engineering majors, post-baccalaureate students, and other STEM professions already in these fields. Colleges and universities form partnerships with local school districts, allow the program's participants—known as Noyce Scholars or Fellows—to gain classroom experience even as they complete their education coursework. They receive scholarships and stipends, and in return, for each year of scholarship or stipend support, they fulfill a two-year teaching commitment in a high need school district.

From 2002 through 2008, the Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program has funded 135 projects in 36 states and the District of Columbia, said Joan Prival, the lead program director. Prival said that these projects are expected to produce about 4900 new science and mathematics teachers since the Noyce program began in 2002.

And in the past year, Prival said, the program has nearly doubled due to economic stimulus funds and increased appropriations from the federal government. "The expectation, of course, is that over the course of these grants, thousands of new teachers will be prepared to teach science and math in the schools where they are most needed," she said. Prival delivered introductory remarks at the 2 July opening session.

Robinson also spoke at the opening session, detailing his work as a teacher, professor, and policy adviser. Based on these experiences, Shirley Malcom—moderator for the session and head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS—asked him what he believes the big challenges are for education. Robinson stressed the shortage of qualified teachers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and how to balance common core standards that initially emphasize reading and mathematics with other subject areas. In reference to STEM fields, Robinson said "We don't want 'STEM' to become big 'M' with a little 'S' and no 'T' or 'E.'"

Robinson began his career as a biologist. He completed a doctorate, a postdoctoral fellowship and then he became a professor in the biology department at the University of Massachusetts Soon enough, he realized that academia wasn't his passion. "This wasn't my calling, I wanted to go back to the classroom," he said at the Noyce conference. He volunteered in classrooms for awhile, taught at a community college and then he taught high school science for nearly 10 years.

Then Robinson turned to education policy. He received an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program, which places mathematics and science teachers in various government agencies in Washington, D.C. Through the one-year fellowship, the Einstein Fellows gain experience with education policy. As an Einstein Fellow, Robinson was placed in the office of U.S. Senator Barack Obama, then in the first year of his term.

"When I went to work for Senator Obama, he sat me down in his office and asked what the biggest problem was in my classroom," Robinson said. For Robinson, the biggest problem was that he had a thousand-page biology text for high school sophomores but that most of his students could barely read. "And that's the material I'm expected to convey," he said. Robinson said that the teacher certification program that he went through did not adequately prepare him to deal with student literacy, which can affect a large proportion of students in the classroom.

Data presented later in the Noyce conference reinforced the idea that new teachers need support systems and feedback, and that this is a critical period in a teacher's career. Julie Luft, a science education professor at Arizona State University and a former middle and high school science teacher, presented data on supporting first- and second-year science teachers. Her study, funded by the National Science Foundation, explored the development of teachers' content knowledge, teaching practices, and beliefs about teaching during different types of professional development programs for new teachers, known as induction programs.

Luft studied four different induction programs, each program with approximately 30 first-year science teachers. Two forms of induction were light on science and the science process, such as a group of teachers mentored through an assigned mentor plus some basic how-to material about teaching and a group of teachers without a science teacher as a mentor. These groups of teachers tended to learn on the job as they taught their first year.

The other two induction programs examined in the study offered more robust science-specific mentoring experiences. One group of teachers participated in different electronic mentoring systems, such as eMSS—Electronic Mentoring for Student Success. Teachers in the electronic mentoring group had science teachers as mentors, sought out scientists to answer science questions, participated in an online community of new science teachers, and had access to curriculum focusing on teaching science. Teachers in another science-specific induction program had a science teacher mentor, worked with a university science educator, were observed each month by science educators, and participated in monthly sessions on teaching science.

Luft and her research team followed these first-year secondary school science teachers for the first three years of their teaching. The teachers were in Arizona, California, Minnesota, Nevada, and Wisconsin. Through four in-classroom observations and eight interviews with each of the teachers during each school year, the research team observed the instruction of the teachers, and asked the teachers about their teaching styles and how they were adapting their lesson plans.

Their results revealed that the "science-lite" induction programs yielded first-year teachers who tended to do more traditional forms of teaching science, such as lectures, library research projects, and class demonstrations.

But the teachers who participated in science-rich mentoring experiences had a different teaching style. These teachers focused more on having students explore science concepts through different types of inquiry activities. The teachers often had their students collect data and come up with explanations for the data. "The students are actually starting to experience the things that really drive science, such as the laboratories and the investigations," Luft said at the Noyce conference.

What role does the induction program play in shaping how new science teachers teach? Luft said that for the first and second year, teachers without strong science support cast a wide net for help. "They don't have good science support and as a result they are asking everyone for help," she said. In contrast, teachers participating in science-specific induction groups were more specific about asking for help, they asked specific people for specific things, and they find their assigned mentor more helpful. The induction programs "are helping them to know what to ask and where to look for help as they are teaching science," Luft said.

One of the general trends of the study showed how "the honeymoon was over" after the first year of teaching, Luft said. "After teachers make it through their first year, they face new duties during the second year," she said. Second year science teachers in the study found themselves with additional responsibilities, including positions as department heads, curriculum coordinators, mentors, coaches and other leadership roles.

Luft and her research team believe that their data reveal a need for support programs that include first and second-year teachers. "Unfortunately, the second year of teaching is not well-understood," Luft later said. "We need more research in this area as we consider how to design these programs for first and second year science teachers."

After her presentation at the Noyce conference, Luft shared some more insights on how to support new teachers. She said that it isn't realistic to expect new teachers to want to observe other teachers teach, because education programs already provide those experiences. Instead, new teachers want someone to co-teach with them, Luft said. "They loved it when I came in and observed their teaching, planned lessons with them, or helped teach a lesson," she said. "This helped their instruction immensely. More importantly, I brought an emphasis about how to teach science."