Noyce Program Encourages Science and Math Teachers in Challenging Schools

Noyce scholars make a difference as science teachers despite the difficulties they face in high-needs schools.
Chaka Fattah | AAAS/Kat Zambon

Teachers have a unique opportunity to make a difference in their students' lives despite the challenging situations they may face in the classroom, Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., said at an annual conference for science educators. Hours later, several early-career teachers testified to the challenges they face in the classroom and described some coping strategies that they developed. 

"We know through evidence that some of the greatest science innovators in our world have had imperfect circumstances in order to develop their ability, but they always had teachers who cared and who were committed to their ability to develop their greatest potential," said Fattah. "The truth is that circumstances in the future may not be ideal in every instance, but there's a way if there's a will." 

Fattah spoke at the annual conference of the NSF Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which encourages talented science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students and professionals to pursue teaching careers by providing funding to higher education institutions for stipends, scholarships, and programmatic support. The Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program annual conference is co-hosted by NSF and AAAS.

Nearly 500 attendees representing more than 200 institutions registered for the 9th annual NSF Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program Conference, 18-20 June, in Washington D.C. At the "Voices from the Field" panel, Noyce scholars and fellows discussed their experiences as early-career science teachers. 

"I'm not going to lie. At this point, I am definitely burnt out," said Rachel Taylor from Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design in New York City. After hearing Taylor's voice, a student asked if she sang. "No, no, this is not soulful," she told him. "This is perpetual rasp from not sleeping."

From left, Karen Cheng, Albana Kume-Robertson, Tami May | AAAS/Kat Zambon

"I almost bailed, to be frank," said Tami May, a teacher at Semmes Middle School in Mobile, Alabama. "It was excruciating. I cried going home every day. I felt very self-judgmental."

For each year of support that Noyce program beneficiaries receive, they commit to teaching for two years in high-needs school districts, including districts with high rates of poverty, special needs students, and teacher attrition.

"The first challenge I had was gaining their trust," May said. "They had been passed over so many times and nobody believed in them and they didn't think I did either."

However, several of the teachers made connections with students by supporting the students' passions outside the classroom, including sports. Albana Kume-Robertson from Bay View Middle and High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, starts her week by looking into how her students performed in athletic competitions over the weekend.  

"I greet them at the door and say, 'hey, you did great on Saturday, on Friday,'" said Kume-Robertson. "Sometimes I go to the games, sometimes I don't. I must admit I don't like softball but I have to go sometimes."

Rachel Taylor (top), Shannon Muramoto | AAAS/Kat Zambon

Karen Cheng from the L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville, Tennessee found that learning about students' interests in casual conversations helped build stronger relationships. "Show them that you're really encouraged by seeing that they're passionate about something and that you're passionate about them being passionate about something," Cheng said. "Just attending and sponsoring those students is really important in building a good positive relationship with them."

By getting involved with one of her students' passions, Shannon Muramoto helped him succeed in the classroom. As an advisor for a video game club while teaching math at El Modena High School in Orange, California, one of Muramoto's students started performing poorly in school so she told him that he needed to improve his grades or he would lose his place on the team. 

"At the end of the year, he was bringing up his grades and he said, if it wasn't for this club, I would not be passing my classes," Muramoto said. "I was like, it's cool, this is working! The club stuff is working."

Taylor encouraged new teachers to remember the reasons why they chose their careers. "So just as long as you enjoy what you're doing and you actually are having fun and you realize that you're not there for the administration, you're not there for the numbers, you're not there for the data," she said. "You're there because you want to teach kids and your job is to be a science teacher, not just a number machine."