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Noyce Scholars Share Creative Strategies To Reach Students in At-Risk Schools

Earning students’ trust was the major challenge Emily Koehler faced as she began her first year teaching science at De Smet High School in rural South Dakota.

At De Smet, a school that qualifies as at-risk based on teacher attrition rates, new teachers frequently start their careers and then quickly leave for other opportunities. “If you’re a new person, they kind of shun you, because they’re like, oh, you’re just probably going to leave anyway,” Koehler said.

Coaching volleyball and cheerleading helped Koehler earn her students’ trust. “I got to know my students in a way I never would have gotten to know them in the classroom,” she said. When you coach, Koehler said, “you are the connection to their outside interests.”

Emily Koehler

Koehler’s experiences were not unusual, as she found during “Voices from the Field,” a panel at the 7th annual National Science Foundation Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program Conference. AAAS’s Education and Human Resources Programs, which has collaborated on the program for the past five years, helped to organize 23-25 May meeting in Washington, D.C.

The Noyce Program responds to the critical need for K-12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educators by encouraging STEM students and professionals to pursue teaching careers in elementary and secondary schools. Institutions of higher education receive funding through the Noyce program to support scholarships, stipends, and programming for the new educators. In return, scholarship and stipend recipients are required to teach in high-need school districts. High-need districts include those with a high rate of individuals from families with incomes below the poverty line, a high rate of secondary teachers not teaching the content that they were trained to teach, or high teacher turnover.

“The programs offered at the NSF Noyce institutions not only prepare future teachers with strong STEM content and teaching skills, but they also focus on classroom management strategies, professional development activities, and provide ongoing mentoring and coaching during the critical first years of teaching,” said Yolanda George, deputy director of AAAS’s education programs. “This preparation and support is intended to ease the transition into teaching and aid retention of teachers during and beyond the mandatory teaching service requirement.”

Koehler and other new teachers supported by the Noyce program spoke at the conference about the techniques they developed to break down barriers between themselves and students. Mindy Chappell taught at Jane Addams High School in Chicago, where 60% of students are Hispanic and 40% are African American. She spent two weeks on team-building in the beginning of the year, which gave students the opportunity to learn what they had in common. “It really works to create that relationship,” she said. “We work and we grow together.”

Mindy Chappell

Chappell also found that bringing in bus passes for her students gave them learning experiences that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, such as the chance to check materials out of the library. Additionally, she makes herself available on Skype for tutoring, she said. “Being there for them in different capacities allowed me to create opportunities for optimal development for them.”

At Community Academy of Science and Health in Boston, Massachusetts, Abner Zorrilla developed trust with his students by working with them to develop the rules of behavior for the classroom. Of the five rules for his classroom, Abner contributed three while his students came up with two “so they have part of the culture of creating that positive environment in the classroom,” he said.

Abner Zorrilla

Zorrilla also works to make himself available to students when they have time to reach him. “Students have my number. They can call me anytime. I come in earlier. They go to work after school so I usually come in around 7:00 in the morning and meet with them earlier,” he said. “So I make myself available all the time and always so the students can come see me.”

As a teacher at her alma mater, Jessie Campbell found that it was difficult to motivate students at Luella High School in Locust Grove, Georgia. “A lot of my students are really, really motivated,” she said. “They’re just not motivated about school.”

When possible, Campbell made her lessons relate to subjects that interested her students. For example, a fellow teacher mentioned that basketball is life for one of Campbell’s students. “I immediately thought, well, I can relate to that,” she said. “I played basketball in high school. And so, knowing that, I would adjust my problems on distance and displacement, not to someone walking through the woods but someone running on the basketball court.

“Just finding that way to relate to their personal interests so they can target that motivation towards academics is really helpful.”

However, Campbell quickly learned that her students were behind on algebra, making it difficult to teach them physics. She spoke with her principal, who gave her permission to alter her lesson plan accordingly. “While I didn’t get to cover everything, I was able to spend three to four weeks teaching algebra,” she said.

Jessie Campbell

Koehler also found herself pressed for time. “I had these great ideas for these wonderful, engaging, hands-on lessons and [realizing that] I’m not going to be able to do it every day and every class, it was hard because I’m a perfectionist,” she said. “I like to do everything perfectly but if I would have done that, I wouldn’t have slept for my whole first year.”

Zorrilla found that the lesson plans he had been taught did not work in his classroom. “I was told they would and they didn’t,” he said. “But I learned quickly to adjust. It’s one of the things you learn as a teacher. You have to adjust, and you might have to change your ways or even the way that you think. You have to change for your students so they can learn.”

Chappell also said that learning to be flexible was important as a first-year teacher, explaining that she learned to change a lesson plan for second period if it didn’t work out during first period. “They will not always go the way you planned and that’s okay.”

“Don’t be afraid to not be liked,” Campbell said. “You definitely have to start off more strict, and I, with a couple of my classes, had to stay that way throughout the entire year.” While Campbell received some negative feedback from students for being strict, “I was okay with that because I was able to control” a situation like 32 children throwing tennis balls across a classroom during a lab.

Campbell also found that she could discipline students and relate to them at the same time. When a student walked into her class wearing headphones, she reminded him that headphones are not allowed to be worn in class and asked him what music he had been playing. “With that student, I actually found out that he was listening to his own music that he records,” she said, “and so that ends it on a more positive note and you get to know something about the student.”

Ginnie Chu

Ginnie Chu, a teacher at Piner High School and Grace High School in Santa Rosa, California, encouraged the new teachers to talk to more experienced teachers. “Don’t reinvent the wheel. Your colleagues are incredible resources,” she said. “We are all connected and these teachers are treasure troves of information.” Chu said that hearing from her colleagues about their grading philosophies led her to adjust her own grading.

Campbell found that it was helpful to ask for her students to evaluate her performance and suggested that new teachers to consider taking student surveys. “The students will be really, really honest with you,” she said. “You’ll learn a lot and you’ll get a lot of constructive criticism back , but you’re also going to get a lot of comments that really surprise you and remind you why you’re in the profession.”

“Value your students’ input,” Chappell agreed. “If you ask them, ‘How do you learn? What do you need from this class?’, a lot of them will give you input that will really help you improve your lessons.”

Despite the challenges, the new teachers remain enthusiastic about their careers. “You know, we all have our ups and downs, but at the end of the day, I wouldn’t do anything else,” Chappell said.

On her last day of teaching for the school year, Campbell said that a 6’3″, 300-lb. football player who had misbehaved for most of the year, gave her “a hug so hard that he picks you up off the ground.”

“Moments like that,” she said, “are good to kind of tuck away for those tough days in the middle of the year to read and remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing.”


View the complete program for the 2012 Noyce Conference.

Learn more about the NSF Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program.