Marrielle Myers, a math teacher at Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School in Raleigh, North Carolina, always wanted to be a teacher. “I’m one of those people that taught my baby dolls,” she says. “I would give them assignments and then I would do them and then I would grade them.”
“As a student, my one and only D in my career was in 8th grade math and now I teach it,” says Michelle Pound, a math teacher at Roosevelt Middle School in New Bedford, Massachusetts. “So I felt like because I struggled, I’m better at relating to what these kids are going through.”
Paul Blazi, a math teacher at Memorial Middle School in San Diego, was stuck in a dead-end job when he was inspired to become a teacher. “I saw the movie ‘Stand and Deliver’ and I went and registered at college the next day,” he said. “I just saw that movie and it fired me up.”
At the 2011 meeting of the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, a panel of first-year math teachers and former Noyce scholars explained that they all had different reasons for becoming teachers—but all confronted similar challenges in the classroom over the last year. The meeting, co-hosted by the AAAS Education and Human Resources Program and NSF Department of Undergraduate Education, was held 6-8 July in Washington, D.C.
Those challenges, including the threat of layoffs due to tight budgets, suggest some of the obstacles to reaching President Barack Obama’s goal of training 100,000 science and math teachers over the next decade. That goal “is one in which the Noyce program plays a critical, national role,” said Joan Ferrini-Mundy, assistant director of NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources. “High-quality teaching is central to so many of our nation’s challenges right now.”
The Noyce program, funded by NSF, seeks to improve K-12 education by focusing on improving teacher quality. Specifically, the program encourages talented undergraduate math and science majors to become K-12 math and science teachers. The Noyce Scholarship Track provides funding to universities and colleges so they can offer stipends, scholarships, and programs to undergraduate and post-baccalaureate science and math students who commit to teaching in high-needs schools.
First authorized under the National Science Foundation Authorization Act of 2002, the Noyce program was developed “in response to a critical need for exemplary science and mathematics teachers in general, but a desperate need for such outstanding teachers in high-needs schools,” said Katherine Denniston, acting director of the NSF Division of Undergraduate Education. The program was subsequently reauthorized in 2007 as part of the America COMPETES Act and again in 2010 with the America COMPETES Act reauthorization.
Before starting at NSF, Denniston worked on the Noyce project at Towson University in Maryland. “We had one student I remember who had been an electrician and she was disabled,” Denniston said. “She was injured in an accident and was no longer able to practice as an electrician. But she had a dream to become a teacher of science and math. Unfortunately, with the absence of her income, her family was not able to support her in that dream. But as a result of our Noyce fellowship, she was able to pick up her dream, become a teacher, at no expense to her family.”
Speakers at the event talked about the need for highly skilled teachers and offered praise and encouragement for those in attendance.
“Never before in my adult life—I would argue in history—have we needed first-rate science education more than we do now,” said Alan I. Leshner, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of Science. “Every major issue in modern life has a science and technology component to it, whether it’s the cause of the problem or the cure of the problem.
“So I don’t want you to feel any pressure going into this, but you are probably among the most important people in society and we are very, very grateful for your commitment to this effort, for your commitment to public service.”
Philip Uri Treisman
But it’s inherently difficult to become a good teacher, said Philip Uri Treisman, a professor of math and public affairs at University of Texas-Austin. When people with high amounts of social capital receive intensive teacher training through programs such as Teach for America, their students only learn a little more than students learn from the average teacher, Treisman explained.
“Teaching is extremely hard. You will have crappy days,” he said. “[But] even on a crappy day, you can do something wonderful for students.”
S. James Gates Jr.
S. James Gates Jr., a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and co-chair of the group that wrote “Prepare and Inspire,” the report calling for 100,000 new science and math teachers, compared the young teachers to the Americans who stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in 1944.
The soldiers “were in many ways very much like you,” said Gates, a physics professor at the University of Maryland-College Park. “They were young, they were uncertain about the future. I’m sure some of you have uncertainty. We live in a time where teachers are being cut because of economic stress in our society. And yet, there’s a big battle out there.”
Economic stress led to layoffs in the school where Blazi taught. “The fact is that the school I taught at, there are 23 teachers there this year and 16 of us got laid off or are supposed to be laid off,” Blazi said. “And who gets the lay-off notices? The first-year teachers.”
“There’s high teacher turnover at my school, too, and I’ve actually had some students say: ‘Are you going to be here next year?’” Pound said. When she told students that she was planning to return next year, the students told her that they usually have a new teacher every year. “It kills me to hear them say that because sometimes it’s not the teacher’s choice,” she said.
“They see that turnover and they build up a defense,” Blazi said. “You get extra bad behavior at the beginning because they try to push you away.”
Students’ behavior was the biggest surprise for Pound when she began teaching. “Some of the things my students say to me, I would have been expelled if I had said that during school,” she said.
However, Courtney Greene had a different response when she met her students. When she started teaching at Rome Transitional Academy in Georgia, “I thought I would have to go through battle armor or something” to work in her school, Greene said. “They’re not really bad. They’re really good kids who just made some really bad mistakes.”
With students frequently missing class, Myers struggled to challenge the students in her class while allowing others to keep up. She also changed her expectations regarding homework. “By the end of the year, I kind of came to the point where I said, I can’t expect the kids to do this much homework,” she said. “They’re not going to do it. A lot of them don’t have time to do it. And when it comes down to decisions about, am I going to do homework or am I going to do my sister’s hair and cook dinner and then go to my part-time job or play basketball because I want to go to the NBA, my homework is really low on the totem pole.”
Keeping students motivated was often a challenge for the first-year teachers. Pound tried to feign enthusiasm for her students’ sake. “I think, even if you’re not excited about something, faking that you’re excited about it really helps,” she said. “You know, ‘This is so cool! Pythagorean theorem, it works every time!’”
Using technology in the classroom also helped keep students interested. When James Knuuttila, a teacher at Fall River Schools in Massachusetts, asked his students when they first got their cell phones, one student said he got one when he was 5 years old. “These students are growing up with more technological knowledge than we will ever have,” Knuuttila said. “I try to match them with what they know and sort of challenge them.”
Greene motivated her students by talking about technology in class. “One of my lessons was on cell phones because my kids like to text constantly. So we did a cell phone math application where you had to look at a cell phone plan” and use equations to determine the best plan, she explained.
Knuuttila was grateful to the other teachers in his school for their advice throughout the year. “In my school we had a group of colleagues who would go out of their way for each other,” he said. “It was very fortunate. If I was dead stuck on, ‘how do I teach this lesson’,” other teachers would offer suggestions, Knuuttila said. Blazi said that the worst part about having to teach at a different school would be saying goodbye to his colleagues. “It just turned into kind of a family,” he said.
Pound hopes she remembers to support first-year teachers. “Even next year, I feel like, as a second-year teacher, I feel like I can help the first-year teacher,” she said. “Being a mentor to first-year teachers can be huge.”
Despite the challenges they faced, the first-year teachers are confident that they are in the right field. “I am 100% convinced I am where I am supposed to be,” Myers said. “I’m excited to go. I love my kids. I think about them all the time. I can’t imagine not being there.”
Blazi agreed. “You’re given this natural ability to work with numbers and you love children,” he said. “What else are you going to do?”
Learn more about the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship program.
Learn more about AAAS Education and Human Resources.