Monday, August 3, 2020

So You're a Brand New Chemistry Teacher... Give. Yourself. Grace.

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Chemistry Teaching! 

First, some background. Eighteen years ago, I started my teaching career as a biology teacher. As I moved from school to school, I became a general science teacher and then a chemistry teacher, and I have been teaching primarily chemistry since 2010. As I have been teaching the same course for over a decade, I have been lucky enough to be able to fine-tune my curriculum year-after-year to find ways to better present topics that students struggle with and create many new and engaging ways to teach difficult topics (or difficult students!).

As a new teacher to chemistry, it would be easy to see a classroom like mine (or that of any veteran teacher) and think -- "Yes, I am doing all that!" -- But please give yourself (and your students) a break. Any time you teach a brand new class, even if you are a veteran teacher, take a step back, and focus on the following goals for your first year. Then, if you teach the same course a second, third, or fifteenth year, you can adjust it little by little as you learn what works and doesn't work for you.*

*P.S. -- I'm trying to follow my own rules this year! I'm teaching Biology for the first time in about a decade, and as I look at the curriculum, and think about all the engaging, hands-on lessons I've developed for Chemistry, it's easy to think -- "I want my Biology class to look just like my Chemistry class."  I have to remind myself to start from the beginning and give myself grace.

First Year Chemistry Teacher Goals

Curriculum and Course Outline

This differs greatly from school to school and district to district, so I can't give you specific advice. However, it is important to immediately find out from your school what the expected curriculum is.  What standards are you supposed to cover? It is hard to fit any Chemistry curriculum into a one year course, so you may have to forgo some of your "favorite" topics or activities the first year just to get through the material. Some districts absolutely require you to finish the curriculum (if you have a state end of course test, for example) and some districts are more lenient on this. Find out what you need to cover and how long you have to cover it. Get out a school calendar and mark off holidays, and then divide the remaining time between the units that you have. Some schools will already have this done for you in a curriculum map, and some schools will have you start from scratch. As a first year teacher, it will be hard for you to know what topics will need what amount of time, so make your best guess, and if you need to adjust it next year, you can.

Potential Pitfall

If your school does not have an end of year test, or any real accountability for you to finish the curriculum, it is very tempting (I have been there!) to add in a lot of fun activities and projects and go very slowly through the actual curriculum (and not finish much of it at all). Please try to avoid doing this. If your students change schools mid-year, or decide to take higher level Chemistry classes in the future, it is really important that Chemistry on their transcript indicates their actual mastery of chemistry concepts.

Rule of thumb: With very few exceptions, students will learn the material with the same proficiency, no matter how much time you give them. My first few years teaching Chemistry I didn't plan out my units, and just taught each topic until I felt they were ready for a test. Rookie mistake! Some topics seemed to drag on and on.  I could spend 2 weeks on naming ionic and covalent compounds and some students would still fail the test. I always thought, "If I just spent longer on this topic, would they have done better?"

Now that I plan my units, my students know from the very first day of a unit when the test will be, and from the very first day of a new topic when the quiz will be. It is up to them to learn it in that amount of time. The same students who fail a quiz after 2-3 days of instruction on naming ionic and covalent compounds will still fail it after 2 weeks of instruction on the same topic. Of course, I am generalizing, but except for extenuating circumstances and learning disabilities, I have found this to be true. Students will wait to put in the effort to really learn something until they need to. If they know that you will keep giving them time to practice as long as they are struggling, they will continue to struggle!  If they know that you will move on after a set number of days, they will spend class time a lot more efficiently to figure it out.

So, use the calendar and set up your units for the entire year. This is an overwhelming task at first, so first just divide up your year into units (equal time per unit -- you can adjust this next year after you've seen how it goes). Then, try to outline one or two units to get started. For most topics, plan for about 1 day of instruction and 1 day of practice (and then at least 1 day at the end of a unit for review and perhaps 1 day for a lab or other hands-on activity). If you can, put in at least 1 "extra" day per unit -- a built in "snow day" - that you can use for extra instruction, or a "lazy" day for you (more on this later in this post).

Try to keep to this schedule throughout the year, even if you know students are struggling. If they are truly struggling, take out a planned activity or lab day and use it for more reinforcement, or change the way you present the material, but really try not to extend units, or you will not finish the curriculum.  Keep track throughout the year how this schedule works for you -- which topics went faster than expected, and which topics could have used more time -- and then you can adjust for year 2.


The absolute most important thing for a chemistry teacher is to Know. Your. Content. Whether you majored in chemistry in college or are stuck teaching a class you were never prepared for, take the time to look over the notes, book, and any other resources before each class and make sure you are comfortable with the content for that day. If you're not comfortable yet -- watch extra videos, ask questions in teacher Facebook groups (if you're not a member, join them!), and do whatever it takes to build up your confidence in that topic. Teaching chemistry to high schoolers is nothing like simply understanding chemistry yourself. It takes practice and experience to understand how they think and the misconceptions they will have that never occurred to you (a post on this coming soon!). Yes, students love fun activities and hands-on labs. But even more, they like being able to understand a topic. There is nothing worse than looking at a group of totally lost teenage faces, realizing they don't quite understand what you're saying, and having no idea how else to explain it to them. There is nothing better than seeing the spark in a student's eyes as they actually understand what they are learning. Sometimes you have to go home, re-think through the lesson, and try again the next day. Sometimes you just have to repeat what you were saying, but with a different example or different slideshow. But there is no point in taking the time to plan amazing activities if the students just don't get the content. So year 1, spend your time making sure you're comfortable with the content each day, and if you can come up with a few fun activities, then great!

Avoid Resource Hoarding

If you are about to teach a new class, the first thing most people do is go to other teachers (either in person or on social media) and ask "What resources can you give me?"  I've seen teachers fall into this trap so often. They panic about not having enough resources, and then they end up with thousands of random worksheets that they will literally never use, because they will never find exactly what they need on a specific day. The only time you should collect resources is when you need a specific type of resource for a specific topic. Do a Google search, go to Teachers Pay Teachers or other websites, look through the options, and then save (or buy) just one or two that you like and think will work for your classroom. Please avoid falling into the trap of saving 50 worksheets entitled "Gas Laws." It gives you a false sense of security that you are ready for a lesson. Search for specific resources when you need them, but try not to just take a teacher's entire Google drive that's been offered to you, especially if you get the offer from multiple teachers. You will never actually find the time to look through all of the resources from all of those different teachers.  Teachers do this, especially in the month right before school starts, because they feel more prepared for class. Instead, spend your time looking through the topics you need to cover the first few weeks of school, and search specifically for a few activities for those topics, and choose just the best one from each topic to save. 

Classroom Management

You cannot teach if you are not comfortable with the content, and you cannot teach if your students are not listening. I am by no means an expert on classroom management, and the methods you use will vary greatly depending on your school, students, and your own personality. My general advice is -- make connections with students, show them you care, but also challenge them and keep the rigor high. I have had students who really struggled with the content still enjoy the class, just because they knew that I cared and would do anything in my power to help them understand and succeed.

Give Yourself Grace

No one expects your first year (or your tenth year) to be flawless. We are humans, and teachers have to make hundreds of decisions, constantly, to help all levels of students each day. You will make mistakes. You will have lessons that are far from perfect. As long as you are focusing on content, curriculum, and classroom management, you will be fine.

Give yourself grace as you are finding your teaching style.  Every teacher has a different style of teaching that works best for them. If you have taught other subjects before, you are more likely to already know what works for you. If this is your first time teaching at all, it will take you some time to learn what works best for you. Give yourself time and grace to figure this out. Try a few different ways of presenting information and see what seems to connect the best with your students. Do you like to have a hands-on activity/discrepant event/POGIL activity first, then a short class discussion, and then teach the topic?  Do you prefer to record your lessons and allow students to watch them at home (flipped learning) and then do activities in class? Do you prefer to have students read and take notes/answer questions from the book first, and then listen to your lecture with some kind of idea of what you'll be talking about?

Give yourself grace in the midst of stress. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and behind, take a day for a "lazy" lesson. Find a fun activity, a related video, or just a review "sub-plan" type lesson, that will give you a little bit of a break, but not give the students a "wasted" day.

Give yourself grace with labs. I know that your vision (and possibly your admin's vision, and definitely your students' visions) of a chemistry class is 


But it is really hard to actually make lab a learning experience (post on this coming soon!). In addition, each lab takes an enormous amount of set up time from you, and during your first year, that's a lot to ask. It takes time to find the labs that will provide the best learning experiences for your students, and it takes experience for you to know the best way to present the labs. Often for brand new teachers, labs can be overwhelming, out of control, and void of actual learning. I would recommend that, depending on your circumstances, time, and lab supplies, choose one lab (or hands-on activity or demo) per unit to start with, and if throughout the year you want to try more, you can, but give yourself grace if you can't. 

Many labs in chemistry are quite dangerous and for a new teacher there can be overwhelming pressure to impress the students. Don't feel pressure to do something dangerous just because the kids want it! Stick to videos or demos until you are confident about safety! 

Give yourself grace with the content. My first year teaching AP Chemistry, I spent a lot of time teaching myself the content at the level at which I was supposed to teach. I had taught first year chemistry for a long time, but it had been many years since I had taken college chemistry, and AP Chemistry was (to put it lightly) very hard. I remember struggling with a lot of my lessons, but the worst was Buffers. My students were so confused and I ended up teaching a few things incorrectly. I went home and cried -- I felt like I was failing them. Then, through my tears, I baked brownies and watched more videos on the topic. I figured out a better way to introduce it, and went back the next day and asked my students for permission to re-teach the lesson. I apologized with homemade brownies, and taught it again. 
It showed my students that we are all human, we all make mistakes, and we can own up to them and come back from them. 
You don't have to bake for your class every time you make a small mistake, but it's definitely okay to tell them when you make a mistake, or when you don't know something and have to check on it. They will trust you more for your honesty.

The Takeaway

Take a deep breath, pull out your calendar and your curriculum, and start planning your year. Do not look at veteran teachers and aspire to be them this year, just aspire to be the most confident, prepared teacher that you can be this year

Happy Teaching!