The Nucleus of Teaching Chemistry as a First-Year Teacher — on Zoom
Ruth Park talks lessons learned after a unique inaugural year in the classroom
First year teaching is always hard. But what about first year teaching online in the middle of the pandemic?
“It was really hard,” says Ruth Park, Ed.M. ’20, with a smile — the kind teachers usually only give in June, as the last day of school approaches. “The year was definitely a learning experience …. I learned a lot about teaching, a lot about myself, and a lot about my school and education as well.”
Park, a 10th-grade chemistry teacher at Boston Collegiate High School in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, is wrapping up another first this June: Her first year as a teacher fellow through the Knowles Teacher Initiative, a nonprofit organization that recruits, prepares, and connects early-career STEM teachers around the country.
What did she learn from this unique first year, and from working with other Knowles fellows? For starters, many of the challenges Park faced this year are familiar within the world of first year teaching: forming relationships with students, adapting to a new curriculum, collaborating with other teachers, designing accessible and engaging lessons. The difference for Park was that these challenges unfolded in the disembodied world of Zoom, making them even harder to solve.
Take relationship-building, for example. Now that she teaches some students in person, Park has informal, one-on-one conversations with her students as they walk in. She relies on these conversations, combined with the ability to read her students’ facial and body expressions, to build supportive relationships. In the fall, when classes were completely remote, these relationship-building strategies were unavailable. To spark her students’ personalities, Park had to resort to non-academic interventions, like asking playful warm-up questions such as, "What’s your favorite meme?" and sending students birthday cards in the mail. “They were small things, but hopefully those baby steps let my students know I cared about them,” she reflects.
Another ongoing challenge Park faced this year? Trying to incorporate lab work into her remote and hybrid classes. Park loves facilitating hands-on science experiments with students. (That’s one of the reasons why she became a chemistry teacher, she says.) And labs are integral to her 10th-grade chemistry curriculum, as they allow students to see the “real world” effects of the science they are learning on paper. However, with school completely online in the fall — something not all STEM teachers grappled with — Park was forced to replace labs with alternatives that were significantly less engaging: virtual simulations and videos. Now, with a portion of her students attending in-person, Park can facilitate hands-on lab work for those students she sees every day. But her remote students, those who “zoom in” for class, are left to recreate the experiments on their own, or to just watch. “It’s been rough thinking about how to keep labs hands on, engaging, and student focused, while also keeping them accessible to everyone,” says Park.
Despite the challenges, the pandemic has brought a few silver linings to Park’s first year teaching. One has been her membership in a small “inquiry group” with three other chemistry teachers from her Knowles cohort. Although the Knowles Initiative traditionally revolves around a few in-person meetings throughout the school year, the switch to remote meant the Initiative could organize more frequent meetings for its fellows, who work and live around the country. Park’s group met monthly over Zoom to check-in on each other’s professional and personal well-being. “I like that the meetings have been consistent, and we’ve been able to share resources and catch up fairly frequently,” she says.
Another silver lining in Park’s year, one she did not expect, was the realization that having a classroom full of chatty students is actually a wonderful thing. “During student teaching as an undergraduate, I would feel physically tired after a day with kids and I wouldn’t want to go,” she explains. “Now that I’ve had the experience of teaching at home versus being in the building, it makes me a lot more thankful to be able to come to the building and see the students. Even just the side chatter or the classroom management stuff that I would dread having to face, now it’s music to my ears that they are talking to each other, compared to how hard discussion is on Zoom.”