If you’re wondering why I’ve been writing lately about teachers who are newer to the profession, the answer is simple. It’s because they represent our hope for the future, particularly in STEM education, for which there are many fewer teachers than available positions. As I write this, I know of several STEM positions just waiting to be filled, but there’s a dearth of candidates available to fill them.
Just taking a look at the statistics that describe the current state of STEM in the US should give you cause for concern about our prospects. Take these, for example, published on the National Math and Science Initiative website:
• The prestigious World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. as No. 48 in quality of math and science education.
• The U.S. may be short as many as 3 million high-skilled workers by 2018. Two-thirds of those jobs will require at least some post-secondary education. (Can we really afford to waste any of the abundant talent that is out there?)
• In 2008, 4 percent of U.S. bachelor’s degrees were awarded in engineering, compared with 31 percent in China.
• In 2008, 31 percent of U.S. bachelor’s degrees were awarded in science and engineering fields, compared with 61 percent in Japan and 51 percent in China.
• In 2009, U.S. scientists fielded nearly 29 percent of research papers in the most influential journals, compared with 40 percent in 1981. The STEM crisis is causing a reduction in research, which restricts growth.
• By 2009, for the first time, over half of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies because STEM shortcomings are forcing a hold on innovation.
But there are other, perhaps even more alarming, statistics to consider. A 2014 Huffington Post article states that “A new report, published by the Alliance for Excellent Education in collaboration with the New Teacher Center (NTC), a non-profit that helps schools and policymakers develop training for new educators, found that about 13 percent of the nation’s 3.4 million teachers move schools or leave the profession every year, costing states up to $2 billion. Researchers estimate that over 1 million teachers move in and out of schools annually, and between 40 and 50 percent quit within five years.”
Further, “A Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) report found that schools serving low-income, minority students turn over half of their staffs every three years, deepening the divide between poor and wealthy students to the most experienced teachers.”
The situation is even more desperate in STEM fields. The National Center for Policy Analysis, citing a survey compiled by the U. S. Department of Education, reported that “forty-five of the fifty states and all six territories will post teacher shortages in STEM areas for the 2014 — 2015 school year.”
These statistics make teachers, like the one I’m about to introduce you to, all the more precious to our future.
Her name is Chanel Simpson. She is a 5th grade science and math teacher at Drake Elementary School in Chicago who left a career in health care administration to become an elementary school teacher, a job she loves. After briefly teaching at Mayo Elementary, one of 49 schools that CPS closed in 2013 because of underutilization, she secured a position teaching at Drake Elementary, only 2 miles from Mayo.
Chanel Simpson inspires me, and perhaps her words will help inspire other young teachers like her to stay the course and serve where they are most needed.
What has been your biggest challenge?
“My biggest challenge is having books, materials, space, and student understanding/knowledge of science. When science is taught students are not engaged until it is lab time. Students did not want to read, nor research for understanding. As well as not having books, pictures, materials, etc. to expand on their understanding of concept. Today, I continue to struggle with student desire to read informational text regarding science concepts and expanding their knowledge of science.”
What has been your biggest triumph?
“My biggest triumph is when I can see the light go on in a student’s head. I continue to push and push for students to engage and seek deeper understanding of science. I like for my students to “think outside of the box” and continue to think. Over the past few years, I’ve continued to seek resources that help me grow as a teacher and help my students grow. Professional development and the STEM Institute allowed me to develop more confidence and the willingness to continue to explore science.”
How have you grown as a teacher over these past three years?
“I have totally grown as a teacher over the past three years. First, I must say attending the STEM Institute for their summer professional development was the greatest opportunity. I learned so much and I met so many other teachers who were just like me. I have continued to seek other professional development in science and continue to use whatever resources I can find to expand my knowledge and my students’ knowledge.”
What advice do you have for other young teachers of science?
“My advice is to continue to attend professional development, find other science teachers to network with, use the Internet to expand your learning and resources, and just have fun learning with your students.”
On my last visit to Chanel’s classroom, she told her students, “In the next investigation, I’m going to put all the materials on the table, and you’re going to have to figure it out for yourselves. I need you to challenge yourselves.” I couldn’t help but think, “just like Chanel continues to challenge herself to continuously improve as a teacher.”
We must do everything in our power to support teachers like Chanel Simpson and keep them in our classrooms, particularly those classrooms serving students in groups that are underrepresented in the STEM professions: Black and Latino students, students from high poverty backgrounds, and female students. Can we really afford to squander that potential?
In fact, one of the ways the National Center for Policy Analysis suggests we remedy the shortage of STEM teachers like Chanel, to attract and keep them, is to “encourage innovation in the classroom. There are many new technologies and programs out there that engage students in hands-on learning in STEM fields. Yet many teachers are hemmed in by budgetary restrictions and state-dictated lesson plans. In order to retain good teachers, we should provide them with the resources and freedom to integrate new ideas into their instruction. That way, we can intellectually stimulate teacher and student alike, while hopefully preventing teacher burnout.” – See more here.
And perhaps we have a window of opportunity to do just that. As you’re probably aware, science has not been one of the tested subjects in the era of NCLB. That has had a terrible downside in the fact that science is marginalized in many schools, most particularly in the weeks prior to all that testing that will focus on reading and math. But there’s also been an upside to not testing science. It resides in the leeway innovative teachers have to teach to their students and to the subject itself rather than to teach to the test. This has allowed teachers like Chanel Simpson to have a certain degree of freedom to integrate new ideas into their instruction. It’s allowed them to fly! Now, it’s up to the rest of us to be the wind beneath their wings.
To learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute, go here.