Quality teaching practices: portraits of award-winning secondary school chemistry teachers
Lantos, Stephen D.
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Quality Teaching (QT) is a sought-after professional goal for educators and schools alike. It is easy to observe, harder to define, and hardest to understand how to achieve. This study attempted to identify QT amongst a select group (N = 6) of Boston-area award-winning high school chemistry teachers. Participants were selected based on having received at least two American Chemical Society-sponsored awards within the past ten years. Data were collected through survey, personal interview, classroom observations, post-observation debriefs, anecdotal information provided by teacher colleagues, supervisors, and past students, student success on externally administered chemistry examinations, and a capstone focus group interview with the teacher- participants. These data were then coded and cohered with two measures of exemplary teaching: The Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education Educator Evaluation Rubric and the American Chemical Society Guidelines for Middle- and-High School Chemistry Teaching. Definitions for QT in general and high school chemistry teaching in particular are detailed from references in the Literature Review. Surveys and interviews were conducted via email and Zoom chats, and vii observations during COVID were conducted also by online Face-timing. Colleague, administrator, and past student anecdotes were obtained through these award-winning teachers’ award nomination letters that I had access to in my role as a member of the Northeastern Section American Chemical Society’s (NESACS) High School Awards Committee and as Chairperson for the HS Education Committee. I also had access to student results on externally administered local and national chemistry exams in my role as co-administer of the Ashdown Exam and Section Coordinator for the US National Chemistry Olympiad (USNCO). The findings of this study showed that these award-winning teachers (AWTs) took varied pathways and educational backgrounds to arrive at their profession. Participants all agreed that there is no one best way to teach, but many right ways to get to award- winning teaching. These teachers all possessed “It,” that elusive, mystical, some say innate, art of teaching born of passion, charisma, and love of working with children alongside a continual drive to improve pedagogical practices. This study identified that drive as “relentless expectations,” both for themselves as constant lifelong learners and their students for whom they set high standards. Though recognized by these awards, all of these teachers expressed humility and claimed that other colleagues were equally qualified to be award-winners. Colleagues shared that this study’s participants were “teachers’ teachers” and selfless collaborators. Supervisors related that these great teachers made great schools, and past students exclaimed that these teachers transformed students’ lives and career pathways. The data suggest that award-winning status as a secondary high school chemistry teacher must incorporate a variety of factors, including a love of science learning, a mastery of the study of chemistry with an on-going interest to forward this learning, a passion for teaching and seeing teenagers succeed in learning chemistry, the ability to create a classroom of caring and trust to allow students to take academic risks, self- motivation to collaborate with colleagues through meeting, programing, and publication, self-confidence with a strong voice, and empathy. This study identified two overlooked factors that maintain award-winning teachers: relationships and reflection (the “R & R” of AWT). Other factors that contribute to AWT include supportive school and community with resources available to both teacher and student, freedom and professional trust to be able to innovate and create curriculum, and teachers’ creation and participation in collaborative venues such as collaboration time, workshops, presentations, and conferences. Participants in this study came to chemistry teaching as a second career and state that they acquired their award-winning pedagogy through a combination of most of these factors. Though each of their voices, classrooms, and school buildings looked different, these factors in total provided a common set of criteria to produce the award- winning teaching portrayed in this study.