Science teacher “wish list”

I’m newly credentialed as a principal and looking for a position at a middle school. I’m currently an English teacher, so I’m not familiar with the needs of other subject areas. What should I expect to see on a science teacher’s “wish list”?
—Tyson, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

It’s difficult to balance the roles of building management and instructional leadership, especially in today’s high-stakes situations. I’ve seen principals who worked hard to accomplish this. Being aware of the needs of students and the differences in subject areas is a step toward that balance.

You certainly should ask the teachers in your new school for a wish list, but I can offer a few thoughts ahead of time, based on my experiences as a science teacher working with some excellent principals:

  • Treat teachers, including science teachers, as professional adults and worthy of your respect and trust. Ask for input before making decisions that directly affect teaching and learning. Be a good listener and recognize teacher suggestions. When you make decisions, share the rationale with the teachers. For example, the school entrance designated for bus students may not be important to science teachers, but the class schedule, budget, length of periods, or room assignment can directly affect science instruction. Become familiar with the science curriculum, standards, and assessments in place.

  • Recognize the teachers’ responsibilities for safety in the labs and security in the storage areas. Teachers will need time for inventory and documentation (and this should be inservice time). Teachers must be able to lock the storage rooms and classroom cabinets. Support their efforts to communicate with parents about safety issues. Avoid scheduling non-science classes or study halls in labs—these are safety problems waiting to happen. Also avoid scheduling science classes in non-science classrooms (those without safety features, flat tables, or utilities such as water and electric). Doing so would limit the types of investigations students can safely do, and students assigned to those rooms will have a different science experience than those whose classes meet in or have ready access to labs. Keep class sizes within the occupancy limits of the lab. NSTA has several publications on safety that should be part of every school’s professional library.
  • Consider the behind-the-scenes work science teachers do (especially when they make it look so easy). All teachers use their planning time for writing lesson plans and evaluating assignments. But science teachers have additional demands, in terms of lab set-up and clean-up, equipment and chemical inventories, and compliance with local and state regulations. Be careful how many preps you assign to teachers. It may be unavoidable, but having more than three preps per day is a heavy load for science teachers.
  • Get to know the teachers and the science program. Ask them if you can unofficially observe lab classes (for the whole period, not just a walkthrough) to get an idea of what students learn from these activities as well as the amount of time it takes to set up and put away the materials and read a report from each student, the safety and cooperative learning procedures in place, and what the classroom looks like when it’s full of students.
  • Invite yourself to department or team meetings and be a good listener. Ask teachers to frame their suggestions in terms of what is better or safer for the students. Recognize that science teachers have professional development needs in both content and pedagogy, as well as safety.

In addition to a wish list, you could also ask science teachers for their worst nightmare. I suspect that high on the list would be the floating assignment, traveling from room to room. Although it’s a reality in many schools, it’s a serious situation for science teachers in terms of safety and the types of activities that can be done (and it’s usually the newest or least experienced teachers who get this assignment). We had such a situation, and the principal asked us to work with him on a plan so that every class met in a lab. It meant sharing facilities and not having the labs open during the day to set up activities. But he recognized our situation by not giving us before or after school duties.

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