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Science Teacher Interviews

Interview with Jon Bergmann, Former Illinois Science Teacher and Co-Author of Flip Your Classroom
Interview with Terie Engelbrecht, Illinois Science Teacher
Interview with Chris Mitchell, Science Teacher in Korea
Interview with Meg Jacobson, President of the Colorado Association of Science Teachers

Interview with Jon Bergmann, Former Colorado Science Teacher and Co-Author of Flip Your Classroom

We recently had the great fortune to interview Jon Bergmann, the Lead Technology Facilitator in a Chicago area K-8 school, who previously taught science for 25 years in Colorado. Jon is a leader in the Flipped Learning approach to teaching, and co-authored the book, Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day. Jon attended Oregon State University and the University of Colorado, where he earned a BS in Science Education and an MA in Educational Technology Integration, respectively. Jon also serves on the advisory board for TED Education. During our interview, we discussed how educators can implement the Flipped Learning philosophy into their classrooms, why Jon enjoys being an educator, and finally, his advice for pre-service teachers or those new to the field.

john bergmann interviewYou, along with Aarons Sams, are a pioneer in the Flipped Learning movement, which aims to maximize face-to-face time in the classroom and transfers the ownership of learning to the students. On your site, you explain that when teachers ‘flip learning’ they might create videos for students to independently watch, then class time is devoted to help students with what traditionally was homework – essentially substituting problem work time with the lecture. Can you please tell us more about how this philosophy developed?

Aaron Sams and I taught in classrooms right next to each other in a tiny town of 8,000 people in Colorado at a small high school. We were having a conversation about the best use of our face-to-face time with our students and we wondered if we should stop lecturing. We discovered some software that would allow us to record our lessons, including Power Point presentations, our voice, and whatever we wrote on the screen digitally. So then we said, “What will happen if we stop doing direct instruction, at least in a large group?” and this led to us making a commitment to completely stop lecturing. We then asked ourselves, “What do our kids really need from us during class time, when they’re stuck on a problem or struggling?” Others apparently had this same idea of a Flipped Classroom before us, but we didn’t know that and we came up with an idea on our own and said, “We’re going to try this.” A lot of people have called us the pioneers of the whole movement. Someone wrote an article about it in 2000, but nothing ever came of it because the timing wasn’t right – YouTube wasn’t born and it wasn’t really possible to easily disseminate video content via the web then. In 2007 when we came up with this idea, the timing was right. Really, we were the right people in the right place, at the right time.

How can other educators integrate the Flipped Learning philosophy into their classrooms?

It’s really not very difficult for teachers to do, rather it’s more of a difficult mindset to begin giving up some of the control of the learning to their students. It’s really more about teachers flipping their thinking more than it is about incorporating technology, bells and whistles. Flipped Learning is not a technology, it’s a pedagogy. One thing I often recommend to teachers thinking about doing this is to start by flipping a lesson or two. Create a video of a lesson that you think students need extra help on and then flip that. I was with a group of teachers this past weekend and that was one of my recommendations to them. Start by flipping just one lesson. Or, if you’re a bit more vigorous, think of a lesson you can do right after a school holiday and flip a unit instead of just a lesson. Plan more appropriately. That’s a pretty good entry point for a lot of teachers.

Some teachers find that they fall in love with this philosophy and I often hear them say that they could never go back to their old teaching methods. So, they don’t. I think teachers have the most power when they go ‘all in.’ This works well at the middle and high school levels, in particular. At the elementary level, you can flip lessons, instead of flipping the whole class time.

It’s important to understand that you go through a process. The first year we flipped our class, it really was pretty teacher-centered. Even though the students were watching the videos at home, we really didn’t change anything about our science class. We did the same tests, the same labs, we just flipped the homework piece and the direct instruction piece. But then as time went on, our kids were understanding concepts and our role as teachers was changing. We weren’t standing up there as ‘the sage on the stage.’ We really were walking around interacting with kids. As that was happening, we were able to realize that the students can become more central. We really went through a process of evolution where the class became more and more student-centered and less and less us-centered. We actually moved to what we call the Mastery model. If you get a chance to read our book, the second half talks about the Flip to Mastery model, which we really think is one of the key takeaways. You can move towards something deeper than just flipping your class. We actually call it a Traditional Flipped Class where every kid watches the same video on the same night, and the next day they must do the same activity. That’s the traditional Flipped Class. The Mastery model takes teachers to deeper places. Over and over, I’ve heard teachers say that once they go through the flipping process, it takes them to deeper places – like mastery learning or inquiry, project-based, challenge-based learning, taking them many different directions – but they’ve gone to something deeper, much more rich, and very much more student-centered.

I’ve introduced this approach to groups of teachers ranging from pre-service teachers to seasoned veterans and it can work for all of them. One high school teacher who came to one of our earlier conferences was just about two or three years from retiring when he attended. After the workshop was over, he came up to me and jokingly said, “Jon, I hate you. Now I have to go back and change everything I’ve ever done – and I only have two years to go until retirement.” He then continued teaching two more years, and now he goes around and helps other teachers flip their classes. He’s still a believer in the philosophy and wants to help others flip their classes.

What do you most enjoy about being an educator?

I love the energy of educators and of students. Kids are curious; they have a love of learning. I’ve also had the privilege of conducting webinars and speaking to teachers all over the world. I’ve met a lot of educators – from Norway to Singapore, and soon, Amsterdam, Iceland, and London. Educators are educators regardless of what country or state they’re from. Most of them are learners. I love learning and I love people who love to learn. I’ve found that by and large, educators love to learn. Alvin Toffler talked about the “learners inheriting the earth.” Being around a community of learners is really exciting to me and I think it’s my calling in life. A love of lifelong learning came from my parents, and hopefully I’ve passed this along to others.

When you were teaching full-time, what aspects of your job did you find the most challenging? How did you overcome them?

The most challenging aspects of my job were addressing the school system’s resistance to change. I’ve found that being a part of a peer group that enables you to think and talk things through has been a tremendous help with that challenge. Find somebody who you can really connect with, ideally locally or right across the hall since they understand the culture of your school, and establish an alliance. Change is often stifled by the system, so having a team of like-minded people pushing for a common goal can really enact the change you want to see.

The bottom line is that teaching is about relationships. The connections between teacher and student, along with those established between teachers, helps us to further our goals of helping others.

What words of wisdom can you share with recent graduates or those preparing to enter their first year of teaching?

I know it’s hard. There’s a huge amount of expectation among brand-new teachers. I would encourage them to stick with it. I know that a lot of them give up and say “It’s just too much.” But, I think that teaching, in many ways, is a calling, and despite the fact that American society has been undervaluing their teachers, I would encourage them to keep at it because the rewards are great when working with others. But, most importantly, we need them.

We thank Jon for sharing his dynamic and sage advice, and wish him all the best as he wraps up his follow-up book, which will be released sometime next year. You can connect with Jon via his blog, Turning Learning On Its Head, or on Twitter @jonbergmann.

Read about how to become a teacher in Illinois.

Interview with Terie Engelbrecht, Illinois Science Teacher

We recently had the great fortune to talk to Terie Engelbrecht, who teaches ninth grade Physical Science and ninth and tenth grade Biology. Terie also teaches Assessment to graduate students in Aurora University’s cohort program. The sixteen-year teaching veteran earned a Bachelor of Arts in History at Blackburn College and a Master of Science in Educational Leadership at Aurora University. In the past, Terie has also taught Government and Law, and Advanced Biology and Earth Science. During our interview, we discussed Terie’s penchant for leadership, how she overcomes the most challenging aspects of her job, and finally, her advice for new teachers.

terie englebrecht teacherBetween teaching high school and college, and holding a division chair position, you are quite a leader in your school community. What recommendations do you have for educators who wish to aspire to your caliber of leadership?

If anyone else aspires to be as busy as I am, I would recommend lots of coffee. All kidding aside, I would say that they need to take everything one step at a time, and not try and take on too much at once. I gradually ‘eased in’ to all of my positions, and was given time to adjust to the responsibilities of each (and figure out how to organize myself to meet all of the duties required of me) before taking on any other leadership positions.

What aspects of your job are the most challenging, and how do you overcome them?

Because I teach in a 1:1 classroom, my current challenge with students is to integrate the technology (all of my students have netbooks) in such a way that it promotes independent learning and teaches students the skills they’ll need to learn on their own rather than always depending upon a teacher. This means putting in a lot of hours planning and creating lessons with the learning in mind first rather than the content. My other greatest challenge in my leadership roles is dealing with people who are hesitant to change their current classroom practices, especially in regards to technology use and/or focusing more on the process of learning rather than delivering content to students.

Please describe your typical workday.

My day usually begins with a meeting of some sort – either with the Building Leadership Team (all division chairs and the principal attend these meetings), with a teacher, or with a fellow science teacher to plan our lessons and units. I also meet with teachers in the morning as an instructional technology coach for two periods in order to help them integrate technology in their classrooms. After that, my teaching day begins, teaching Physical Science and Biology for the rest of the day. After school, I usually spend more than two hours working to prepare my lessons for the next day or giving feedback on student work before going home.

What do you most enjoy about being an educator?

The thing I enjoy the most is being able to work with students. They often teach me more than I teach them, and the relationships I form with them last much longer than any content I teach them.

Science can be a challenging subject for some learners. How do you make your lessons relevant to your students’ lives?

I try to make science relevant to students through the use of problem and project-based learning (PBL) techniques, where students have to solve a realistic problem or create a project if given realistic conditions. This involves a lot of student-centered learning where I am simply there to ask questions in order to guide students along the paths they choose to solve the problem or create the end result of the project. As a result, I’m no longer a walking answer key. I’m not a master at this yet, but I feel it has made a world of difference in not only the relevance of my curriculum, but also in fostering students’ thinking skills and helping them to learn on their own.

What words of wisdom can you share with recent graduates who are preparing to begin their first year of teaching?

Make sure you’re planning for student learning first and foremost, asking these questions while planning: What learning do you want students to do? How will students do that learning? What tools will they need? What content will be used to teach that learning skill? Also, never be afraid to try something new (and possibly fail at it) in your classroom. If the payoff is good for students, it’s worth the risk, even if you don’t implement the technique or lesson perfectly.

We sincerely thank Terie for taking the time to share the wisdom she has gleaned during her extensive teaching career. At the same time, we pass along our best wishes for a successful school year. Visit Terie’s blog, Crazy Teaching: Just Doing What Makes Sense, or connect with her via Twitter @MrsEBiology.

Interview with Chris Mitchell, Science Teacher in Korea

We recently interviewed Chris Mitchell, a teacher of ninth-grade Physical Science, eleventh-grade Chemistry and twelfth-grade Physics teacher in Seoul, South Korea. Chris attended Mount Vernon Nazarene University, where he earned a B.S. in Physical Science Education. He has been teaching for three years. During our interview, we discussed Chris’ philosophy of education, the aspects of his job that he finds the most challenging, and finally, what Chris knows now that he wished he had known during his first year of teaching.

chris mitchell teacherWhat is a typical day like for you?

I teach at a Christian international school, so a typical day consists of a morning staff prayer meeting, followed by a six-period day of varying classes (there are only enough students for one physics period, etc.) and usually two planning periods. After-school time consists of meeting with students who need extra help and/or conducting quiz makeups for standards-based grading.

Please describe your philosophy of education.

My philosophy is that students need to learn science (and other subjects as well) just like they learn a sport, or a hobby or any other skill – through the use of mistakes. It is my belief that students need the room to make mistakes in their learning, and receive enough feedback to learn how to correct their mistakes to be most successful and maximize learning. Also, I believe that students need to learn to be aware of what they know, what they don’t know, and how to get to achieve a greater mastery of knowledge. Standards-based-grading is the tool that allows me to facilitate this type of learning with my students.

What aspects of your job do you find most challenging, and how do you overcome them?

The most challenging part of my job is the constant diversity of classes. Working at a small school makes it especially difficult for me to juggle the many different targets and goals for each class since every period throughout the day consists of a different concept area.

To overcome these difficulties, I have found myself to be a much more organized educator. I keep diligent (yet simple) lesson plans for every class, every day. Honestly though, my current responsibilities have forced me to learn better organization skills, as well as how to work smart, rather than work hard.

What do you most enjoy about being a teacher?

I love interacting with students on a daily basis. I truly enjoy being around young people and having the opportunity to speak to them words of encouragement and positive affirmation. I find that many students really appreciate my teaching style and personality and this allows me to remain professional and really have fun with all of my students. That is the best part about my job – the influence I have and the fun I have doing it!

Science can be a challenging subject for some learners. How do you make your lessons engaging and fun for students and also relevant to their lives?

Science content is only strengthened by relevancy and shock factor. I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy learning interesting facts, finding demonstrations, as well as designing lessons around these aspects of science to rope the learners in. This works on some level, but ultimately I’ve found the more that I gain the students’ attention and respect, the more they are willing to open up about the content that I teach and be motivated to learn. And this makes all the difference.

What do you know now, that you wish you had known during your first year of teaching?

I wish I had known and been taught more about standards-based grading, research-based teaching and assessing methods. As I have researched more about these, my teaching has improved and I’ve learned more effective ways to teach and assess. My students’ grades are better, they are learning more and they are having a much more enjoyable time in my class.

We thank Chris for sharing his teaching experiences and advice. Visit Chris’ blog, Teach Science Right, for more great teaching insights and ideas, or connect with him via Twitter @CM_Sciguy.

Read about a science teacher career.

Interview with Meg Jacobson, President of the Colorado Association of Science Teachers

We recently had the great privilege to talk with Meg Jacobson, President of the Colorado Association of Science Teachers and retired science teacher with 31 years of classroom experience. We discussed what it is like to teach science and what advice she has for aspiring science teachers.

science teacher interviewCan you tell us what inspired you to become a science teacher?
My 9th grade Earth Science Teacher at University High School (Greeley) – Dr. Donn Adams, my father – Dr. Don Chaloupka (UNC ), and Dr. Ivo Lindauer (UNC). I really enjoyed Earth Science, and had gone to college to become a geologist. I had no desire to work for an oil company, and spring break of my senior year, while on a field trip with Ivo Lindauer, I had my “arm twisted.”

What have you learned in your career that you wish you would have known on day one?
1st item – Never nag your students. It just makes them dislike you and your class. Skip the “you need to change your attitude” talks as well. Those usually made things worse. After a few years of teaching I had a young man with a poor attitude and I finally decided I was going to try something different. He was an unhappy young man, but he wasn’t disruptive, so I told him “let me know when you need help,” and walked away. I didn’t give him grief, gave him praise when he earned it, and soon found that his arms were uncrossing and his face softening. What a wonderful student he turned out to be. Don’t nag students that don’t want to work. Let them know you are there to help and walk away until they need you. The vast majority of angry, unhappy students will come around.

2nd item – open up a 401 K as soon as you start teaching. Even if it is only for $25 a month and NEVER cash it in.

What did a typical day look like for you when you were a full-time science teacher?
Extremely busy. I would arrive at 7:30 AM and would have kids waiting for help, or just to visit almost every day. Sometimes it was other teachers. I always tried to get labs and items set up for the day the night before….I don’t like to find I am not prepared. I would teach 3 blocks of science a day, either 9th grade Earth and Space Science (required) or Geology (a junior/senior level course that students were able to earn college credit from UNC for). We were on block schedule, so almost every day we did a lab. I also had a personal “rule of 3” that I tried to follow. There were at least three different activity changes during a block. I really tried to involve the kids in their own learning. I didn’t lecture, we had class discussions where kids would try to build their own knowledge. I also used labs as discovery activities, and would check for understanding after they were done with the lab. My days were always very active and involved. I always had one block plan, but almost always had a student or two with me during that time. They were either my teacher’s aide and they would help get ready for the next lab and move equipment from the day to the other Earth Science teacher, or they were kids working on an independent study or getting some kind of other help. After the kids had gone I would help anyone that came by, help the other Earth Science teachers and prep for the next day.

What aspects of teaching science did you enjoy the most and the least?
Most – the students and watching them get excited and think something they had figured out was so cool, and helping them learn how to think and figure and construct their own knowledge.
Least – besides paper cuts 🙂 – knowing that to some of our students the teachers at Windsor High School were the most important adults in their life. It is so sad to think that a kid has to turn to their teachers to find someone to care about them. That job belongs first and foremost to their parents. I wouldn’t turn a kid away, and sometimes it surprised me so to find out what kids had developed that attachment with me. Always be kind to kids…you never know what troubles they are dealing with.

Are school districts able to find enough qualified science teachers in Colorado now and in the future?
Now, yes. In this poor economy everyone is dusting off their teacher license. The problem for schools is wading through 50+ applications to find the gems. In the future I think we will be ok. There are always going to be people who want to be teachers, but we do need some educational reform.

What do you think about the current state of science education in the US and what are the opportunities for improvement?
At Windsor High School I was fortunate to see an amazing group of science teachers doing their best for kids, so I tend to think that must be what it is like at all schools. Perhaps it isn’t, but I am hopeful that school districts, industry and foundations will see the need to keep American schools strong. We have produced some amazing science in the past, and we can’t let that falter. Of course the current administration has a hand in that as well. We need to re-evaluate what is being asked of schools and the requirements that force school districts to spend monster piles of money on a small handful of students. We need to re-focus on what is best for the many, not a few.

What advice would you give to individuals who are interested in becoming a science teacher?
Think long and hard about doing this. Get into a good pre-service program (like the one offered at the University of Northern Colorado) so that you really know what you are getting yourself into and by the end of four years in college you are pretty sure you are where you want to be. Commit to this…it is a vocation, not a job (if you think teaching is just a job with lots of time off do everyone else a favor and pick a different career path now). Don’t become a coaster. Every year look at your curriculum. Update it, change it, add to it, delete the bad stuff and always make it better for your students (I dramatically changed my curriculum to meet the new standards my last year of teaching). And, if you want to be a teacher, pick science….who else gets to play and experiment and laugh and learn right along with the kids.