Thursday, October 30, 2008

A biology teacher with an alternate certification opines on the philosophy and practicality of SB 35

A friend of mine teaches high school biology. He graduated in Biology and went into science before going back to school to get his teacher certification. We have not known each other long, but I greatly respect his intellect and insight. We sometimes get in trouble with our wives for getting home 45 minutes late after discussing education, politics, and life while standing in a parking lot. We were discussing this extra pay for math and science teachers (SB 35 as rolled into SB 2, the omnibus education bill) and I asked him if he would be willing to write his opinion on a few questions for me to post. He graciously agreed.

My friend, unfortunately, is “just” a biology teacher and doesn’t qualify for the extra $5,000 dollars like the "superior" math and chemistry teachers. His experience of having worked in the field and in the private sector previous to becoming a teacher are very relevant to the debate however. He is his own person and we definitely do not always agree on politics and educational governance. For background, this email exchange took place in September before I had more carefully researched SB 35 and written my last post. So the discussion focused on the ideas rather than the politics behind the bill.

I was personally very interested in his opinions of the disadvantages and advantages of Biology Teaching majors and Biology majors entering teaching through alternate means. His explanation of the advantages and strengths are possible arguments for pursuing increased certification of private sector science employees, though I personally attribute some of what he explains to his own positive personality. He is critical of both his teaching pedagogy specific classes and university science pedagogy. He also doesn’t know a “single science teacher” who has left the industry over $3000-$5000 dollars.

My email:

The extra schooling was hard on your family time and money wise. Did you have to pay grad school rates upon returning for your teaching classes?

2 debates I'd like your take on:

Biology Ed. vs. Biology degrees: Do you feel your biology major better prepared you to teach high schoolers than if you had majored in biology teaching? (I think teaching college would be different.) What is your perception of other biology teachers with either sort of degree?

Required return to school w/ pedagogy classes like you did vs. alternative licensure that would fast track a biologist such as yourself to certification: Do you view the classes you took in order to get your teaching certificate as crucial, helpful, borderline, useless hoops, etc? Was the pedagogy and classroom management stuff helpful? In your view, how much of "teaching" knowledge and how much of content knowledge in your discipline are best?

Does your school struggle to find science teachers? Do you think science teachers deserve extra money compared to other teachers? And regardless of your thoughts on the last question, do you think the extra 3 to $5,000 bucks possible for some chemistry and physics teachers will help more straight science majors make the jump to teaching?

Any other comments you have on licensing, classes, and qualifications for science teachers.


His reply:

I will address all of your questions in order.

First, regarding my salary as a laboratory technician. I made about the same or slightly more money as a lab tech than I do now as a teacher (depending on the month, as my salary fluctuates from month to month, sometimes as much as $800, which makes budgeting a bit difficult). The future salary potential, however, was vastly higher than what it is as a teacher. There's no question about that. The thing I find significant about the comparison between the two jobs is that I was making the same amount of money as the lowest-paid, most entry-level, peon employee in the private sector as I am now as a "professional" employed by the state. I mean, nobody doing my job at the genetics company was doing it as a career. It was just something that people like me did to make money while in transition to bigger and better things (e.g. grad school). Nobody took it seriously. It required virtually no brains. And, we actually weren't working for most of the time we were getting paid. A 12 hour shift would include about 4-5 hours of actual work, with the rest of the time waiting for the machines to run the samples. So it burns me up that I am now working myself into the ground at a professional "career" for essentially the same salary that I was making at a bonehead job that any kid could do. If this were just a matter of money, I'd be back at the genetics company in a heartbeat.

Second, yes I did have to pay graduate tuition as a post-bac student. Going back to school, taking 19 credits, while working full time was brutal. During the last half of each week, when I was working my 12 hour night shifts at the genetics company on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, while also going to school full time during the day, I literally got one hour of sleep between work and school (6 am to 7 am) and then one hour of sleep again between school and work (3:30 pm to 4:30 pm). I literally consider it a miracle that I did not fall asleep and crash on I-15 at some point during that semester.

Now, regarding the 2 debates you wanted my take on.

First, biology ed vs biology. This is a hard comparison to make. Biology ed majors at byu have to complete 30 credit hours more for their major than biology majors do (90 and 60, respectively). However, there are 2 important things to note about this. First, many of the "extra" classes the biology ed majors take are science education classes, so that obviously helps with the teaching aspect of science, but doesn't necessarily make them more versed in the content; second, while biology ed majors are required to take a broader range of science classes (e.g. geology, which biology majors don't have to take), thus giving them a wider breadth of knowledge, they don't take as many straight biology classes as biology majors do. I can see the logic behind this – their broader background makes them more able to teach a broad science curriculum (which is very important in a high school science class, where it's impossible to understand biology without at least a rudimentary understanding of physics, chemistry, geology, statistics, and math), while, simultaneously, they don't delve as deep into the biology classes because their students will never be learning biology at that deep of a level in high school, so, it's not necessary for the biology ed majors to take those upper level biology classes in college. At least that is what I think the thinking is behind the two different curricula for the two majors at byu.

So, what are the differences, in my opinion, between how well prepared I am to teach high school biology, versus a biology ed major? I think I have some advantages over biology ed people, and I think they have some advantages over me. I think they have an advantage in that all of their university instruction in the field of biology was internalized by them through the lens of "I am going to be teaching this to 15 year olds some day." Whereas, in my case, my learning took place through the lens of "I need to learn as much about this as possible, so I can become one of the elite few who knows more about biology than anyone else, so I can do world-class biological research." The difference between the two mindsets may seem trivial, but to me it is significant. I am still struggling to change my paradigm from a university-model lecture-based approach (I gave many lectures as a TA at BYU) to an interactive, inquiry-based exploratory approach. I don't think my biology-ed friends ever really struggled with this. I think the way science is taught at universities (the actual content classes, not the science education classes) actually makes the knowledge as inaccessible as possible ("hey, if you didn't get my lecture, then maybe you should change majors"), and I think I, at least initially, adopted that approach to teaching.

On the other hand, I believe that I have 2 advantages over the biology-ed folks. The first is, I think that I am more passionate about biology than they are. I think that this is a natural by-product of the different routes that we took to teaching. They tend to see themselves as teachers first, and as a person interested in biology second. I, on the other hand was a biologist first, and then became interested in teaching. This difference gives the biology ed people better pedagogy, at least at first, but it gives me a passion that I have never seen matched by any of them. That passion is contagious. I can often tell when my students have gotten interested in something because they can see the level of my interest. Furthermore, my passion leads me to try things that my colleagues do not, and, quite frankly, to put more effort into certain activities than they are willing to invest. Sometimes it becomes a liability - I occasionally have to remind myself that I am not there to indulge my own interests, but to teach my students. However, on some level I think the two merge (my interests and their learning, that is).

The other advantage that I have over the biology ed people is depth of knowledge, as I mentioned above, as well as actual experience as a working biologist. Depth of knowledge doesn't always matter in teaching, because, as I mentioned above, much of what I know is at too high a level to be relevant to what my students are learning. However, I have often been surprised at how many times I have had to draw on the limits of my biological knowledge about a particular subject in order to address a student's question. I have often been surprised at how shallow some of my colleagues' knowledge is about certain biological subjects. It has also helped that I have done extensive research and published, as well as had numerous field work experiences. Obviously, not all biology majors do those sorts of things. However, they are much more likely to than are the biology ed people, because they (biology ed people) are spending all their extra time working on pedagogy and taking extra classes. My field and research experiences taught me some of the most important things that I know about biology, and those are things that just cannot be duplicated in college classes. I think this is where the strongest argument can be made for the benefit of alternate licensure – the real-life experiences that people who come from either the private sector or other government employment have can resonate with students in a way that traditional teachers just can't. You should see my students' eyes pop when I start telling them about my experiences doing fieldwork in the Amazon, or when they see some of my pictures from Madagascar. I know biology in a different way than biology ed teachers do because I've experienced it as a biologist (not just at the genetics company, but also through working for professors at BYU as well as for the state DWR), and had to write grant applications and manuscripts, present at conferences, and publish my work. Biology ed people just can't duplicate that experience by taking another class. I mean, when I start the year by teaching the nature of science and the scientific method, I can take things to a whole new level because I have actually used the scientific method to conduct studies, rather than just reading other people's studies out of a book. Now, none of this replaces pedagogy, which people like me inevitably struggle with. But, it does give me a dimension to my teaching that biology ed people lack.

Now, on to your question about the classes I had to take during my licensure. The science ed classes were helpful. The general ed classes (multicultural ed, adolescent ed, teaching with technology, students with disabilities ed, etc) were a huge waste of time. In each case what I got out of the experience could have been summed up in a single paragraph. Anything that I learned that was useful I got from my science ed classes, and even then, I don't remember much and don't think much of it actually translated into me teaching differently because I took the classes. I very much feel like, when I was taking my education classes, I was in one sphere of existence, and when I actually began teaching all of that went out the window as I entered another sphere of existence, with virtually no carryover from one state of being to the next. Unfortunately, I think that any progress I may have made in my teaching has been from trial and error, with virtually none of it informed by my teacher education. Sad, huh? As far as the balance between teaching knowledge versus content knowledge is concerned, I was going to say that I think they should be about even, and then I read over what I just wrote two sentences above. If I really believe what I wrote up there then I guess I should conclude that content knowledge is more important, shouldn't I? I mean, if there's going to be virtually no carryover of pedagogy from teacher ed classes to the actual teaching experience, then what's the point of a heavy emphasis on pedagogy? Maybe we should just teach pre-service teachers as much content as possible and let them learn the rest on their own if that's how it's going to happen anyway. That is, of course, assuming that it can only happen the same way that it happened to me, which is, of course, a bad assumption. Although I do think that for most people it does happen more or less the same way it happened to me.

I don't think that my school struggles to find science teachers, although I am aware that many schools in the area do. I think that that is because, at my school, the teachers who have been around forever and aren't going anywhere are the ones who teach the subjects that are difficult to fill (physics and chemistry). Biology teachers are much more common, because, let's be honest, biology is a lot more fun to teach than either chemistry or physics – even chemistry and physics teachers will tell you that. Every other school that I interviewed at wanted me to teach all chemistry classes (I am endorsed in chemistry, but it's not my forte, and certainly was not what I wanted to spend my career teaching).

I don't know that it's possible to make a very strong argument that science teachers deserve more money than their counterparts in the liberal arts, unless you're going to appeal to supply and demand economics. The problem is that supply and demand economics theory doesn't really work here, because the extra salary incentive doesn't seem to be working. I don't know of a single science teacher who left industry because of the salary incentive. I honestly think it's pretty silly to think that that would ever work on a large enough scale to justify the program. Even if the money were tempting (and, let's be honest, 3-5 K is not going to be that tempting to someone who's already making more than the average teacher), no one from industry is going to be willing to jump through the licensure hoops, let alone put up with the crap from the kids, parents, and administrators unless they had a passion for teaching, in which case they would probably have gone into education in the first place and would not be an industry-employed professional anyway. I, of course, am an exception to this. However, at the time that I was working in industry, I was still searching for "what I wanted to be when I grew up." I wasn't exactly in the target demographic for the merit pay program. So, what we end up with is science teachers who were already going to be science teachers anyway getting paid more to do what they are already doing. So, it does seem a bit pointless doesn't it, not to mention sparking some major resentment among English and history teachers (although, let's be honest, if I qualified for merit pay, I would be all for it – in fact maybe this response is just a reflection of my own resentment for being left out of the deal).


Anonymous said...


UtahTeacher said...

That's funny anon. The political crap aside, this post is meant to look at SB 35 on its own merits. What if it had been honestly presented and passed with no extra money for bureaucracy to nurse the grudges of legislative bullies? Are incentives to scientists and mathematicians an effective way to improve Utah students' classroom experiences in science and math? Do they actually get anyone to switch? If so, do the advantages outweigh the cost/disadvantages?

The philosophical and pragmatic specifics of education proposals are less flashy, but the real meat of the debate once we get past legislative gamesmanship.

ProfSeeman said...
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Anonymous said...

This had much of what I was looking for. Thank you for taking the time to go into such detail.