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Kathleen Farley, MS Science Teacher, on Teaching

January 13, 2011

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Three words that describe your teaching persona

energetic, rigorous, helpful

Why teach? Or, how did you become a teacher?

“Earnest desire to save the world”

If you’ve read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn or My Ishmael, you will likely recognize this quote.  During college, I I read Ishmael as a freshman.  In the years that followed, I slowly gravitated to the education field for many significant reasons, but the most relevant for today’s purpose was the stemmed from conversations with the professors whom I most respected.  They unanimously agreed that the most meaningful parts of their professional lives were the moments they spent in the classroom.   

I had worked with elementary through high school students but found that the age group that interested me the most were the middle school students as they began to ask questions about where they fit in the world and what the world holds for them.

I wanted to help students become better prepared for college-level science. In order to do that, I realized, they needed to be better prepared for high school science; therefore, I directed myself to middle school science.

What would you be if not a teacher?

Conservation biologist

What do you do to optimize student engagement in class?

“Nothing is interesting if you’re not interested” resonates deeply with me.  I think of these words in terms of my students mostly, but also in terms of myself.  My students participate most when they’re eager to know more about a particular topic, and the topics change every year.  I find that I need to be ready and watchful for whatever the topic is that catches their fancy.  One year it is different types of root systems and the following year it might be reasons why people hunt. That hook, that snippet that catches their interest can sustain student interest and engagement through an entire lesson, through a unit, through a year.

If I’m truly and deeply immersed in the material, I find the students will be as well.

Coffee, tea, or caffeine-free?

Chocolate

Describe your classroom management style (including a few best practices) in a few sentences.

My classroom management is probably the area I continue to need the most growth in.  My ideal management is a quiet style.   I find it is more effective to be the teacher that never yells rather than the teacher who always yells.  As I work towards this, I try to remember:

  • when I am extremely tired or annoyed with something outside the classroom, I invoke my no-yelling rule.  I find it’s tremendously effective, as once I raise my voice, the inclination to do so again increases.
  • remember that students frequently mean well and that students are young and will make mistakes and poor choices. 
  • remember that students have more than my class, or school, to worry about.  If as adults we do not always perfectly separate our personal lives from our professional lives, that students struggle much more with this than we do.  When possible, a few quiet words with a student goes much further than an immediate correction.

Other things:

  • I find hand gestures and non-verbal communications are particularly helpful as they do not disrupt the flow of the lesson.  It’s easy to motion a student to get a tissue or back to their work without interrupting the class.  It’s much harder to argue with a look and a pause than it is to argue with a direction such as “Stop talking.”
  • During labs, I occasionally I will pause all activity to comment on what I’m seeing that is particularly strong or needs to be avoided. It’s a quick 15-20 second “It’s fantastic that group 5 remember to put the microscope in the middle of one desk.” that permeates that classroom environment
  • For labs and other group activities, I will use comment cards.  I have a set of index cards made up with feedback such as “Great participation!”, “Great pace!”, or “Weak participation,” “Too Loud!”. The cards are color coded for positive and negative feedback.  Cards can be distributed or removed at any point during the activity and multiple cards can be administered per group.  At the conclusion of the activity, the cards are accumulated into a gain or loss of dollars (we use a school-wide behavioral monitoring system based on money) for each member of the group.

Favorite Cartoon/TV/Movie Teacher

Mr. Holland (Mr. Holland’s Opus)

Favorite Book (to read or to teach)

My Side of the Mountain

Who was your favorite teacher as a student?  Why?

I’ve had so many favorite teachers, it would be impossible to pick just one.  From my second grade teacher, Mrs. Holland who introduced me to the Boxcar Children, beginning my love of reading to many of my college professors who helped me to decide to pursue education as a vocation.

Describe your process of preparing a lesson.

Before I begin lesson planning, I like to create a unit plan.  My unit plan outlines the DN topic, lesson, HW topic, and new vocabulary for each day.  This allows me to play around with sequence and spiraling of material.  

Then, it depends on the lesson and the week.  There are some weeks, I write the lesson plans first Monday – Friday, followed by the materials I will provide to the students.

Other weeks, generally, if I have a lab or a project, I will begin by generating the handouts for students and then script the plans around the resources.  

I generally rely on the Internet for my resources and tailor what I find to my student’s level and the school/state standards.

As one student pointed out during my first year of teaching, “Science is always fun because it’s always different! The assignments are never the same.”  While there are pieces that are routine and structures that are standardized, the flexibility I have in planning has created a curriculum that feels energetic and refreshing for the students.

How do you fit differentiation into your lessons?

Graphic organizers galore!  It took a while for me to really get the hang of creating a graphic organizer or finding an appropriate one, but I feel like I am able to create one for anything I teach at this point.  Additionally, I believe in small group learning.  I teach upper elementary and they really thrive in that kind of an environment.  It is also a way to differentiate for all students.  Sometimes we think only our “struggling” students need differentiation, but everyone does at times!

Which teacher do you admire most and what makes him/her a great teacher?

The teacher I admired the most was a professor I had my freshman and sophomore years of college, Dr. Barbara Munson Goff.  Of all my teachers, she made me the most aware of the importance of being able to think critically.  The second lesson she gave, which I didn’t realize until years later, was the importance of living of a life of giving.  Her entire life centered around improving the well-being of everyone she came in contact with.  I’m certain that there are other lessons out there, lessons I will spend a lifetime uncovering.

What makes a teacher effective?

I believe the most effective teachers are the ones who have a motivation for teaching beyond just the desire to teach.   The effective teacher has a desire to teacher their students something fundamental about our world.  The urgency in the teacher’s message is something students can latch onto.  For me, it’s the desire for students to realize their responsibility in environmental stewardship. I’m a teacher because we need to do a better job using and caring for our world and that change will start with children. I’ve seen similar motivations in all disciplines, and I’ve noted a trend between this motivation and effective teachers.

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