The secondary science classroom is my natural environment. I have supervised fetal pig dissections involving 34 students and put my trust in hundreds of teenagers as they melt, boil, mix, and observe chemicals. I have labeled and stored a large number of dangerous substances and dealt with hazardous waste disposal. Outside of the classroom I have helped students put on musicals, organize dances, navigate relationship breakups, choose post-secondary programmes, and deal with all of the pressures they face as young adults. These things are part of the natural rhythm of my day. When I teach Chemistry courses I am teaching students who have chosen my class as an elective; everyone is there with some kind of agenda. Although we find time for fun and for indulging curiosity there is a great deal invested in grades at this level. The enjoyable bits of learning sometimes get lost as students focus on their numerical grade and their chance of being accepted into their university or college of choice.
My biggest 'wow' moments so far this year have been in elementary schools. This is not a surprise. I spent four weeks in a middle school during teacher's college, but aside from than I have been living my work life inside high school science departments. Last week I spent one morning in a grade 2 classroom. This was my first opportunity to stand back and watch a primary class in action. I got to see the morning routines; the students' roles and responsibilities were clear and they moved naturally from one task to the next. The class is doing some neat activities (genius hour and Global Read Aloud, among others) but it was the vibe in the classroom that really got me thinking about the differences between my teaching experience and this environment. The culture in an elementary classroom is different for several reasons, the clearest being that students spend more time in one room with one teacher instead of moving from room to room as they do in my high school. Being in the classroom space got my creative instincts tingling with thoughts of cross-curricular integration. I have often yearned for more time with my students during the day. It can be tricky to cultivate relationships with certain students - the introverts, for example - within a 75-minute time limit sandwiched between math class and a bus home.
On Friday last week I spent the entire day in an elementary school library. I worked with the librarian to help students in grades 2, 3, 6, and 8 create green screen videos. The highlight of my day was sitting on the floor along with the grade 6 students, fielding their insightful questions about the green screen. We tried our best to answer each question and used hands-on demonstrations to illustrate whenever possible. The curiosity and engagement of the students was different from what I experience in secondary: more creativity and wonder, less skepticism, and much less fear of failure. The looks on students' faces were more trusting than those I am accustomed to, and the average 'thank-you' at the end of the day was more sincere.
I'm not naive enough to think that after months or years in elementary school I would come home from work every day eager to tell everyone about how fabulous my day was. I am also keenly aware than my new role allows me to interact with students in a way that may differ from a student-teacher relationship in a classroom. It's possible that I wouldn't last a month as a teacher in elementary school. What I find sad is that I won't ever get a chance to try. It is a shame that our system prevents people from 'jumping the fence' to the other panel without taking a serious hit to our seniority. The potential for rich learning experiences and for creating a sense of unity among elementary and secondary teachers is astounding.
I find myself wondering what some of the first impressions of my elementary teacher colleagues has been when they go into a secondary school. Please comment if you have any thoughts to share.
The gratitude I feel for the learning opportunity my new job affords me is unmeasurable. I will do my best to pass on what I learn to my colleagues in secondary. Maybe on my birthday I'll make a wish that the future will provide more chances for elementary and secondary teachers to work and learn together. (Someone had better remind me to make the wish. Or maybe I'll wish it right now.)