Creating a successful science teacher group

1. Why belong to a science teacher group?

A group of science teachers at a workshop

A group of science teachers at a workshop

  • Science teachers are sometimes professionally isolated, but belonging to a teacher group can change that.  Teachers talk to each other socially, but the talk is seldom about the difficulties of teaching. Only the students know what happens when your classroom door is closed. Now that can be lonely, for teachers who think about their work. In joining a group they find that other teachers share similar experiences. 
  • Science teacher groups can build a person’s professional identity. As science teachers our professional identity is that we are interested in our subject and our learners. We want to improve our scientific knowledge and our ideas of teaching science. Belonging to a group of teachers with the same ideals can help each of us achieve more than working on our own.
  • Science teacher groups become a community of practice.  This community is made up of people who are sharing ideas about how to teach better, sharing their expertise in certain topics etc.
  • A group can call on outside resources more easily than an individual teacher can.  By “outside resources” I mean experts who can teach and demonstrate topics, funders who could donate funds or equipment for events like science expos.  You can get a person like Brian Gray or a donor to help you if you are part of a group.
  • An effective group builds credibility for all the teachers in it.     Education Department officials who are serious about educational development take note of teachers who are doing it for themselves.

For a more detailed understanding of the functioning of teacher groups gained from over 20 years of working in the field see What makes for a successful teacher network and A model for developing Science Teacher networks

2. What makes teacher groups work?

A group is like a three-legged stool.  If the stool has only 2 legs, it cannot stand on its own, but falls over.  It needs all 3 legs to stand and be able to carry the weight of a person sitting on it.

Here are the three legs: Task, Maintenance and Personal Growth

  1. The group must choose a task for itself
  2. The group must maintain itself and the relationships among members
  3. The group must offer each person the chance to grow personally.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Task: Choosing a task  

If you want to join a group, you should always be able to ask, “What is this group trying to achieve?” If you are starting a group, you need to know the answer to that question, and will probably write it into your groups’ constitution.  It could be an overall task, such as “We meet to promote each other’s development as science teachers”.   See Drafting a constitution and An Example of a teacher group constitution

Then the group will choose specific tasks at various times. Here are some examples of tasks that science teacher groups can set themselves:

  • We are going to set one common exam paper for the students in our schools. See Criteria for setting test
  • We are each going to prepare a workshop on one of the topics in the Brian Gray videos so that each group member becomes expert in some topic.  For general information on running workshops see Running a workshop
  • We are going to hold an inter-school science competition/fair in which students will present standard demonstrations (such as a titration) or their own science inventions or set a task for students to work on in a group at their own school and then present at the competition. For ideas see Possible problems for a Young Scientist competition and Ideas for science fair and expo projects and Preparations for Expos - some tips  See also Zimbabwe Primary School Science Fair projects.ppt
  • We are going to spread a message about doing inquiry science and demonstrate the difference to the group between traditional tell-teaching and inquiry teaching. See Traditional vs Investigatory lessons
  • We are each going to look at ways of improving the management of equipment and resources in our labs – see Equipment management– and then together find solutions for problems we may have.
  • We are going to organise matric enrichment or revision programmes for the learners from our schools.
  • We are going to prepare our students to do public presentations of some topic in the local shopping area on a Saturday morning.

This could be a model display and explanation of what happens when the Moon is eclipsed, (when a lunar eclipse will happen that weekend), or a display and presentation on solar cooker stoves and water-heaters, or a display and presentation of why do-it-yourself connections to ESKOM powerlines are dangerous

A useful way to check whether the goal is a good goal is to ask, “Is this goal reachable – can we really do this?” Also ask “Can we own this goal – can we feel committed to it?” Also ask “Will we know when we have reached it?”  This is known as the ROM check: Reachable + Ownable + Measureable. 

Now apply the ROM check yourself, to some of the goals above.

Maintenance: How the group maintains itself

A car has to be maintained or it will break down.  You can’t just give it the task of taking you places, you have to take care of it, change the oil and the filters, get the steering aligned, buy new tyres.

The group needs a constitution, a set of agreed rules that anyone can refer to. See Guidelines for drafting a constitution and   An Example of a teacher group constitution

A group usually has a committee who take different roles and maintain the health of the group.    These people are the engine and the energy of the group. See Roles of the committee & portfolio holders

A group will need finances to run its activities. Money might come from the members, and from their schools, but it often comes also from donors.   See An example of an expenses record and Guide notes on keeping financial records

The group needs to learn how to write proposals to donors, saying clearly what the goal of the group is, how the money will be spent and how the result will be shown to the donor. Donors also like to know that the group’s goals are ROM – remember what ROM stands for?  See Drawing up a funding proposal 

Regular progress reports also keep members informed of the achievements of the group and how the money is spent. Of course, you want a good and long-lasting relationship with your donors, and so communication with them is also very important. See Guide to writing a progress report for a donor.

The group leaders need to encourage commitment to the group and be aware of group maintenance.

Here are some questions that test whether group maintenance is going well:

  •  Is everyone in the group getting a chance to speak about the things your group is working on?  Or are the group leaders allowing one or two people to dominate discussion, going on and on about their pet theories or complaints?
  • Can people listen to different points of view and incorporate these in constructive discussions?
  • Teachers are famous for raising arguments about why things cannot be done, for telling about the difficulties they face and often end up discouraging everyone.  Are the meetings becoming complaint sessions or are the discussions looking for new ways to solve problems? 
  • Is the group getting proper reports on how money has been spent? As well as money used for group activities sometimes money may be spent on resources for the group such as books or equipment that is lent to schools.

Personal growth for each member

Each person has to decide each month whether they want to attend the group meeting; their decision may depend on how they feel they are benefiting from the group.  Here are a few check-up questions for the group leaders 

  • Is each member participating in the group meetings feeling good about being a science teacher?  Feeling no longer isolated in their classrooms?
  • Is each member learning more science through participating in the group?  Has each member contributed professionally in some way or been invited and coached in how to run a workshop?
  • Is each member feeling more confident about expressing ideas in the group and are they listening to others?
  • Are members trying some new things in their lessons and coming back to tell the group about it?
  • Is the person who has un-ending complaints about his/her school learning how to see positive things that he/she can do?