Though I didn’t mention it much on here, I spent the last year teaching science at a private Christian high school. Luckily that did not involve chemistry (beyond the occasional subbing gig), but it did involve teaching Biology to freshman and Anatomy & Physiology to juniors (and one senior). This itself involved what is probably one of the most awkward experiences of my life. I am speaking of course about the unit in the anatomy class where we covered the reproductive system and I had to explain the male and female body to a class of predominantly girls. I was awkward around girls when I was in high school, but I’m not sure that is a much more awkward scenario than a 20-something guy explaining female anatomy to 16 and 17 year old girls.
You’ll be glad to know that that is not a lesson I’m planning to elaborate on. But, in its own way, it is kind of a metaphor for the whole year that I spent explaining things that I am by no means an expert in to students who thankfully, for the most part knew less than I did. In general though, I’m glad my first year teaching involved a subject I that was slightly out of my comfort zone. I’m even more glad that I’m now the Bible teacher and that I’ve hopefully dissected my last fetal pig for good.
Lesson 1: Teaching is More Than Lectures
Whether it was my personality, my preferred learning style, or my compensation for not having mastered the material, I did a lot of PowerPoint presentations this past year. On the one hand, I think I did a pretty good job of clearly presenting the chapter information in simplified form and then reviewing that material before quizzing over it. On the other hand, I was somewhat inflexible with my methods and had a hard time offering learning activities. I tend to demur in class activities, but that is not a disposition my students share.
The takeaway for me is that this upcoming year I’m not relying on PowerPoint. Rather, I’m planning out what we’re going to study in a given week and decided whether that learning module needs a lecture, a hands on activity, or some other method. Lectures are good, but I think especially given the audience I’m working with, they shouldn’t be overused.
YouTube videos on the other hand…
Lesson 2: Evolution is More Complicated Than Either Side Makes It
Though the particular science classes I taught were not my forte, I was prepared well for the evolution section of the biology class (which took a quarter to teach). Evolution and creation have been research interests of mine since my freshman year of college, and my own thoughts have evolved over that time. However, to prepare for actually teaching it, I wanted to make sure I got it right (regardless of my personal convictions) and that the general contours of scientific thought on the subject were well represented.
I think I accomplished this well, and I personally found Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True to be a very helpful resource in more ways than one. Coyne I’m sure would be proud of me for actually teaching evolution to students in a private Christian high school. He would have been a bit dismayed that I did not teach it as absolute truth, but taught it as “this is what most scientists believe.” He might have been downright irritated that I went even further and used his own writings to demonstrate how speculative and unscientific certain aspects of evolutionary thought are (but more on that tomorrow).
I was pleasantly surprised that a writer like Coyne is much more intellectual humble in his approach than the biology textbooks writers were. He was open about where evidence was lacking, and he did an excellent job explaining difficult concepts in more understandable terms. He did his fair share of attempting to debunk intelligent design, but he was much less inflammatory in his rhetoric than someone like Richard Dawkins is.
Still, I felt that his confidence in the truth of the theory in total was disproportional to the available evidence. But, when you think about it, for an atheistic scientist, evolution has to be true. There are no other viable options. At least as a Christian, I can explore the evidence for myself and decide how much to accept and how much to be tentative about until further confirmation. In doing so, I’m come away seeing the issue as more complicated than either of the fundamentalist extremes (ardent atheists, and young earth creationists) makes it. The book of Genesis, even taking a literal 7 day creation period, says nothing about the age of the earth or its subsequent development, so there is room there for the concept of “evolution” to be present in terms of species genetically changing over time. Likewise, the evolutionary explanation of natural selection does not philosophically rule out a divine hand behind the process. Scientists say too much when they maintain natural selection is not just scientifically, but metaphysically natural as well. Whether it is or not is, it is not the scientist’s job to comment (but try telling Richard Dawkins that)
Lesson 3: Showing You Care is More Important Than Being An Expert
Rounding out the lessons, I learned over the course of the year that showing you care is perhaps more important than being an expert in your subject. In a way, its kind of like platform building. Since I started out teaching a subject I wasn’t an expert in, I think I indirectly relied on connecting with the students before communicating what I knew. I might have done that just the same had I started out as the Bible teacher, but I didn’t have much of an option as the science teacher.
There is certainly a balance to work on, and I know from my reviews I need to be a little more strict when it comes to the rules. I am teacher first and friend second, and as I shift into more comfortable intellectual terrain, I think I’ll continue to grow in both of those areas. It is trite to say, but I was told more than a few times that students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Over this last year, I saw that was cliché for a reason.