Teaching Secondary Science: Meet Ms. Allison Stern

If learning was as simple as opening a book and reading it, what would be the role of a teacher? Students learn in a variety of ways and teachers must find ways to connect with all types of students. In this post, the LabJourneys blog talks with Ms. Allison Stern, who has over 23 years of experience teaching secondary science, about the challenges of teaching science at the secondary school level. Although comical to her now, during our interview Ms. Stern talked about her frustration over not being able to grasp the concept of the normal force until college. It was not until one of her college geology teachers explained the concept in a way she could understand. The light bulb went on and she got it. I thought it was great story illustrating some of the intricacies teachers face when communicating to students.

Teaching at the secondary level is quite different from the collegiate ranks, where professors primarily focus on writing grants and guiding research.  Teaching at the lower level requires incredible patience and the ability to disseminate lessons on topics such as balancing redox equations. This is a difficult job for any science teacher and even harder when only a few kids might be engaged. However, most of us have walked into at least one classroom in which the teacher was highly creative and passionate about teaching science.  As students slowly become of age during grade and high-school, teachers like Ms. Stern play a vital role in fostering and inspiring our future scientists. Here is ten up and ten down with Ms. Stern.

Currently what is your position of employment? How long have you been at this position? For the last 14 years, I have been a science teacher at the Council Rock North High School (Bucks County, PA). The prior 9 years were spent teaching at Newtown Junior High School (Newtown, PA).

Where did you grow up? What early influences help cultivate your interest in science? I grew up in Richboro, PA. My father had a PhD in mathematics and when I was young he would torture me with questions I had no idea how to answer. Once my father realized I could do math, we had more to talk about. He told me once that the moon was constantly falling to the earth, so on nights when the moon would appear bigger, I would always freak out.  He’d conveniently left out the part about inertia.

In general, teaching can be quite challenging, teaching science is even harder? What compelled you to teach sciences? Yes, teaching science is hard. I think the main challenge is teaching kids to think in ways they have never been asked to do. It is not that the students can’t; it is just that they had never been asked to do so.

When I entered college, I started as a civil engineer, then after deciding between business and geology, I settled upon geology. My parents suggested that I look into education. My 19 year old self cringed and immediately said, “No!” In 1992, which was not a good time for finding a job, Princeton Review was offering $14 per hour to prep kids for the SAT. That is how I got into teaching and I really enjoyed helping kids to do better. It was a great experience because I found out that I was innately good at teaching.

What aspects of your job do you like the most? I love teaching the hard stuff.  The concepts that are difficult for a young teen to grasp. Teaching ionic bonding and all sorts of concepts like balancing chemical equations. I like seeing the proverbial ‘light bulb’ click on. When that happens, it is extremely rewarding. Students, who do not get it, drive me crazy because I want to help them to learn. I really enjoy it when my classroom is full of eager kids.

What are the challenges in attracting young minds to pursue a career in the sciences? Nowadays, kids seem to avoid the challenges associated with science, so attracting to it is hard. I try to teach balancing chemical equations by getting students to understand principles of mathematics. I figure if students can learn how to balance a math equation, then they can apply those concepts to chemistry.

As an educator, how do you think we can attract our brightest minds to the sciences? At what age do you think kids are the most impressionable? Middle school, but it is really difficult to engage those students. Middle school kids are too social and have too many hormones. It is hard for kids to look past the challenges in science.  They want immediate gratification and rarely value the rewards of working hard to achieve something.  My kids need to understand that what they see is not everything. If you don’t get an A on a test, it is ok. Grade school science is not the apex of anybody’s career.

How do you balance your work vs. home life? I don’t, but I don’t bring work home with me anymore. The first couple of years were grueling. It was tough to determine how much time to dedicate to a lesson plan. I would spend a lot of time scripting lessons and I would even plan what I would say. Developing lesson plans were difficult.

Who is your role model, and why? Anybody who is doing a better job than me! For me, it is not one person. Somebody once told me in teaching, ‘If you are not stealing ideas from someone else, you are not doing it right’ but you have to make it work for you.

What was the best advice you ever received? I would tell any new teacher this one piece of advice and it allowed me to teach without being completely petrified. My advisor from Temple, who was my advisor for secondary education said, “Just go in there and go with it.” When I was 22, I was nervous as hell, but I just went with it.

Anything else you would like to share? There is a lot of mutual respect between teachers at the elementary and secondary levels. Teachers who teach young kids do not do high school and vice versa.  Another piece of advice for any future teachers, even though you might be out sick, you are still responsible for everything that goes on in the classroom; there is no such thing as a last minute sick day.  Oh, and you’re never going out for lunch on a school day ever again.


Dr. Blog

Dr. Blog holds a PhD in chemistry and draws on his years of industrial and life experience to offer honest career advice for the advancement of young scientists.