Science teachers’ love of science

<b>John Richard Schrock</b>
John Richard Schrock


“If you wish to educate the student by science, love your science and know it, and the students will love both you, and the science, and you will educate them; but if you yourself do not love it, the science will have no educational influence, no matter how much you may compel them to learn it.” This is a quote by no less than Tolstoy in “On Education” written in the mid-1800s in Tsarist Russia.

Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), famous worldwide for authoring the classics “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” was very much a “Renaissance man” (meaning that he studied deeply into many different fields). Tolstoy established 13 schools in Yasnaya Polyana serving the children of Russian peasants. In contrast to the harsh curricular dictates of the Tsarist state, Tolstoy proposed that the critical “educational element…is only then imparted to the students when the teacher is passionately fond of his subject and when he knows it well; only then his love is communicated to the students and has an educational influence upon them.”

When I taught middle and high school science for 10 years in three different schools, I had some teacher colleagues who were passionate about their science, and some for whom teaching was just a job. A few students brought their passion for science to school, usually due to outdoor experiences or a fascination with tinkering. But there was an obvious difference in the newly-inspired students of my passionate colleagues, and the routine burden felt by students attending the just-a-job teachers.

Therefore across 30-plus years of training high school biology teachers, I have always been on the lookout for the science-passionate college student who would make a science-passionate teacher. Again, some came to my classes as biology teaching majors, already “turned on” to an excitement they could foresee year after year as a teacher explaining the ever-growing discoveries of our advancing biology.

But we needed and still need far more of these highly qualified and highly inspired teachers. So in my non-major courses I would keep an eye out for those students whose eyes lit up when we covered certain topics. Indeed, there is a long-known science dating from 1950s research that indicates how we can read students’ eyes, mainly their eye pupil dilation, and detect whether they are bored or excited. For those who are obviously excited, they will likely go back to their dormitory and unload on their roommates the exciting biology they have just learned. Those are the students I would corral before they left my classroom after class.

“You are excited about [current topic]. Have you considered becoming a biology teacher?” I would ask. Many would recognize in my voice that I considered their passion for biology to be an important skill. –That I wanted them to consider going into science teaching. Some had other tentative plans, perhaps to focus on just one field of research. –Or maybe become a medical doctor.

I would point out that focusing on one narrow field might not remain exciting. And while a medical doctor helps a patient for just a day, the patient then goes back to lead their regular life. But a teacher has students for whole semesters and can change their students’ life. For some, my appeal worked. And they changed to teaching, entering public classrooms years later—spreading their passion.

But that recruitment strategy soon came to an end after 2001. No Child Left Behind usurped professional decision-making. Mandated state assessments with school penalties for not making adequate yearly progress commanded teachers in most schools to teach-to-the-test. —Scores before passion. Many high school students who saw this de-professionalization occur with their high school teachers could no longer be convinced to enter teaching. Their objections based on what they had seen were correct.

Our national exodus of science teachers and national shortfall began twenty years ago and is fully documented. We no longer have anywhere near enough science teachers and the situation is getting worse. Across the U.S., state boards of education ignore this problem. State higher learning commissions and regents see declining enrolments as a reason to close science programs. Meanwhile, both bodies attempt to improve education through various “standards” and other paperwork.

If you have well-trained and passionate teachers, you will have good education. Without such teachers, paperwork provides nothing. Tolstoy knew this over 150 years ago.  

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John Richard Schrock has trained biology teachers for more than 30 years in Kansas. He also has lectured at 27 universities during 20 trips to China. He holds the distinction of “Faculty Emeritus” at Emporia State University.