My Corner of the World
by Brenda Minjares | 11.14.16
This is my third year teaching physics, [but it’s] actually the first year in recent memory that there’s been more than two sections — or a total of 60 students — taking it. There’re almost 200 students taking physics, and that’s unheard of.
I’ve done a lot of work to promote the program and get kids interested. I encourage students to post the things we’re doing to social media around registration time. I visit classrooms during my off period, or I’ll offer extra credit to students who visit other classrooms to talk about what physics is like. Whenever I can, if we’re doing a cool project, I let our newscasters know so they’ll come over and take videos. [Or, I’ll ask] our school newspaper to do a story.
I let students and parents know that doing well in physics means [more than] just knowing science, which has been a lot of the focus in science instruction for the past few decades. Now, there’s equal footing in being able to think like a scientist. We don’t just take tests on content. We do things. This is more hands-on, more student-centered.
My hope is that I can motivate [students] to take in the world around them — to be able to make sense of it — and then use what they know about the world to solve problems, whether that’s community or personal problems.
[When I] participated in research, I was able to experience being a part of a group in search of knowledge, and a lot of that is what drove me to teach. I try to incorporate that [sense of unity] into the experience my students have so they don’t feel like they’re competing against each other. I try to provide opportunities and structures that support collaboration. Just today, we did something called a whiteboard meeting. Sometimes students are in pairs, other times it’s groups of three or four, but they work together to prepare a large whiteboard that explains how to solve a problem for the rest of the class. Together, they have to decide the best layout, asking questions like, “How do we decide what goes on the whiteboard? How are we going to split up and present this?” It’s all a part of them learning to work together.
I think if there was a culture of collaboration within the scientific community I [experienced] — at least at the undergraduate level — it would have helped feel more like I was a part of it.I came from a very homogenous community with people who looked like me, who were Spanish-speaking. [When I was in school], my professors and my classmates were mostly white males. I felt very independent like I stood out and was on my own. If I did speak up in class, I felt insecure about my answers. I saw that professors had great intentions, but sometimes, being the only woman or the only person of color in the classroom, I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well. I suffered from imposter syndrome, constantly feeling as though I needed to defend my right to be there.
I’ve actually noticed my own bias in addressing students when I have a teacher-centered lesson. In the past, I’ve experienced students not following protocol — thinking that they can shout out when they want to. Many times, these were white, male students, and I noticed that the way I would respond to the interruptions was different than the way I would respond if a female student or a student of color acted in the same way. When I came to that realization, it really forced me to reflect on my experience as a physics student. Often times, white male students would dominate the conversation, dominate the lecture, distract the professor, and I remember being really frustrated by that. So, that’s one way that my experience as a student manifested in a negative way. Of course, I try to create as inclusive an environment as possible because I remember feeling alienated [myself].
[I’ve since started] talking about social justice with students. Something that held me back was [the fear] that I’m not going to do it perfectly — what if I say the wrong thing? I was really afraid to bring up anything that had to do with race or gender because I wasn’t sure about the reaction I would get, but [I’ve pushed] past that. In classes where there [are] fruitful discussions, that’s 35 kids who got to think about something that’s really important that they maybe haven’t had the chance to process. Even if it doesn’t relate to [my subject], I think there’s value in that.
I [also] think my identity as a student who [understood] things right away and did well kind of clashed with my identity as a first-year teacher who was making a lot of mistakes. I was very self-critical my first year — I had high expectations and ideas from my credential program that I wanted to implement, but there were so many challenges that distracted me and wore me down. I met my mentor [Nathan, a woodshop instructor then in his fifth year of teaching] at a holiday party. He was somebody who’d never say he was perfect in his own practice, but it never seemed to bother him. To see somebody who was sane, calm and collected—it was a huge relief.
I think that a lot of teachers become teachers because they were really good students, and as students maybe didn’t have to ask for a lot of help. So, it was hard for me to recognize that I needed help in the first place, [but] Nathan always offered advice when I needed it, revoicing things that I was going through in a non-judgemental tone.
My first year, I made a lot of assumptions about students being the kind of student that I was. I would teach these lessons that I would have loved, or I’d assume they’d study on their own because that’s what I would do. But I was very wrong, and my instruction suffered because of that. As I’ve gotten more experienced, I’ve started to see that there are different types of students, different types of learning, different types of motivation. And while learning all these things takes time, the more I know about my students and what motivates them, what they do outside of school or what they think about their classes, the better I’m going to be able to prepare learning activities that they’re going to be more engaged with.
I really love my job. I enjoy it. What I learned from that first year is just to be okay with the idea that nothing is going to be perfect. I’ve had to make peace with that, but I’m still trying my best to identify the things now that I can do better next year.
Below, Brenda shares her advice for seeking out professional support and gathering helpful feedback from students and colleagues.
- I’ve noticed when I simply sit with other teachers, how helpful those conversations can be. Just talking to [other teachers] and letting them get to know me, they gave me help without me even having to ask for it. Teaching can be really isolating, so it does take stepping outside of my own classroom to seek out those social circles. It’s just that once you’re there, it really takes a huge weight off your shoulders.
- I try to get students to be comfortable in the classroom right from the get-go so when I do ask for feedback, they’re more open to being honest with me. I just let them know, “Hey, I really want to be here. This is my dream job, so I want you to help me get better.”
- I also work with another physics teacher. Since she has more experience than me, I can always go to her with questions like, “Hey, we did this thing. Students reacted this way and I don’t know what to make of it. Can you help me think through this?” Between her and Nathan, it’s been the perfect combination for gathering some really great feedback.