Monday, November 13, 2017

Phases of the RET experience


(NOTE: The following post was written by Tania Tasneem, a middle school science teacher in Texas.  Tania worked in Dan Bolnick's lab for three summers. In 2006 she was supported as an REU student (Research Experience for Undergraduates), paid by a REU supplement to an NSF grant. Shortly after, she graduated and began teaching middle school. In 2013 she returned as an RET (Research Experience for Teachers) to do both field work in British Columbia, and lab work in Austin.  Her salary came from the fantastic 'Research Experience for Teachers' (RET) program that NSF funds as supplements to new or existing grants, in this case  a collaborative grant between Dan Bolnick, Andrew Hendry, and Katie Peichel. Tania returned in 2014 for an additional summer's RET, this time exclusively doing lab work in Austin identifying fish stomach contents and parasites from the samples she helped collect in 2013. As a result of this work, Tania is a co-author on a Nature Ecology & Evolution paper, and on another manuscript in preparation.  Since 2013, the Bolnick lab has hired 7 RETs to participate in research, usually in pairs, or paired with an undergraduate studying to become a K-12 STEM teacher. Most of these teachers have ended up as co-authors on one or more published articles. The following essay conveys the RET's perspective on this experience.  I have posted this without editing, to clearly convey both the pros and cons of the RET experience in the hopes that this information can improve other researcher-teacher interactions.- Dan Bolnick, Nov 8, 2017)




The author, Tania Tasneem, as an REU student in summer 2006 in British Columbia

I recently went to a training for seasoned teachers on how to best support new teachers during their first year. Figure 1 shows the progression of a first year teacher’s attitude toward teaching and was projected at the end of the day long training to remind us of all of the emotions a first year teacher encounters.  As the first semester of my 11th year comes to an end, I can assure you that this data holds true to most teachers every single school year. The figure also mirrors some of the emotions I encountered during my first field/lab experience in the Bolnick lab as an REU during the summer of 2006 and again as an RET summer of 2013 and 2014.



For each of these emotions, I have tried to reflect on my mindset/paradigm shifts as an REU (in my early 20s and a novice teacher) and as an RET (in my early 30s with 8-9 years of teaching experience) about joining the project, doing field work, my lab experience during the summer, and the impact on my teaching practices. I’ve tried to give a brief explanation of what that phase is like as a teacher and how it is related to the field/lab experience in the summer from the perspective of a novice teacher (REU experience) and a veteran teacher (RET experience).



Anticipation Phase (Before going into the field)

The anticipation stage begins during the student teaching portion of pre-service preparation. My first field experience was the summer before I started my student teaching semester so I can definitely relate to feelings of excitement and anxiousness as I became closer to the start of a school year with a mentor and being in the classroom every day. New teachers, myself included entered with a tremendous commitment to making a difference and a somewhat idealistic view of how to accomplish these goals. Seasoned teachers on the other hand are more anxious about new district and campus initiatives, administrative/teacher turnover and impacts for their campus, what their new student needs will be for the upcoming school year. This feeling of excitement carried me through the first week of field work and carries me through the first weeks of school every year. 

Joining the Project
Doing the Field Work
Impact on Teaching
Lab experience
As an REU
-I’m doing science!  :-)

-this is going to look really awesome in my portfolio

-went in blind

- anxious about daily activities

-concerned if I packed the appropriate clothes for the job
-I wonder how I will be able to use this in my student teaching semester?

-I can use this as one of my proficiencies for my portfolio
- what portion of the lab work will I be responsible for?

As an RET
-what other teachers are participating?

-how will we be able to collaborate to create lessons for our students

-a lot more prepared physically and mentally for the long work days

-definitely had better wicking clothing and camping gear than I had before
-will there be other teachers that teach the same grade level so we can create lessons together?

-it’s a lot of work during the summer

-will I be too tired when the school year starts?




Survival Phase (In the field)

During the survival phase, teachers (new and seasoned) are overwhelmed, bombarded with a variety of problems and situations they had not anticipated, and trying to keep their heads above water. New teachers are learning a lot at a very rapid pace and consumed with the day-to-day realities and routines of teaching. There is little time to stop and reflect on their experiences. It is not uncommon for new teachers to spend up to seventy hours a week on schoolwork. While seasoned teachers can manage these realities a little bit better, most seasoned teachers have a similar work load or work as mentors to help new teachers survive this phase. There is little time to stop and reflect on their experiences. It is not uncommon for new teachers to spend up to seventy hours a week on schoolwork.
Particularly overwhelming is the constant need to develop curriculum. Veteran teachers routinely reuse excellent lessons and units from the past. New teachers, still uncertain of what will really work, must develop their lessons for the first time. Even depending on unfamiliar prepared curriculum such as textbooks, is enormously time consuming.



Doing the Field Work
Impact on Teaching
Lab experience
As an REU
-learning to paddle a canoe for the first time in the rain

-learning how to set traps

-learning how to dress properly for working in the rain

-learning how to cook a meal together (let’s face it in my 20s, cooking included pushing buttons on the microwave)

-learning a lot at a very rapid pace

-learning to work for 12 hour periods of time

 -during that moment in the field, wasn’t aware of it because I was overwhelmed with the experiences

-able to share with students how fun field work can be if you’re willing to work
-hard to balance student teaching time and commitment to working in the lab

-lab work is tedious and is just as much as time commitment as developing lessons for the first time
As an RET
 -prepared to use the tricks I learned as an REU

-definitely better prepared for the weather and camping

-Used my personal time to reflect on how to use the field/lab experiences in my classroom

-difficult to relate to my core class
-nice for students to see that the struggle is real even for teachers

-I’m not just a science teacher because I can’t do science. I’m a science teacher who is a part of the scientific community.
-booooooorrrrrring  :-)

-it’s not for me

-it’s too quiet and tedious

-I’m used to interacting with people on the daily

-I listened to a lot of podcasts

-I learned to make specific observations and ask questions about the trends I was seeing under the microscope




Disillusionment Phase (Field season almost over)


This is the “I’ve made a terrible mistake, what was I thinking?!?!?!” phase. After six to eight weeks of nonstop work and stress, new teachers enter the disillusionment phase. The intensity and length of the phase varies among new teachers. The extensive time commitment, the realization that things are probably not going as smoothly as they want, and low morale contribute to this period of disenchantment. New teachers and veteran teachers alike question both their commitment, competence, and career choices during this phase.



Doing the Field Work
Impact on Teaching
Lab experience
As an REU
-looking forward to getting back to Austin

 -during that moment in the field, wasn’t aware of it because I was overwhelmed with the experiences

-able to share with students how fun field work can be if you’re willing to work
-hard to balance student teaching time and commitment to working in the lab

-lab work is tedious and is just as much as time commitment as developing lessons for the first time
As an RET
 -you knew what you were getting into, why did you say yes?

-preparing a ramen dinner on a camp stove in the back of a UT truck and waiting for a ferry makes you second guess summer work for generous stipends

-still a little clumsy in waders and walking on logs to trap stickles in tricky spots

-filling your waders with waters is still frustrating even if you thought you could prevent it

-during the downtime of waiting for traps definitely thinking I should have taught summer school  :-)

-difficult to relate to my core class
-how will I have enough time to create a useful lesson when we have to go back and work in the lab?
-booooooorrrrrring  :-)

-it’s not for me, it’s too quiet and tedious

- the flexibility of the work day was appreciated 


Rejuvenation Phase (field work is over, to the lab)

The rejuvenation phase is characterized by a slow rise in the new teacher’s attitude toward teaching. Having a break makes a tremendous difference for new and veteran teachers alike. It allows them to resume a more normal lifestyle, with plenty of rest, food, exercise, and time for family and friends. This vacation is an opportunity for teachers to organize materials and plan curriculum. It is a time for them to sort through materials that have accumulated and prepare new ones. This breath of fresh air gives teachers a broader perspective with renewed hope.

During this phase we are ready to put past problems behind us, have a better understanding of the system, an acceptance of the realities of teaching, and a sense of accomplishment
Through their experiences in the first half of the year, teachers gain new coping strategies and skills to prevent, reduce, or manage many problems they are likely to encounter during the second half of the year. Many feel a great sense of relief that they have made it through the first half of the year. During this phase, teachers have the time to focus on curriculum development, long-term planning, and teaching strategies.





Impact on Teaching
Lab experience
As an REU
 -to be honest during my breaks, I did not focus on curriculum, I used them to catch up on sleep and spend time with my family
-hard to balance student teaching time and commitment to working in the lab

-difficult  to manage time, but the challenge helped me learn to manage time more efficiently
As an RET
- working a full load 40 hour work week during the summer makes for a tiring start to a new academic year

-I convinced my student teacher to be a part of the lab and I’m pretty sure I watched her go through these phases while she was out in the field for the first time, but I know she
-My contract had me working until my next contract day with Austin ISD. I had no time to decompress/rest/ recharge for the upcoming school year, I put more on my plate than I thought I could handle

-the lab work that was expected to be completed was more time consuming than expected and I was not able to complete all of analyses for all of the samples

-I would have preferred to use the time in the lab to work with other teachers on creating classroom activities that I could use during the school year

-working in the lab in addition to my full time duties and leadership roles at my school was not going to be an option, so I felt bad that I couldn’t complete the work I started in the time I was given, but I did the best I could.

-I was worn out and spent when I started the school year.




Reflection Phase (End of the summer lab/field season and on to the new school year)


The reflection phase is a particularly invigorating time for teachers. Reflecting back over the year, allows us to highlight events that were successful and those that were not. We think about the various changes that we plan to make the following year in management, curriculum, and teaching strategies. The end is almost in sight, and we have almost made it; but more importantly, a vision emerges as to what our next year will look like, which brings a new phase of anticipation.




Reflections
As an REU
 In retrospect, this experience was invaluable to me as a student teacher and current full time teaching professional. This experience at the time taught me patience, resilience, and prepared me for the working stamina of my upcoming semester as a student teacher and my first full year as a professional.

As an RET
This experience is so unique. It allowed me to travel to remote sites in Canada that I would never have thought to visit on my own. It’s like road rules, stuck with a random group of strangers who you work hard with, play hard with, and make some pretty fun memories with. It’s tough though. Having done this two summers back to back as a seasoned teacher, I really do appreciate my summer time off and need that rejuvenation phase. I think the stipend is generous and it’s tempting to always want to do summer work for a little extra money, but I need to be 200% present for my students during the year. When I work during the summer, I’m only there 150% and that’s not fair to them or my sanity. I’ve also taken on coaching two different sports during the school year and don’t think I have the stamina to work a full load during the summer in the future.
I also think we all had great intentions of creating lessons related to our field work experiences that we could use with our students before we left the summer, but I’d rather have used those 2-3 weeks in the lab to do this rather than the actual collection of data. 
I wouldn’t trade the experience and I have zero regrets, I just think teachers need to know that the work load in an RET can be overwhelming as it typically occurs during a time where you are trying to rejuvenate for the new school year.





Tania Tasneem as an RET in summer 2013