At last, the new year is upon us. After the upheaval we experienced in 2020, I am sure we are all hoping for stability in 2021. With the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines on our doorsteps, there is hope for more normalcy later this year. I am more than grateful for the Herculean task the scientists undertook in creating viable vaccines for the health of all of us.
COVID has wreaked havoc for so many individuals and families. With well over 300,000 deaths in the U.S. alone, we have lost so much creativity, innovative thinking, and talent, gone forever. We have lost fellow educators who inspired and guided their students to the wonders of science and the other disciplines. We have lost coaches who were role models for their athletes. We have lost administrators who provided an atmosphere of growth and community in their schools. We have lost staff who always held the school together. For these losses, I am truly saddened.
With 2021 in mind, let’s practice a year of gratitude. Now, what does gratitude have to do with science teaching and this issue of The Science Teacher? Scientific research has been done on the impact of actively engaging in gratitude on a daily basis. The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. Gratitude provides people with the opportunity to take a moment and reflect on the goodness in their lives—whether from our students, fellow faculty, mentors, family, nature, or other entities. Psychology research indicates that practicing gratitude leads to greater happiness, contentment, and improves one’s health and overall well-being.
In one research study, two researchers worked with three groups of participants. The first group wrote statements of gratitude, the second group wrote irritants and aggravations and the third group wrote neither positive or negative statements. The results demonstrated that those writing gratitude statements exercised more, visited physicians less, and were more content with their overall life circumstances.
A leader in positive psychology, Martin Seligman, had 411 participants write a letter of gratitude to someone who had positively impacted their lives with encouragement, kindness, and mentoring. The results demonstrated an increase in happiness scores, which had lasting effects in these individuals. I am not suggesting cause and effect here, but there is a link to practicing gratitude and overall well-being. Have you taken the time to write/email such a letter to a former teacher, professor, or administrator who positively impacted your life in some way? Someone who believed in you? Someone who bolstered your self confidence? Someone who “pushed” you to be a better student, athlete, future STEM professional, or individual who makes a difference in the world?
My letter went to Mrs. Helen Cope, my biology teacher in a small midwest town of Centerville, IN. She used inquiry in her teaching long before inquiry was in the science education literature. We did long-term experiments on plants, their life cycles, and the impact of hormones on their growth. We left early in the morning and ventured to a field to awaken with the day and to observe the organisms awaken with it. We studied evolution in depth by looking at the evolution of horse teeth and contemplating what these changes meant. Her passion for biology was infectious—I am a science teacher because of her. My father died when I was just 15 and she took a moment to come to me to express her sadness and to assure me that she was there for me if I ever needed to talk. One small act of kindness that continues to touch my life today.
As teachers, we don’t always know what our kindness and dedication does for our students. Many of you have received correspondence from former students. I see it on social media all the time. These teachers are remembered for the rigor of their teaching, their moments of connection, their “pushing and prodding” of reticent students, and encouragement for students to follow their dreams. We cherish these acknowledgements, especially on those rough days when the students seem incorrigible, unwilling to work, and are being just downright difficult.
In 2020, our first year of remote teaching, we worked tirelessly to engage our students with bitmojis, Flipgrid, Screencastify, Jamboard, and other modes of delivery. We looked at dark screens due to students not wanting to show their faces, their homes, or other factors that might cause their peers to judge them. We are used to the non-verbal signals our students send us, and many of us taught without those signals. We might enter 2021 finding it difficult to feel grateful. Your tenacity in pushing through the COVID year with countless hours of preparation and changing your way of teaching is truly something to be grateful for within yourself.
The theme of this issue is STEM on a Shoestring. Creating STEM experiences for our students when there is no budget for robotics, electronics, or other high-tech equipment can be difficult at best. However, science teachers are a creative bunch. Using everyday materials found at inexpensive stores can be an alternative for creating meaningful, authentic STEM engagement. Science teachers can hold a Shark Tank show where teams of students develop an innovative product that could address a social justice issue. In fact, one of my students created a shoe with a sole composed of UV material that can be repaired with a special tool at a homeless shelter or other facility thus making the shoe last longer. Whether or not this is a viable idea, she used creative thinking and her chemistry background to devise a product that would help the millions of homeless living in our society today. Think of the gratitude arising from a product like her own.
Practicing gratitude on a daily basis can help our overall well-being as teachers and educators. The Gratitude app provides the opportunity to write your statements and upload photos depicting that day. Maybe you are grateful for a lab experience in school where the students’ work exceeded your expectations and you took photos of them in action. You can write your statement of gratitude, upload the pictures, and then reflect back on this time a year or two later. There are gratitude journals on the market where you hand write your daily statements. The idea of keeping a gratitude journal may just feel too touchy-feely for you, but give it a try for just a week. Write about your students, family members, places, pets, the first snow… just anything that brings a bit of happiness into your life for that day. Try it for a week or two and see the benefits.
2021 will continue to pose challenges for us. Let’s start off the year with some positivity surrounding things that we can be grateful for on a daily basis. As the field editor, I am incredibly grateful for all of you members, the reviewers who provide their expertise in analyzing the manuscripts we publish, and for NSTA, as our professional organization, that guides us in practicing exemplary science teaching, supports our efforts, and provides us with opportunities to grow and learn on a daily basis. Thank you to ALL of you.
Ann Haley MacKenzie (email@example.com) is Editor of The Science Teacher.
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