Brigham Young University’s Physics Teaching: Mentoring Physics Teachers

Duane Merrell, Brigham Young University

A student wanders into the physics department and asks the first adult he/she finds, “If I am interested in teaching high school physics, where do I start?”

At Brigham Young University it doesn’t matter if this conversation happens in the Physics Department, the College of Math and Physical Science, or the College of Education. In each case, the student is sent to see Duane Merrell in the Physics Department. That is me.

This is when the mentoring begins. We first look at the requirements from the Physics Department’s curriculum maps. We then move to the requirements of the State of Utah for teacher licensure, and we finally progress to questions about the classes that the student has already taken and the remaining courses/requirements that are still needed to finish.

Next, the students must be fingerprinted since they will be in the local schools for their first exploration of teaching in the physical science classroom, during the methods for teaching physical science class, and throughout their student teaching or internship. In all these cases, I work closely with them, both in the college classroom and in the K-12 schools. Because I place all of our students in their student teaching assignments, I have the freedom to choose the most appropriate schools and mentors for their placements. Since many of our former students have been in the classroom long enough to be able to take student teachers, I can now pair our alumni up with our preservice teachers. Our former students have become the mentors.

During the student teaching and internship phase of our program, my partner and I work together to visit the students and give them feedback every week. So, during the 15 week semester, we try to make 30 visits. We use the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP) evaluation, as well as other forms of feedback, to help our students continually reflect on their practice.

Throughout all of this, we work together when problems come up: a bad grade that needs to be redone, sickness, and all of the other real life experiences that students live through.

It doesn’t end after graduation, however. We stay in touch, we talk on the phone, and we genuinely care about the differences that our graduates are making in their physics classrooms. Even though our graduates are teaching all over the country: California, Washington, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, Virginia, New York, Boston, etc., we try to stay in touch with them during their induction phase of teaching.

Mentoring is a two-way, never-ending process. In addition to the feedback I give to the students, they will also share things with me that they’ve tried and think I will incorporate into the training of the next cohort of teachers. They have a good feel for what I like, and as we work through this process, we are able to learn lessons together. They become better young teachers, and I become a better old mentor.

Duane Merrell is an Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Brigham Young University (BYU), responsible for physical science teaching students at BYU who are earning Earth Space Science, Chemistry, Physics, and Physical Science degrees. BYU moved the preparation of these secondary education physical science teachers from the College of Education to the College of Math and Physical Science in 2004, resulting in a robust program that has graduated more than 175 students in the past 12 years, with 139 of those as certified physics teachers.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.