An Interview with Nicole Gillespie: The Knowles Science Teaching Foundation

Mar 23, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Nicole, first of all what exactly is the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation and where is it located?

The mission of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF) is to increase the number of outstanding math and science teachers in U.S. high schools. We are located in Moorestown, NJ – just outside of Philadelphia – and were founded in 1999 by Harry and Janet Knowles, who feel that they owe their success in life to excellent and committed high school science and math teachers. KSTF is their legacy, and they see it as a way of giving back to and strengthening the teaching profession.

KSTF has three programs. Our cornerstone program is a Teaching Fellowship Program that supports beginning high school science and math teachers for five years. Each year, we offer fellowships to approximately 36 talented, driven individuals who are committed to becoming outstanding teachers. We currently support 137 teachers around the country and will soon be announcing the 2012 Cohort of KSTF Teaching Fellows. We also have an Alumni Program that supports the Fellows as teacher leaders and change agents after they complete the Fellowship. That program is being developed with the help of our 49 current Alumni. Finally, our Research and Evaluation Program helps us continually improve the Teaching Fellowship and Alumni programs, supports teacher researchers and directs and coordinates the organization’s efforts to generate knowledge from our work. Each of these three programs interacts with and reinforces each other to strengthen the teaching profession and influence the national dialogue on educational reform.

2) Now, you are “Director for Teaching Fellows”…what is involved in this job and what exactly would you say you do…at the Foundation?

As the title suggests, I direct the Teaching Fellowship Program at KSTF. KSTF is unique in how we go about increasing the quality and/or quantity of excellent science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers in this country. Everything we do is grounded in the understanding that teaching is highly complex, intellectually challenging work that demands the best efforts of the most talented, committed people in the nation. The Teaching Fellowship Program is all about identifying exactly those individuals, and providing them with the training and support that they need to become outstanding master teachers. Our program provides financial and professional support to new teachers for five years.

It combines a five-year professional development trajectory with a number of individual benefits that fellows can choose from to meet their specific needs in their specific contexts. The program has been developed over the last ten years by an extremely talented, dedicated staff, all of whom are former teachers. So, in summary, my job is to make sure we are constantly improving the KSTF Teaching Fellowship Program to keep up with, and keep challenging and supporting, the amazing teachers that we work with.

3) With the upcoming Presidential elections, I can understand discussing the economy, gas prices and these various “undeclared wars” around the world. Are any of the Presidential candidates, in your mind, going to speak out about education?

I can only hope so. All of the issues that our society currently struggles with are tied to education, and it seems obvious to me that we’d be able to address them more productively with a well-educated citizenry. The world is changing rapidly, but how we educate our students has not kept pace, never mind how we prepare and support the teachers who provide that education. But there are no easy answers or quick fixes, and I’m afraid that doesn’t make for good campaign rhetoric.

4) I hear about people taking early retirement, I see students I have trained in retail businesses, and I see others making a career change. Is this just to be expected, or does it send a message and who is receiving the message?

Teacher morale in this country is disturbingly low and (not coincidentally) attrition rates are unacceptably high. Almost half of all new teachers leave the profession in the first five years. There is a lot of research on this topic, but it usually boils down to the fact that the work of teachers is not respected in this country, and the work we ask them to do is often unreasonable and unsustainable.

The KSTF Teaching Fellowship is designed to counteract some of the reasons teachers leave the profession, but also to develop a deeper understanding of what it takes to retain and support teachers so that they can develop into experienced teacher leaders. And we are succeeding; over five years of the fellowship, we retain 90% of the teachers we work with, compared to 50% nationally. But more importantly, our Teaching Fellows take on leadership roles from the classroom and are having a positive impact on their schools, their colleagues and on STEM education more broadly.

So, KSTF really invests in networked teachers rather than individuals, hence the payoff is much broader than just individual teachers’ students.

5) The one thing I hear from teachers is that children with multiple special needs are being “included” in their classrooms inappropriately. Is there any solution on the horizon?

I think the issue isn’t so much about which students get included, but what kind of training and support teachers receive to work with students with increasingly diverse needs. It’s not uncommon for high school teachers to be working with 150 students per day, including gifted students, English-language learners, students with physical, emotional and behavioral challenges, students who live below the poverty level and students with difficult personal lives. If we expect teachers to help ALL students learn, we have an obligation to ensure first that they have adequate training, resources and support to do their job.

6) I have actually spoken to representatives and even one Senator in person – and, you know what? They really don’t have a clue as to how to fix education – they are unhappy with NCLB – and feel it should be tweaked – but that is about it. Your thoughts?

I’m not really surprised by this. Even though most of us (including politicians) have experienced education as students, the issues plaguing education in this country are complex. It’s almost impossible to understand how difficult teaching is until you’ve actually done it AND looked critically at the results. STEM education is particularly challenging in that we need to prepare students to thrive in a world that is increasingly being shaped by technological advances. Teaching in a way that enables students to become scientifically literate, critical thinkers and creative problem solvers in a rapidly changing world is incredibly difficult; it takes significant time, effort and resources to learn to do it at all, never mind well. The U.S. seems to be caught up in the myth that teaching is easy, and that has led to a lot of very negative press about teachers, as well as ill-conceived, even damaging, “solutions” to our education problems. It’s time we expose that myth for what it is and start listening to teachers’ ideas for improving education. I think the new RESPECT initiative has the potential to be a step in the right direction.

7) The only words I have ever heard from President Obama’s mouth about education were “our kids deserve a world class education”. But over the last 3-4 years, I have not seen anything toward that – have you?

I know of some really powerful examples of change that are taking place, but those are almost exclusively driven from within schools, by teachers. For example, one of the teachers I work with, Casey O’Hara, developed an Engineering and Green Technologies Program in his school, and has his students designing inexpensive and energy-efficient light fixtures to be used by people with limited income and access to electricity. His students are using knowledge of physics to design solutions for real-world problems – a far cry from memorizing formulae and solving problems in a textbook. There are other teachers out there doing equally great work, but many of our really talented teachers in this country are hamstrung by having to teach to low-quality standardized tests.

8) What support does this Knowles Foundation offer for teachers?

I think the most important support we offer our Teaching Fellows is access to a network of exceptionally talented and committed STEM teachers all across the country. KSTF is a true professional learning community in which members learn from, support and inspire each other. The backbone of the Fellowship Program is an extensive and coherent professional development opportunity in which each year builds on the previous. We also provide considerable financial support that allows fellows to participate in professional development activities of their choice each year, obtain materials for their classrooms, create and sustain local collaborations among teachers, and engage in inquiry into their own teaching practice.

9) I see the word science there – and again, I hear from teachers that they are short of supplies in science. Any thoughts in this direction?

I think teachers of all subjects are short on resources; this is one of the reasons that the Fellowship provides funds for classroom materials. For example, KSTF awarded a grant to Physical Science Fellow Michael Town for infrared temperature guns so his students could measure the temperature of a baseball bat in a unit on energy transfer.

Mathematics Teaching Fellow Ellie Ratliffe used her materials grant to purchase Lego Mindstorm kits and had her students study robot locomotion in geometry class. Biology Teaching Fellow Kim Voss received support from KSTF to host a butterfly garden at her school in which her students can study ecological concepts such as food webs, life cycles and biological diversity. It’s not an enormous amount of money (currently just $1200 per teacher per year), but it’s remarkable what a talented, creative teacher can do with just a little bit of support.

10) What have I neglected to ask?

I really wish you had asked me to talk in detail about each and every one of our amazing Teaching Fellows and Alumni and the inspiring work they are doing, plus the talented and dedicated staff at KSTF.

Maybe next time?

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