Okla. teachers find empowerment, become statewide leaders through OSDE's OKMath/OKSci leadership initiative

OKSCIENCE OKMATHOKLAHOMA CITY (Sept. 12, 2014) – Shelena Thomas discovered a problem shortly after she stepped into the old laboratory at Tishomingo High School five years ago. She was just starting her new job teaching chemistry in a newly constructed classroom, but the old lab it replaced still contained vials of old, sometimes unstable chemicals that had been collected over several decades.

Thomas had a master’s degree in biotechnology and countless hours of lab experience, but knowing how to dispose of a litany of reactive compounds was nearly overwhelming. She managed to do so, but it got her thinking about a project she is now working on with the help of a unique Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) leadership program.

“As a science teacher, I’ve realized that we’re not trained or educated enough on laboratory safety,” Thomas said. “In order to coach, you have to go to a required class … but there’s no sort of workshop that requires us (science teachers) to get trained to work in a lab with students.”

When Thomas heard some other teachers talking about an application to join the first class of OSDE’s OKMath/OKSci Leadership initiative, she saw an opportunity to make labs in Oklahoma schools safer.

OKMath/OKSci enables teachers to gain leadership skills and expand their reach beyond their own classrooms. Over the course of each year, a new class meets in person and virtually to discuss projects, develop professionally and seek ways to improve math and science education in Oklahoma.

The 31-member inaugural class graduated this past summer. Each member chose a keystone project aimed at solving a problem facing STEM education in Oklahoma with the potential of continuing long after his or her class graduates. Thomas was part of that class, and credits it with helping her launch a long-term initiative to improve lab safety in the state. 

“My immediate goal is to get a lab safety manual put together as a resource for all science teachers in Oklahoma,” she said.

From there she hopes to keep developing the resource, eventually designing a statewide training class.

“You start with small steps,” she said. “I expect to stick with it until I see it through.”

Empowerment is a theme that comes up often when OKMath/OKSci participants talk about what they gained from the program. It’s what prompted Sarah Vann, a science teacher at Owasso Eighth-Grade Center, to apply in the first place.

Good teachers focus on how best to serve students, Vann said, but that focus can sometimes make teachers forego opportunities to connect with each other and improve education on a broader scale.

“If teachers were to look around and dream big, the impact they could have on a state level would become more apparent,” she said.

As Vann began to network with fellow science teachers in her OKMath/OKSci class, they brainstormed ways to share resources and connect with other educators around the state. Now Vann and five other teachers from her graduating OKMath/OKSci class are developing an online community for Oklahoma science teachers. 

The site will include, among other things, blogs where teachers can share good classroom practices, stories on teachers doing great things and a resource page fleshing out the new science standards.

“I think the biggest thing is the fact that there were no boundaries placed on us,” Vann said. “[OKMath/OKSci] empowered us to have a vision, and it gave us support to have that vision.”

Shawn Sheehan came to OKMath/OKSci with a different focus than many of his classmates. As a special education teacher at Norman High School, he wanted to strengthen his content background in math.

“Normally, you go to professional developments and it’s always special ed stuff. I was never around math people,” Sheehan said.

After being a little intimidated by stepping outside of the usual boundaries of his position, Sheehan said he adjusted quickly and began learning from his colleagues right away.

“What’s happened is I’ve come back with my Algebra I team here at Norman High School, and we’re revamping the curriculum,” he said.

Sheehan’s goals extend beyond his own school. For his keystone project, Sheehan set out to change the public perception of teaching and increase the value of the profession. He started making videos of educators talking about their passion for teaching and posting the clips to a Facebook page for his “Teach Like Me” project.

One of his videos was screened in July during a general session of the Vision 2020 education conference in Oklahoma City. Just before the school year started, Norman Public Schools shared a “Teach Like Me” video at its districtwide employee meeting.

“It has been so well-received that I have been really beside myself,” Sheehan said. “It’s surreal that people are eager and hungry for this positive message.” 

The videos are just a start. Sheehan hopes to keep expanding the reach of “Teach Like Me” for years to come and branch out into other programs. What started as a keystone project in his OKMath/OKSci class has turned into something much bigger. 

As things begin for the next class of OKMath/OKSci, which met for the first time during a session of Vision 2020, members of the first class are trying to stay in touch and beginning to work on their projects.

“It’s just life-changing,” Shelena Thomas said. “It has transformed me. I would recommend it to every teacher.”



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Last updated on September 12, 2014