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UToledo Educator Leads $2.3M Initiative to Keep High-Quality Science Teachers in Classrooms

Education can be a challenging vocation.

School districts often struggle to recruit and retain high-quality teachers, who cite job satisfaction and burnout as key reasons they leave the classroom.

Natasha Johnson, Ph.D., can relate to the challenges facing today’s teachers, with roughly two decades of classroom experience in metro Atlanta preceding her transition to The University of Toledo’s Judith Herb College of Education in 2020.

It is why she’s passionate about a $2.3 million initiative she’s heading to support sixth through 12th-grade science teachers in high-need districts in Ohio and Kentucky, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Robert Noyce Scholarship Program.

Johnson and her collaborators are currently recruiting a cohort of 20 master teaching fellows, who by the fall will be immersed in research-based teacher and leadership professional development designed to develop mastery of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to lead from their classrooms.

Johnson, center, assistant professor in the Department of Education, is leading a $2.3 million initiative to support sixth through 12th grade science teachers in high-need districts in Ohio. Collaborators include Jonathan Bossenbroek, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences, left, and Kevin Czajkowski, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Geography and Planning.

“We pour a lot of energy into training new teachers, which is necessary and important, but it’s also critical that we think about how to retain veteran teachers who have a track record of success in the classroom,” said Johnson, an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education. “This initiative is designed to equip and empower teachers to continue making a difference for their students year after year.”

The Robert Noyce Scholarship Program provides funding to institutions of higher education to provide scholarships, stipends, and programmatic support aimed at recruiting and retaining teachers specializing in science, technology, engineering, and math. Johnson’s proposal addresses retention among a category of teacher that research indicates is at particular risk of attrition: middle and high school teachers of specialized subjects who are employed by high-need districts.

Johnson and her co-principal investigators — Kim Zeidler-Watters, Ed.D., executive director of the Partnership Institute for Math and Science Education Reform based in Lexington, KY, and UToledo’s Jonathan Bossenbroek, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences, and Kevin Czajkowski, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning — are specifically recruiting middle and high school science teachers with at least five years of experience in urban and rural districts in Ohio and Kentucky.

Urban and rural districts often face additional barriers to teacher recruitment and retention due to the unique challenges of the environment. Master teaching fellows will explore similarities and differences in their experiences in urban and rural districts over the five-year period of the initiative, which is designed to cultivate teacher persistence by mitigating factors that lead to teacher turnover. Using a community of practice model, fellows will have the opportunity to engage with each other and with mentors in monthly meetings and summer programming, as well as classroom observations and exchanges, virtual study groups, and micro-courses in areas like leadership development, cultural competence, and national board professional teaching standards.

Video analysis also will be integrated throughout the initiative as a tool to deepen fellows’ knowledge of the content and methodology of the Next Generation Science Standards/Three Dimensional Learning Model, which aligns with state science standards in Ohio and Kentucky.

“One barrier we see is that we’re asking teachers to teach in ways they weren’t taught,” said Johnson. “The Next Generation Science Standards really emphasizes the importance of hands-on, interactive learning. But for generations, we taught science as a transmission of knowledge: lectures, readings, things like that. Through this initiative, we want to give teachers the tools to make the necessary shifts in their instructional practices.”

Fellows also will participate in excursions, exploring their local landscapes and attractions as potential informal classrooms where they can engage and excite students.

Each master teaching fellow will receive an annual stipend of $13,000.

“This is an exciting project for Dr. Johnson and the Judith Herb College of Education,” said Rebecca Schneider, Ph.D., professor and senior associate dean of the college. “Our students in urban and rural settings deserve highly qualified teachers. Through this project, Dr. Johnson will develop teachers as experts in teaching science and as leaders who will make a difference for students and fellow teachers.”

Johnson is excited to start interviewing candidates in June.

“For me, it’s a labor of love,” Johnson said, reflecting on her own years in a science classroom. “When I left high school for higher education, I knew I wanted to continue to help students. I’m excited to do that by supporting the teachers who will educate and inspire them.”

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