"...the time is ripe that we take a closer look at our technicians and their individual skills, qualities and attributes..." Endpoint - Stuart Walker has the last word
The number of support staff employed in our schools has greatly increased over the last twenty years and this has had many benefits for teachers. IT technicians solve our issues with computers, reprographics technicians do our photocopying and teaching assistants work with us in the classroom so that we are not spread too thinly. We have been quick to utilise and develop the roles of these newer members of staff, but as science teachers have we further developed the role of our technicians? Our science technicians have been with us for a long time, but does this mean that we have taken them for granted? Do we really use these valuable team members to the maximum benefit of the children we teach? My experience tells me that the answers to these questions depend upon the qualifications, skills and attributes of the teachers and technicians in the science department and the dynamic between them. Technicians perform an essential service in the practical support of teaching staff, but as budgets get tighter and class sizes larger, perhaps it is time that we look to our technicians for direct support in the classroom.
Quality not quantity
The qualifications that are required to become a science technician are commonly 5 GCSE grades at C or above in maths, English and science. In reality, many of our technicians are almost as qualified as science teachers. Perhaps half of the technicians I have worked with have degrees in subjects such as physics, chemistry, biological sciences and engineering. This educational background gives them an excellent practical and theoretical knowledge of the science curriculum. With such qualified scientists in our midst, I think we should be thinking of enhancing the role of these scientists to give greater benefit to the students in our classes but only if they themselves wish to be developed further in this respect.
Technicians do sometimes carry out practical demonstrations, helping teachers out with tricky experiments whilst capturing the imagination of students. I think that they can do much more than this. I propose that some of our technicians could serve as laboratory demonstrators within our schools, similar to the model employed in many of our university practical laboratories. Practical laboratory work with a large class of students can be very hectic to manage. There are a range of potential hazards to watch out for, not to mention some students requiring individual attention, so to have a demonstrator to assist in the explanation, small group work and supervision of students would be invaluable in this sense. A suitably qualified and trained technician could be given a small timetable of lessons in which to act as a laboratory demonstrator, much the same as a doctoral student would within a university chemistry department. Indeed, the main qualification for undergraduate laboratory demonstrating is to have a relevant degree and to attend a laboratory demonstrators' induction course. I think a similar process could be followed for technicians who wish to demonstrate in our school laboratories under the direction of the classroom teacher. The benefits to the technicians could be enhanced job satisfaction, the ability to undergo additional professional development and to help them be effective demonstrators and perhaps gain enhanced status and pay. The benefits to the students would be having potentially two science graduates in the class rather than one, helping to inspire our children to become the scientists of the future by enabling us to be much more ambitious with the learning outcomes in our practical classes.1,2
Many graduates have entered the teaching profession after positive experiences of demonstrating in university laboratories, including myself. With a shortage of teachers particularly within the fields of chemistry and physics, demonstrating within schools may encourage some technicians to train to become teachers themselves. By opening this route to technicians we could be tapping into a supply of quality graduates with experience of working within schools and as part of the science department team. Furthermore, this could also help to solve the current recruitment and retention problems within science.3 The use of demonstrators would also help to emphasise that practical work is an essential part of science teaching and learning when combined with genuine scientific enquiry and method.4
In these difficult times of shrinking budgets it is only right that we look at the resources we have in school and ask ourselves as teachers and curriculum leaders if we are using them effectively. I believe the time is ripe that we take a closer look at our technicians and their individual skills, qualities and attributes and encourage them to expand their work beyond the prep room and into the teaching laboratory.
Stuart Walker teaches chemistry at McAuley Catholic High School, Doncaster