Being a new AP teacher is exciting and daunting! It will be a tough year to not only learn the material yourself, but also teach it to your kids. Hang in there! It can be a very rewarding journey. Make sure to join a community of fellow teachers for help and encouragement. Here are some tips I often tell to new AP teachers . Most of these suggestions work for many AP subjects, not just science. (AP® is a trademark owned by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.)
- Make a year-long plan and STICK TO IT! Its hard to cover everything that you think you should. Lecture often takes longer than expected…and there’s this great documentary…and then a great debate or project…and then the kids say they’re not ready for the test and need a day or two….and ultimately the test gets pushed back a day or two. If you do this for multiple chapters, you’re sunk. You also need some days of buffer if you live in a state with weather closures. Many new AP teachers (or even experienced ones) panic in March and ask which chapters they can skip, because they’re behind (The answer is none of them, because sometimes an entire FRQ is on a minor chapter). Give the test on the day you planned. Be disciplined. Tell the kids you have a deadline that you and they must meet or they won’t be ready for the exam in May. Lay out the pacing plan-they will respect it. Cut out a movie, assign content at home, but stick to your pacing plan.
- You can’t do everything that you find. Shared material online or from other APES teachers can be overwhelming. You have to carefully pick and chose–we all do. My files contain 3X as many good things than I have time for. Make sure all labs and activities that you choose give you a lot of “bang for the buck” I recently cut out a two-day predator/prey lab that I had done for 10 years, because after analyzing released MC exams, I found that predator/prey questions were very rare. I now teach the concept in 5-10 minutes which is a better use of time for the random question on the AP exam. Instead, I spend time on labs such as owl pellet dissection in which many topics concerning trophic levels can be covered in one lab.
- You can’t cover everything in class time. You need to assign content at home. You can do this in a few different ways. Reading assignments with quizzes, partial flip or full flip, sticky notes are examples. Tell the kids they they cannot rely on you to give them everything they need during class time and some of the easy stuff will be homework.
- Start out the year hard, but don’t go overboard. My course, AP Environmental Science, is sometimes called the “easy AP” by students. That is the common misconception. We do fun labs in this class and the content is interesting, but fun does not equal easy. While the course is easier than AP Chem or AP Physics, it has a low national pass rate (usually less than 50%). Kids will need to work to get a good grade and to pass the AP Exam. If you start out too easy, the kids will turn on you when you try to make it harder. On the flip side, sometimes new AP teachers assign unnecessary work just because we think we “should” in an AP class or that it will prepare them for college. This includes reading a novel, research papers etc. I did this and over time stopped when I learned more about my students. They have so much to balance in their lives–other AP classes, sports, a job, clubs etc. When you give them work that’s not needed to pass the exam, you lose their trust and can overwhelm them. I tell my students that I don’t give them extra things to do and that everything is strategic–so don’t slack off. They appreciate it so much and will respect you for it.
- Talk about your competence. In other words, brag on your self. Now, I know this sounds weird, but in a lot of schools (especially in high achieving schools), the AP kids can be really bratty to new AP teachers. You could be a veteran teacher, but once you cross into the AP world, kids will look at you skeptically and question your competence. Obnoxious. This happened to me and has happened to almost every new AP teacher in my school. From my conversations with other AP teachers across the country, this is not unique. A couple of ways to combat this is to subtlety drop in things about your expertise in science. “You know when I was at this conference last summer, we studied the research regarding ….”, or “I spent last weekend touring a power plant”. Another idea is to reference other experienced AP teachers from your online communities. “My friend, at so and so high school, is a reader and grades AP exams, and she says that students have to cover content at home.” or “I don’t know the answer, but let me ask my hive (online AP teacher community). They will look at you in amazement that you have other AP friends, or a hive and are drawing on their expertise. Don’t worry, this attitude usually subsides after the first year.
- Keep it positive! This applies mostly to my course, but there are several other AP courses that talk about problems. It can easily become the doom and gloom class if you focus on all the problems. Yes, they need to know the problems, but also focus on the solutions and where we have made improvements in our country. We’ve cleaned up our air (here’s a great example in CA), our water (Cuyahoga river), saved a bunch of species, and have increased in organic foods. These are just a few examples. Tell kids that they can work on solutions as their career-give them hope. Show them places they can make personal choices to help like. When I first started this course, I felt like I had to passionately get them to care about the planet. I realize now that they get it just by the content of the course. Don’t use depressing videos (11th hour is an example). Use ones that show the problems, but have encouraging solutions (NOVA videos are great for this). You also don’t have to discuss every current event out there to get them to understand the dire state of the planet.
- Realize that your class is not the most important thing in a kid’s life or at your school . When I was a kid, my dad was a Spanish teacher and helped start the AP program in the 80s at my high school. It was a REALLY BIG DEAL. They screened kids, only offered one section of each class, only offered a handful of APs and really made a lot of it. When I was a new AP teacher, I had this in my mind. I planned a breakfast the morning of the AP exam and then told kids to ask their teachers to get out of their 7 am class to come. I was incredulous that one fine arts teacher didn’t let the kids out of class. I thought “doesn’t he know this is super important?!” That was arrogance on my part. Now I realize that his class was important too, and that my kids juggle a lot of things. They take multiple AP classes, ASB, band, sports, jobs, etc. I need to be sensitive to my students and while expecting them to work hard, realize that they are juggling a lot.
- Ignore current events (mostly). Don’t get me wrong, learning to read current news articles is important to create an informed and literate generation. News articles that cover part of the curriculum are also important as primary or secondary sources. But, remember, you can’t do everything and you need to not only make sure you complete the content, but also work on higher level skills and science processes. In my first couple of years of teaching AP, I wanted to bring all the articles I found on the subject into class. Not only did this take precious class time, but I also found that the kids don’t appreciate the news articles until they understand the science. After a few months, when they start to know the science, they will tell you about current happenings that apply to the class and forward you news articles that they find-on their own. This is organic and more exciting than having it as an assignment. After about 2-3 years, current topics may make their way onto the AP Exam, but not before so you don’t have to stress about it. . Many AP teachers do current events for extra credit or after the AP Exam in May.
- Don’t assign projects to cover curriculum. Some teachers will disagree, but here’s my reasoning. In my course, students have to memorize some lists of items along with their characteristics. These include biomes, biogeochemical cycles, air pollutants, energy sources, toxins and diseases. One problem with assigning different kids or groups of kids topics to research and present, is that the kids really only become an expert in one of them and then half-way learn the others. The kids need to know ALL OF THEM! These topics are frequently asked on multiple choice questions and on FRQs and the kids have to know details on all of them so they can answer the specific questions asked. Spend your time instead on having kids make charts, graphic organizers, etc to make sure they know all of the information. If you would like some more research and data about this philosophy about projects, go to this Harvard site. You can do projects, however, on topics in which a kid needs to only know a couple of examples of. These include endangered species or invasive species and are usually asked as open-ended FRQ questions. I have my students make endangered species trading cards.
- Review vocab, graphing, math etc. in context to save days and precious time. Spend time on graphing review as part of the first lab by helping them set up their axes and discussing the appropriate type of graph. Review math concepts in certain chapters and then have them practice word problems in and around those chapters to help them both review for the chapter, and also review the math. Kids in a college-level class should be able to memorize vocab as part of the chapter and exam-not as a separate assignment. This is ideal if kids are placed appropriately in an AP course. If the majority of your class is low, you may have to spend more time on these topics separately, but realize that you will lose days on them. On that note, work with your school to appropriately place students. You can refer to AP research for help.
- Don’t fret about the order of the curriculum. Go in the order of the textbook if you don’t have another plan. Kids really feel much more confident that way and like anticipating what’s next. Since you are new AP teacher, the kids might be a little anxious with your abilities (see #6) so following the text gives them a bit more peace. If you want to mix it up later to better meet the needs of your population of kids, then do it-after all, you’re the expert on your school and kids.
- Don’t post anything that is copyrighted online–especially released AP Exams. And don’t put test banks or keys to worksheets online. Even if you think your website is secure and password protected or only your students would possibly get on your site, Google finds a way. You will incur the wrath of other AP teachers who use those exams as a final. Or, who use worksheets and don’t want keys online. The same goes for test banks. These items are “cached” by google so even if you remove when you are caught, it can stay for months on the internet. The College Board may also take legal action if you post their copy-writed items.
- Copying and Cheating can be a big problem. I love my AP kids. They’re some of the nicest, well-behaved kids in the school, but many are also grade-mongers and are highly vested in their GPAs. With smart phones, some (but not all) kids take pics of homework and group text them to others in the class. Anything you want authentic needs to be done in class time. This is one of the benefits of flipping-kids are supposed to copy notes so homework is notes. Utilize Turnitin.com if your school subscribes. I use turnitin for lab reports and other writing assignments. A lot of “secure” info is online. This includes test banks. Try to obtain test banks from other books. You can purchase or borrow from a neighboring teacher. My exams have questions from 3-4 banks so if they find the test bank for my book, they won’t have any idea where I pulled the other questions from. For FRQs on exams, cut and paste different released FRQs together to create a unique FRQ, but is still AP quality with rubrics. Collect phones during exams so they cannot look up answers or take pics for kids in a later period.
- Work with your guidance office or administration to help them correctly place kids. I’m NOT talking about gatekeeping. All kids who are ready should be allowed to take an AP course and this is not just gifted or honors kids. I teach 150+ AP kids a year and over 2/3 are taking an AP for the first time as a junior or senior. But, a lot of schools will increase their AP enrollment, because it “looks good” or meets some parameter for scoring the school. I’ve seen too many kids disheartened and miserable, because they can’t keep up with their classmates. You can see what the research says about it here. A great tool is provided by College Board called AP Potential. It took me a few years of nice discussions with our guidance counselors to explain what type of kid would do best in my course and they do a great job so I am grateful.
- Be nice to yourself and cut yourself some slack as a new AP teacher. It takes a few years to really understand an AP course and its nuances. Your value as a person is not dependent on your AP scores. I spent several years really fretting over this and I have a good pass rate. This is no way to live. Don’t fret over perfect lessons, take time to relax. Therapy and co-dependency groups are helpful to get over this mindset.