Chemist Issa Salame won the 2005 Outstanding Teacher of the Year award at City College. The students and faculty of City voted for him, even though he had only been teaching for three years. Salame graciously accepted the award, and then decided to leave City and come to BMCC. He said he wanted to teach.
“When I left City, my smallest class had 125 students in it. I wasn’t teaching any more – I was lecturing.” Salame does not believe that information flows from the teacher to the student. “Knowledge cannot be transferred from one person to another – it’s not true that if you know your stuff that you can teach it. Knowledge has to be constructed in the mind of the learner.”
Salame likes to ask questions in class and then let students argue with each other toward the answer, just like scientists do at professional conferences. Salame saw BMCC, with its smaller class sizes, as an opportunity to use these kinds of tools to construct knowledge in the minds of students again.
When Salame announced his decision to his colleagues at City, they warned him that he would not find the same caliber of students at BMCC that he found at City. “My lower achieving students at BMCC do struggle more than my lower achieving students at City did, but,” he paused for emphasis, “my top 4 or 5 students at BMCC are better than my top 4 or 5 students at City.”
In the manner of a true teacher, Salame hates to see a student fail. His solution to the disparity he was seeing at BMCC was to pair the high achieving students with the low achieving students and join their destinies. “I told the high achieving students that they were responsible for their lower achieving partner. I didn’t mean it, but I told them that I would average their test scores and give each pair the same grade. You know what happened? They both did better. The high achieving students got higher A’s, and the lower achieving students went from failing grades to high C’s and low B’s.” The average students started joining the study groups, and their grades improved, too. The whole social and academic environment of the class improved, and the top students learned an important lesson in teamwork and professional accountability.
Salame would like to begin a program at CUNY to teach students how to teach science. Students would concentrate on science and pick a science major in their four-year program, but they would also earn a 20-credit teaching certificate. “Trained science teachers can pick their teaching assignments in the school system because there’s not enough of them. There are so few people qualified to teach science that we’re bringing people in from other countries.” But until his program gets off the ground, Salame will continue to change the teacher-centered model of teaching in his own classroom.
- Assistant Professor