Meet the Teacher: Elementary STEM Instructor Dan McGonigal Joins TNCS

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Dan McGonigal, TNCS’s new elementary STEM teacher. Mr. McGonigal is married and the father of two young boys. He enjoys sports, working on home improvement projects, and spending time outdoors.

“I like spending time with people,” said Dan McGonigal who joined The New Century School as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) teacher for the 2014–2015 school year. “With just about any job I’ve had, I’ve always helped or trained new people to do the job. I really like that aspect, so getting into education was a natural fit for me.” Before coming to TNCS, Mr. McGonigal taught in the Harford and Baltimore County school public systems for the prior 7 years. He began his professional life as a newspaper journalist, however. Originally from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, his first stint was interning at The Daily Item in Sunbury, PA. He quickly realized that job wasn’t going to cut it. “I spent 90% of my time sitting at my desk talking on the phone,” he said. “That was not the direction I wanted my career to go in. It’s not what I had imagined it would be.”

Background

With a degree in communications from Bloomsburg University, he next joined the Nielsen Company as a field representative, doing market research for television ratings. After various promotions, he became a supervisor, but eventually the long hours, the constant travel, and the stress of hiring and firing people grew tiresome. “I got to the point where I felt like I wasn’t doing any good for anybody. At the end of the day I felt unfulfilled,” he said. Knowing how much he enjoyed the training side of supervising, he decided to pursue a Master’s Degree in education at Notre Dame of Maryland University. “Because of work, I found myself moving around the country a lot. I’ve lived in seven different states, and I’ve come back to Maryland three different times. Now it’s meant to be and it’s for good!”

Having found his true calling, he next had to figure out what grades and subjects he was best suited to teach. Those realizations came very quickly. “I wasn’t initially sure about what my target age group was going to be but I discovered that 3rd through 5th grade areas are where I feel most comfortable. My comfort zone is with this age group. They are easy to inspire but still need my help—they are very teachable.”

As for what to teach, he says he feels a special affinity for STEM subjects. “I really enjoy math and especially science. I like the hands-on aspect that science can bring to education, and I feel that’s not only how I learn best, but it’s also my natural teaching style.”

The road to TNCS where he could give free rein to his inquiry-driven teaching approach was not a straight path, however. Although he knew he liked teaching and he liked the schools where he worked, morale had sunk quite low among his fellow teachers for a variety of reasons, but not least because the rate of compensation remained static for years, while resources dwindled and expectations rose. “It became challenging to work in that environment,” he said. “The administration was very difficult to work with in terms of being very restrictive with what I could teach and what kind of approach I could use. You had to be very much inside the box.” The final straw was when “teaching to the test” began to override any hands-on or project-based learning. “Not enough time or focus was devoted to science.”

In the meantime, he had joined a pilot program at Towson University for STEM certification. His cohort will be the very first to earn the new Maryland State Department of Education endorsement, “Instructional Leader—STEM (Pre K‑6)” in Spring 2015.

I wanted to practice some of this project-based learning I was studying, and Baltimore County hired me as a STEM teacher. I worked there for a year, but it was a pretty similar situation to what I experienced in Harford County—math was ‘in the box,’ and science was not supported. Many times I wouldn’t even get to science because I had to teach so much math. Also, it was a high-needs school, so I had to spend most of my time on test-taking strategies. The pressures that are put on elementary school teachers and kids with standardized testing lead to mutual frustration. Students start getting burned out; that joy of learning and love of coming to school is dying out earlier and earlier for some of these kids. It used to be not until middle school when students would hit that proverbial wall, but now it’s in elementary that kids start to feel all the pressure and stop enjoying school. Inevitably, this leads to major behavior problems.

Common Core also presented challenges insofar as it changed how everything is done and not necessarily in a readily executable way. “There are definitely some good aspects to it,”said Mr. McGonigal, “it encourages more depth versus breadth in studying topics, but everything is getting pushed down to younger and younger ages, and some kids aren’t developmentally ready to master certain skills that CC calls for. It was not developed by professional educators, so there was really no voice for teachers.”

Arrival at TNCS

By contrast, he is very happy at TNCS, where he is given the space to actually teach STEM. He says, “I love the small, intimate class size that lets you really get to know the students. There’s so much freedom with the curriculum. The owners and the administration have really embraced trying new things. If something doesn’t work, we adapt—learn from the experience and try it differently next time.” He sees the students also benefiting from this approach. “The students really like the opportunity to work together and to be hands-on,” he said. “They get really excited anytime I tell them we’re doing a design or engineering challenge—in-depth, 1-day teamwork/teambuilding activities that engage them, intrigue them, and get them looking for different solutions to various problems.” He uses Engineering is Elementary (EiE) in his classroom, with the goal of incorporating at least four of their units of study per grade level; these range from electricity to the human body to astronomy, etc.

Says Mr. McGonigal,” We’re encouraged to try something different, even if it’s out of our comfort zone, so I really appreciate that. When I was interviewing and being hired, they were very supportive of me instituting STEM. There’s a lot to like here—in addition to the class size, a lot of stress is taken off the teachers so the workload is manageable. My biggest issue is time—I wish I had more time with my students, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. I want to do more with the time that I have.” In his first year so far, he has spent time getting to know the school and what works for the different age groups. “It’s my first time teaching 1st- and 2nd-graders, so I’m figuring what to bring to their level and how best to bring it to their level,” he said.

Another thing he appreciates about TNCS is the synergy created by combining STEM and multilingual education: “Problem-solving skills are definitely being applied during language learning. Overall, that positively impacts brain development and how you learn. The kids are enthusiastic about it—they seem to enjoy it!”

Mostly he’s just glad that he gets the opportunity at TNCS to be the instructor he is at heart:

Part of why I like this hands-on style of learning is that the 21st-century skills that students are going to need to be competitive in the job market, they learn from problem-based learning experiences. It’s not just play or for fun. There are a lot of skills that go into it—cooperation, learning to resolve problems, how to meet and stay within certain parameters, how to think creatively—that are met by doing these challenges. I’ve really enjoyed learning about engineering, and I might have even chosen that as a career path if I had the chance to learn it as a student in school. That’s part of why I want to be in STEM education—to enlighten kids about what’s out there—what options and different career choices are open to them now.

Welcome to TNCS, Mr. McGonigal! It’s so nice to have you! And the projects are awesome!