Teaching: It’s not pointless

10Mar10

I’ve been thinking about how high schools prepare us for grown-up life recently. I’ve been wrestling with the idea of becoming a high school teacher, but there are certain aspects I can’t seem to overcome, such as the seemingly small role that a teacher plays in someone’s life. Perhaps a bit of background will sort things out.

Part I: How I Discovered Physics

I first considered becoming a physics teacher when I was 16 years old. In my grade 11 physics course, we were required to do a project on any physics related topic. I had always had an interest in space (My grade 5 science fair project was “The Solar System”), and I always thought the Big Bang was an interesting concept (the whole universe began with a huge explosion? Neat!). I went to my school’s library to flip through the (somewhat lacking) selection of physics books, looking for any “Big Bang” related topics. I remember there was approximately 5 rows of physics/astronomy books, so not a large selection of books.

I happened across a book called “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Einstein”. Of course, I knew who Einstein was, but I didn’t know what he was famous for; I just knew he was a physicist. While flipping through that book, I noticed a couple chapters devoted to cosmology, and after reading a couple passages, I was hooked.

I started to read the bits of the book relevant to my project, and quickly realized that what I was reading was fascinating, but I would have to start from the beginning to understand the whole picture.  I think I put that book down once before I finished it…and I think I re-read it the week after. I was hooked. Physics was awesome.

However, I wasn’t too keen on my physics teachers though. Physics in a classroom environment just wasn’t exciting for me, and my teachers were either not very boring or not qualified to be teaching the subject (in case you were wondering, I got 100% on my Big Bang report, even though I made obvious mistakes every page or so of a 15 page report). There were moments when it was exciting, but that was when I did reading on my own, not during class hours. However, I did have some outstanding teachers, and I wanted to be like them, to make subjects fun, exciting and accessible. My best friend’s parents were also teachers, so I had a pretty good idea about the kind of lifestyle teachers had. That lifestyle, combined with the influence of a few great teachers and my newfound appreciation for physics, convinced me that I should be a physics teacher. The fact that there was likely to be a job waiting for me when I finished cemented the idea.

I entered university quite immature to science and mathematics. In fact, I was terrible at mathematics. My first failed math test came when I was 9 years old, and things got only marginally better as I went along. I came infinitesimally close to  failing high school calculus. Yet here I was, majoring in physics, taking 6-8 math and physics courses a year.

Long story short, I matured mathematically and scientifically, decided I liked learning physics too much to stop and ended up getting my masters degree in physics. Even though the idea of becoming a teacher kept getting pushed aside, I would come back to me every so often. However, when you’re learning quantum mechanics and advanced electromagnetism, the idea of teaching Newton’s law at a basic level is not the most appealing thing. At least, that was the thought at the time.

Part II: Why I Should Help Others Discover Physics

Now that the idea of teaching has again entered my mind, I’ve been thinking about the importance of these high school courses in someone’s life. I’d like to be a teacher, but what if I’m just a hole in the wall? What is my role in society? To teach a subject that less than 50% of students take, and probably just as many never think of as soon as it’s over? Heck, they may not even remember the teacher in 10 years!

Which I guess brings me to my point. Some of the most influential teachers I had were in subjects that I don’t formally use anymore (English and History). Yet that course introduced me to current events, the role of history on everyday society, and the fact that learning could be fun. I was also influenced by my friends, as we would sometimes go over what was taught in class and even delve into subjects outside of the realm of the public education system, like philosophy or psychology.

I’m sure if you ask anyone what they remember about high school, classroom learning is not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet everyone (and I think this is a scientific law) has a teacher or two that they remember having a positive influence on them, even if they don’t remember the details of what they were taught.** My friends were not physics/math types, so I was essentially on my own in that area. Until I was 18, I didn’t have any peers or role models in physics. I basically took up learning physics as a hobby, and no one that I knew of shared my enthusiasm for the subject (I probably just didn’t look hard enough). But the positive influences I had from my friends and teachers helped me keep going and to consider taking physics seriously. No one played a direct role in my embrace of physics, but their influence was all over it.

I’m trying to come up with a summary for the role a teacher plays in a student’s life, but it keeps becoming riddled with cliches, so I’ll just say this: the subject matter isn’t the most important thing in a class. The most important thing is to keep a student consistently interested in your class so they take something…anything…from the time they spend in your classroom. Everyone has different experiences, and the subject matter is hardly the most important thing. So many factors come into play for a person’s development, and each contribution can seem so inconsequential. But maybe it’s not. Make your contribution matter.

Of course, everyone I’ve ever talked to said that high school physics did not prepare them at all for university-level physics. So maybe if I taught, I could change that too.

Bla that was a lot of writing…

TL;DR (Cliche summary)- As a teacher, you have an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. Make it count.

** I remember maybe 3 lessons from school before I was 16. I do remember recess though, and how I spent my recesses and breaks for every year of my schooling.
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