A little something from The Onion that I’ll leave here:

How safe is too safe?

I got an email this week from a chemistry teacher at a small private school.  She had been teaching for a couple of years using only reagents that posed no real possible danger for students under any circumstances – think acetic acid instead of hydrochloric acid and so forth.  She was concerned that she was being far too conservative when thinking about safety and limiting her students in what they could learn in the lab.  What would I suggest she do?

This is a good question, and one that I think isn’t asked enough.  When working in a chemistry lab, there’s always a balance that needs to be struck between making the lessons interesting and useful, as well as making the labs safe enough that nobody can ever get hurt.  On one extreme is a lab in which the only reagents are baking soda and vinegar – in this case there’s no danger of injury but also a limit to how much that can be learned.  On the other extreme are labs that examine how aqua regia and hydrofluoric acid react with common substances – interesting and instructive, but suicidally dangerous for the kids.

What I told this teacher is that you simply cannot be too conservative when safety is considered.  If there’s even the slightest doubt in your mind that a lab can be done safely, then don’t do it.  Even if you feel like baking soda and vinegar are too dangerous to use, then you should absolutely not use them in the lab.  It doesn’t matter what the other teachers at your school do and it doesn’t matter what the lab manual says.  Never, ever perform a lab with reagents that you feel uncomfortable using.

This is not to say, however, that you can’t use interesting reagents.  The key here is to educate yourself about how to use them safely.  If you currently just use baking soda and vinegar but are interested in titrating sulfuric acid, there’s no reason why you can’t.  Provided, of course, that you fully understand your own limitations, the limitations of your students, and the limits of your safety equipment.

Before performing any lab, you should always ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I understand the dangers of using the reagents?  If you understand all of the dangers of using the reagents – reactivity, flammability, storage, and so forth – then you can consider the lab.
  • Are my students able to handle this lab safely?  If you have four classes that are mature and one class that is not, it’s probably a good idea to either let only four of the classes do a particular lab, or alternatively, cancel it for everybody.  Even if a lab should be safe, always consider your students.  And if you haven’t ever taught your kids the basics of working with hazardous chemicals, now is a good time to do it.
  • Do I have the lab equipment to handle everything safely?  If you need to transfer a reagent from one place to another, are you certain that you’re using the right tool for the job?  And do you have the waste container needed to handle whatever is produced?
  • Do I have the safety equipment to deal with a problem?  If you don’t have goggles and some kind of eyewash, you can’t do anything that involves non-eye safe reagents.  If you don’t have a fire blanket, you shouldn’t use flammable reagents – and a safety shower is much better!
  • Have I done the lab before, or has somebody I know done it before?  If you don’t know somebody who’s done a lab before, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it.  However, it does mean that you need to run through it yourself ahead of time with a critical eye.

When you boil it all down to what’s important, the single most important thing in a science class is to make sure your students are safe.  If you have even the tiniest doubt in your head about whether something is safe, don’t do it.  Keep this in mind when planning your lessons for the coming school year, and you should be fine.

A random interlude…

One of the many ways I pass my time during the summer is to make money by filling out surveys using Amazon’s MTurk system.  It doesn’t pay all that much, but in the past few months I’ve averaged $200 a month, which isn’t so bad.

These surveys range from the boring to the very odd.  Today I was given the task of filling out a survey in which I was asked to write a superhero story taking place in modern-day New York City.  Because I liked what I wrote so much, I figured I’d share it with you here:

The Adventures of Captain John

In New York City, trouble was brewing. James and his wife Cindy were sitting in the living room when they heard a terrible noise from deeper in their apartment. They didn’t know what it could be, but from the sound of it, things weren’t good. James armed himself with a heavy TV remote and Cindy picked up a paperback novel about people in Redding, California. They crept into the back of the apartment.

What James saw shocked him into dropping the remote on the floor. Cindy followed and when she saw what was causing the commotion she opened her mouth in horror. Their toilet had, for some reason, overflowed its basin and was dumping filthy water on the bathroom floor. Quick as can be, James got his phone and called his building’s super. The super didn’t answer – he had a drinking problem and was notoriously unreliable.

Unfortunately, this was an emergency that needed to be solved right away! James picked up a lamp from the living room and shone it onto a picture of a toilet, creating a big toilet outline on the clouds outside. As fast as a bout of Taco Bell-caused diarrhea, the caped crusader Captain John leapt onto the balcony with a plumber’s helper and snake. Without a word, he boldly strode into the bathroom and with a flourish of the plunger, cleared the mess. It was amazing.

On his way out, he gave Cindy a note that said, simply, “Use peroxide to get the stains out of your bathmat.” Cindy thought to herself that, though Captain John may have been a sexist for thinking that she’d be the one cleaning it, that he was still truly the most heroic man she knew.

Freedom – I won’t!

In the 1962 book “The Great Explosion” by Eric Frank Russell, there’s a story that changed my life.  Titled “…And Then There Were None”, it posits a world where the inhabitants exhibit total freedom by simply refusing to do anything they don’t find reasonable.  When Earth explorers land on their planet to make contact, the local population finds it puzzling that the crewmen on the ship allow themselves to be led by a captain.  To them, the idea of being led is preposterous because nobody can be forced to do anything against their wishes.  After all, if somebody refuses to work, the person giving the orders can punish them but will still have to do the job themselves.  The inhabitants of this planet have absolute freedom – the freedom to refuse somebody else’s orders.  I highly recommend you read it – you can find it for free here.

Throughout my life, I’ve found this story to be inspirational.  When I worked at a Catholic school, I gave my boss six months’ notice that I would be taking a week off of school to tour with my punk rock band.  He felt that being with the band was counter to their mission and gave me an ultimatum:  Either quit the band or quit my job.  Keeping the story above in mind, I immediately quit my job.  I chose freedom.

Another story:  I caught a student red-handed in cheating – photocopied evidence and everything.  Because his mom was the head of the PTA, my principal told me that I should let the cheating allegation drop.  Which I did.  And then quit at the end of the school year.  I exercised my freedom to say that “I won’t.”

With that, let’s cue the story of Jessica Gentry, a kindergarten teacher from Virginia.  In a social media post, she describes how she found the world of teaching to be dehumanizing and antithetical to the well-being of her students.  Instead of taking the abuse and suffering, she quit the profession.  Her post was simply her way of explaining to others why she felt that teachers were leaving the profession in droves.

With that, I issue a challenge to all of you.  If you are happy in your jobs, or at least get enough fulfillment from your work to make going to work a pleasure, keep doing the ever important job of helping your students.  The world needs more people like you.

However, if you’re unhappy in your jobs, I challenge you to quit and find something better to do.  You’ll be happier in the long run, and your primary commitment is to yourself and your family, not your job.  And who knows, if enough people use their freedom to say “I won’t”, perhaps the people in charge will make the necessary changes that make saying “I will” more attractive in the future.

So, I was building a shed

I was building a shed in my backyard, which taught me several things:  1)  I’m pretty good at rough carpentry; and 2)  My skin and clothing love to pick up stray paint spatters.  If you’ve ever built a shed, you know what I mean.

In any case, building a shed gave me lots of time to think, so I figured I’d share these thoughts with you.  Please note that these are not words of wisdom or particularly useful information – just stuff I thought of while trying to get the cat to stop putting her paws in a gallon of latex primer.

  1. There are two types of offroad vehicle owners in this world:  Those who drive over speed bumps at 0.01 mph and those who drive over speed bumps at 0.02 mph.
  2. There are two types of people in this country:  People who believe that Donald Trump is evil incarnate and should be crucified and people who believe that the liberal media is trying to portray Trump as evil incarnate and as somebody who should be crucified.  Both sides are 100% sure that they’re right.
  3. When people are leaving their house on vacation, they usually wonder if there’s something they forgot to do.  When people are in their last moments of life, do you think they wonder if they forgot to turn off the oven?
  4. When I was a kid, it was nearly impossible not to get a cat.  They were given away in front of the market, people who knew had kittens, and they’d occasionally just show up in the front yard.  Now that people are spaying and neutering their cats, it’s a lot harder to get a new cat.
  5. The best thing about having a pool membership is telling other people you have a pool membership.
  6. If you celebrate only one religious holiday a year, people won’t bug you about it.
  7. My life would be a lot simpler if I could buy only five shingles at a time.  As it is, I have to buy a huge crate if I want to replace one.
  8. Location is everything.  For example, little kids all like to see dinosaurs at the museum but they’d be horrified if they showed up in their bedroom.
  9. I filled out a paper that asked me what gender I was “assigned at birth.”  I don’t know about you, but I think it would be really cool to be employed as a gender assigner.
  10. When somebody asks you whether a knife is a tool or a weapon, I think your answer would probably depend on whether you were about to whittle a piece of wood or whittle a puppy.
  11. I saw a guy today who had an American flag magnet on the back of their truck.  Why not a sticker?  Is there a possibility that he might decide to become Italian before he sells his truck?
  12. My family took a trip last weekend and there was a sign flashing in a construction zone that said “WATCH FOR PED.”  If I were a kid in that neighborhood, I would be terrified.

Thanks, you’ve been a great audience, don’t forget to tip your bartender.

Learning new things as an adult

As I may have mentioned before, I’ve worked as a musician for some of my life.  When I was at university I was the drummer in one band, and then played bass in another.  In my mid-30s I left teaching to play bass full-time in a punk rock band.  I love making music, though at around 40 I realized I’d rather spend time with my family than out on tour.

When my son turned 10, he decided that he’d like to learn how to play the bass guitar, just like dad.  With lessons, he’s doing pretty well, though I think it may be a while before he forms his own band.  I’m just glad he didn’t choose trumpet, because I don’t think I could have survived that.

When he started playing bass, I got an urge that I’ve never felt before:  I wanted to learn how to play the guitar.  Whereas many bass players are guitar players who have switched, I started as a bass player and had never picked up a guitar in all of my years of playing in bands.  Now that my son was trying something new, I was inspired to try something new of my own.

My family has been remarkably nice to the discordant noise this has brought to their lives.  I’ve been playing for two months now and have gotten better at playing chords and at sight reading music.  Not great, mind you, but not terrible, either.  It’s fun to see myself getting better, and it’s undoubtedly the case that my past bass experience has been helping.

For me, one of the best features of learning guitar is that my son gets to see me suck at it.  We adults all know that learning something takes time and are OK with it.  However, kids don’t always realize this, and believe that they should master something within weeks of starting it.  I’m glad that my son can see that his dad, who he still believes is capable of anything at all, struggles with learning new things.

A lot of adults, both in teaching and outside of teaching, are afraid to show kids that they’re not good at something.  Just as we expect our kids to learn from their mistakes in the classroom, it’s important that we also model this behavior on our own.  This doesn’t have to be music, of course.  Maybe we’d like to do a project for the first time with our students and don’t know if it will work.  In this case, it would be good for the students to know that we’re trying something new and to see us work out the kinks on the fly.  At the end, we can ask our kids what went right, what went wrong, and how we can change things in the future.  Not only will this make the activity better, but it will show kids that learning new things isn’t always a smooth process, and that this is absolutely OK.

I hope my guitar playing improves soon.  Until then, I’m happy to keep showing my flaws in front of my son and his friends.  After all, nobody’s perfect.

Why I left teaching

A few years back I had a student who cheated.  This wasn’t one of those “my word against yours” sorts of things.  What happened was that I photocopied the graded tests before passing them back, and when one of the kids turned it back in for a regrade claiming that I’d graded something wrong, I found that he’d changed his answer so that it would look like I’d made a mistake.  This was an open-and-shut case of cheating, complete with irrefutable documentation on my part.

Of course, he claimed that he hadn’t cheated.  When I showed him the evidence of his cheating, he got very quiet.  He asked what he could do and I told him that he’d head up to the honor council and they’d decide what the punishment was.  All by the book.

About a week later, my principal came into my room.  He explained that the kid’s mom was very active in the PTA and that she had the tendency to overreact when it came to her kids.  I pointed out to him that there was no room for misunderstanding, showing him the evidence, and he again explained the situation with the kid’s mom.  Finally, I just asked him if he was telling me to drop the cheating case against the kid and he told me that he did.  And that the case would be dropped irregardless of what I said.

I dropped the case.  And at the end of the school year tendered my resignation.

Before this all happened, I had only very occasionally caught kids cheating in my class.  It was something that was usually handled quietly and was meant to teach the kids a lesson more than it was to punish them.  The typical punishment was a reprimand and a zero on the assignment.  Not that big a deal.

However, once I was pressured into dropping the case, I realized that I couldn’t, in good conscience, hold other kids to the standards that had been ignored when this kid had his case dropped.  I dropped out of the honor council, and when students would be caught cheating I’d tell them to retake the test and not to do it again.

It also wasn’t long before my enthusiasm for teaching waned.  I was still a good teacher and the kids were doing well, but it became harder for me to be the cheerful and happy teacher that I had been before.  Even though the cheating charge would have been dropped regardless of what I did, the shame of my having caved was like a weight around my neck.  I wasn’t happy with the administrator for having pushed me into this position, but was even less happy with myself for having caved in to his demands.

And that’s why I stopped teaching.  It wasn’t the first time that administrators had tried to manipulate me into doing what they wanted, but it was the first time that I’d agreed.  Teaching was no longer good for me because I knew I’d done the wrong thing.  And if I couldn’t be a good example to the kids, I didn’t belong in the classroom.

I miss teaching.