What do I say?

Parent communications are one of the most challenging parts of a teacher’s job. If you say what parents want to hear, you may not say what they need to hear. If you say what they need to hear, they may be upset enough to talk to your AP. And if you don’t say anything, everybody gets angry. It seems like it might be a lose-lose situation to ever talk to parents.

At least, this is how things might feel to new teachers. New teachers often fear the anger of parents and the potential administrative hassle that ensues if parents go to administrators. For those of you new to teaching, I’d like to ease your mind with some facts about how parents think and behave:

  • Parents want only what’s best for their kids. Sure, some parents can be a little bit overbearing at times, but this is occurs simply because they want their children to be treated fairly and get all the help they need.
  • Parents – like all people – can sometimes be tactless. In my thousand years of teaching, I’ve had my share of parents who said tactless and offensive things to me. However, when you look past the angry words, you usually find that parents are just frustrated and need to blow off some steam. It’s too bad that we’re the ones who deal with that steam, but we shouldn’t take it personally. Again, this just reflects parents’ strong desire to make sure their kids succeed.
  • Parents are hearing two versions of the same story. If Johnny has made a mistake of some kind, they may have told their parents that it was your fault to get off the hook. As a result, parents may come in with unusual ideas about what has happened and what the proper response is. With a little patience, this should be easily solved.

Now that we’ve seen how parents can sometimes seem more unreasonable than they are, let’s discuss some things we can do to make parent communications more constructive:

  • ALWAYS tell the complete truth about everything. If you’ve made a mistake, the very best thing you can do is to admit it. It may hurt to admit that the child is right, but I’ve found that parents universally understand that people make mistakes and respect people who admit it. Additionally, it’s also pretty hard for a parent to maintain anger at somebody who admits they were at fault and tries to make amends for it.
  • Keep good records: If a child says that you did XYZ, you should be ready to produce XYZ and any other pertinent information to demonstrate that this is not the case. If something happens in your classroom that you think might become an issue (i.e. a child causes a disruption, a child performs exceptionally poorly on an assignment), it’s good for you to have a written account of what happened, as well as a paper trail, if possible.
  • Maintain a positive attitude. Once again, parents usually just want what’s best for their children. If you can keep this in the back of your head during difficult meetings or email exchanges, you’ll have an easier time dealing with parental issues.
  • Don’t be a punching bag: If a parent becomes verbally or physically abusive, immediately refer the matter to your assistant principal. It’s not your job to handle things like this, whether or not you feel that it’s your responsibility. Stand firm, and let them deal with it, as they’ve seen it all before.

Above all, don’t let this turn you off from teaching. You will occasionally run into parents that drive you crazy, but far more often you’ll find parents who care about their child and (believe it or not) care about you. If you build on this goodwill, you’ll find that parent communications become simple and easy.

Most of the time, anyway.

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Memories of a Parent Conference Gone Wrong

A couple of days back I wrote about some upcoming parent conferences that I was having on Thursday. From the title above, you might ascertain that one of them went very poorly. I just want to mention, before I begin, that this is most emphatically not the case – all of the parents I spoke to were, as always, friendly and interested only in helping their children succeed. However, this post is not about any of the parents I have talked to recently, but instead about some parents I spoke to many, many years ago.

To set the stage, this happened back in the days when conferences were still conducted in person. As Zoom was probably ten years in the future, all of the teachers would meet with parents at individual tables in the cafeteria. Then, as now, most of the parents were polite, friendly, and interested in having their children perform well in class.

However, I did have one parent stop by who was a little less than friendly. His daughter (a very nice kid, as I recall) was getting a B in my honors chemistry class and was worried that she wouldn’t get into her college of choice, which was Duke. The parent’s visit was apparently to meet with me and convince me to give his daughter an A instead of a B.

Needless to say, this wasn’t going to happen. I told the father about how his daughter could come to me for help, could visit my website (yes, it existed even back then, though it was much smaller), or could refer to her notes. Dad was not happy with this – he wanted his daughter to get an A and wanted her to get it now.

After a few minutes of back and forth, this father got up, came right up to the table, and told me that I’d better give his daughter an A, “or else.” I continued to sit and let him know that this wasn’t going to happen, and he gave the table a little push in my direction. He clearly wanted to give the impression that violence would break out if I didn’t do as he wished.

Instead of rising to the bait or giving in, I told him that Virginia had a law stating that it was a Class 6 felony to assault a teacher and that the penalty was a mandatory minimum of six months. It seemed that this fact got through to him, and he stopped everything for a moment. He didn’t look any less angry, but he did look as if he was weighing the benefits of punching my lights out vs. going to jail. After what seemed like an hour (but was probably only a few seconds), he looked at me with balled fists and said that his daughter deserved an A and that he was going to speak to my assistant principal about the issue.

I never spoke to this man again, and my assistant principal never mentioned having spoken to him. His daughter, however, gave me a handmade apology card for her dad’s behavior and said that she hoped this wouldn’t hurt her grade. I assured her that it wouldn’t, and that I knew she had nothing to do with it.

She ended up with a B+ in my class and never ended up at Duke. This isn’t because of her grades, but because she didn’t want to go there. It was her father, who was an alumnus of Duke, who wanted her to go there. Instead, she went to Ohio State and studied dance, which was her interest all along.

Parent-teacher conferences

This afternoon my school is having our thrice-yearly parent-teacher conferences. Though I hate the idea of giving away my conference-surviving secrets, I figured you might want to hear about how this works:

  1. Parents sign up online for a ten-minute Zoom meeting
  2. We have the meeting.

Now that I think of it, the process isn’t all that complicated. Go figure.

Parent-teacher conferences are a part of education that nobody looks forward to. Parents sign up for these meetings because they’re worried about their child’s performance, students don’t want their parents to hear about how they’ve been eating Pop Tarts in class, and teachers are afraid that at least one of the parents will yell at them for reasons unknown. Parent-teacher conferences are like taxes: We all know that conferences are a good idea, but nobody really enjoys the process.

In my experience, however, these conferences almost invariably turn out well. The parents get their questions answered and are given possible solutions to their kids’ issues. The kids are usually told to come see their teachers to improve their grades. Finally, in many, many years of teaching I’ve only ever had one disrespectful parent. The worst part of parent-teacher conferences isn’t the conferences, but the difficulty in getting Zoom to work correctly.

So, what am I expecting this afternoon? The usual: Parents who want to help their kids to do well. It may not make for interesting storytelling, but it’s exactly how things should be.

Topics in Chemistry

My school has four levels of chemistry classes. General chemistry is designed for the average student, honors chemistry is for the student who’s interested in chemistry, AP chemistry is for students who want a second year of advanced chemistry, and Topics in Chemistry is for students who are not very interested in chemistry. This year, I teach all of the Topics in Chemistry classes.

You might expect that I was forced to teach these classes – after all, the students wouldn’t be there if they liked chemistry. However, I volunteered to take these classes. I suspected that, though these students might not start out enjoying the sciences, many of them could be convinced that science is actually worthwhile. This has largely turned out to be the case.

Why don’t these students like science? I believe they see science as being boring and hard. To get around this, I give students projects and let them figure out what to do on their own. This morning and afternoon my students will be presenting their own home-built batteries, which will (hopefully!) be able to power a clock, or at least demonstrate the generation of electricity when a multimeter is used. What guidance did I give them? Basically none. I wanted them to figure out how to do this on their own, and it looks to me that everybody will at least have figured out something that fits the description of a battery.

When I asked other teachers who taught Topics in past years what it was like, they all told me that it was a lot of fun. Sure, the students may not go into the class loving science, but their willingness to try new things gives the teacher freedom to try new projects, too. That’s the kind of thing that we teachers should love to do.

So, does everybody in my Topics classes now love chemistry? Of course not! Some of them seem to enjoy themselves, some of them are fairly indifferent, and there are a few who still have an active hatred for chemistry. In other words, I’ve transformed classes of students who hated chemistry into classes of students with normal attitudes toward it. Victory!

If your school offers a class like this, and if you get the opportunity, I suggest that you teach a class like Topics. I guarantee that the satisfaction you’ll get will make it a great experience.

Teachers Pay Teachers Is Evil

Now that I have your attention, it’s time for me to moderate things a little bit. Let’s go back and start at the beginning.

For those of you who are unaware, the site Teachers Pay Teachers posts educational resources of all kinds for teachers to use. The idea is that teachers who produce content should be able to monetize this content to make a little extra money. This seems like a good enough idea; teachers can buy resources that they want, other teachers can make some money selling their resources, and the folks over at TpT take a little off the top (which is reasonable enough).

Unfortunately, things don’t really work like this. While some of the transactions on TpT are on the level, there are others that are less wonderful. A sampling:

  • TpT allows plagiarism: Here’s a good article that describes how TpT takes a reactive, rather than a proactive approach toward copyright violation. Instead of taking any steps at all to check submitted resources for plagiarism, TpT prefers to have the copyright holder find them on the site and take the initiative to get it taken care of. If the idea of this site is that teachers make the content, then it seems a little strange that TpT would assume that everybody who submits content would roam the site for hours a day to protect their intellectual property. Incidentally, Googling “teachers pay teachers plagiarism policy” leads to a list of links on TpT for people selling their lessons about plagiarism rather than showing their actual plagiarism policy.
  • TpT doesn’t p as many T as you might imagine: Though the idea of TpT is to pay teachers for their work, even a casual glance at TpT shows that many of the resources have been put together by educational resource companies who make cheap content for a living. If the goal is to build a community where teachers learn from each other, they’re not succeeding.
  • TpT is too expensive: When I started teaching there was a pretty standard workbook that many chemistry teachers used for worksheets on common topics. The book cost around $12 and contained something on the order of 75 worksheets and answers. Nowadays, if you look for chemistry materials on TpT, you can easily find resources for less than $1 each. Individually, this is a pretty good deal, but when you consider a collection of 75 worksheets from TpT, you’ll find that you’re paying six times as much as if you were to buy that 25-year-old workbook.

Inevitably, I find that people ask me whether I contribute to TpT, and I don’t mind saying that I have a couple of things up there. However, unlike most of these, I’ve put huge disclaimers on them saying that you can get the same resources absolutely free at my website (www.teachercav.com). My goal is not to sell lots of resources, but to get other teachers the materials they need to improve their teaching for free.

If you agree with me, I’d like you to do a few things:

  • Send chemistry teachers to my chemistry resource website (www.teachercav.com). I don’t require that anybody give me their personal information or sign up for a newsletter, and everything is free.
  • Give other teachers my chemistry resources in hard copy form. Some people don’t really like to go online to find stuff, so feel free to make an extra copy when preparing for class and give it to them. You don’t need to ask my permission – consider this to be the permission you need to do so.
  • Post your teacher resources online for other teachers to use, and make them free.
  • Encourage other people to share their resources with each other whenever possible. A collaborative approach to teaching will work far better than having everybody work in a vacuum.
  • If you see a good resource and know how to make it better, do it and post it online. However, make sure you get the permission of the copyright holder before you do this, as you don’t want to be part of the problem!

Creating a marketplace where everybody can freely share ideas and teaching methods is a noble task. Teachers Pay Teachers wants you to think they’ve done this, but they haven’t. Let’s do it ourselves, one bit at a time.

How to retain teachers

Most of us teachers get into the profession because we want to help kids to become the best people they can be.  Education does this by giving the kids a few things:  Practice thinking critically, the knowledge needed to be good citizens of the world, and helping students in trouble by supporting their physical and mental health.  After parents, teachers are the adults who spend the most time with kids and who have the largest impact on their development.

Despite this strong desire to help others, 8 percent of teachers leave the profession every year, and that more than half of all teachers are currently considering doing so (Education Week, 2021).  Education Week suggests that pay and benefits are the main factors that keep teachers in the classroom, but I’d like to suggest that the real think keeping most of us in the classroom is respect. 

I started teaching at my current school, St. John’s College High School, in the fall of 2021.  When I signed on, I did so because the school had a progressive view toward education and a huge emphasis on the overall wellness of our students.

And I spent the first six months of my time here waiting for trouble.

Why would I make such a weird assumption?  It’s because every school I’ve taught at before now has largely ignored the needs of the teachers in support of the needs of the parents.  Or worse, at one school the headmaster would arbitrarily fire anybody she saw as disloyal or irritating.  In my time teaching, I’ve had administrators tell me in mid-May that I had to teach a star football player the entire year of my class on my own time, despite the fact that he hadn’t been to class since October.  I once had a principal tell me that I had to accept the fact that one of my students cheated in my class because his mom has the president of the PTA.  You get the idea.

The trouble I was afraid of never came.  At St. John’s, student or teacher mistakes are not treated as a grand opportunity to punish people. Instead, everybody here is truly treated like a good person who should be supported.  I’ve never had an administrator “pull rank” on me for anything or make me feel like anything but a part of the team.  In-services aren’t spent with dumb activities for the sake of having in-services, but with activities and information that we can really use with our students.  My time is respected, my professionalism is respected, and it’s taken for granted that my primary goal is the well-being of my students.

This year I had to take off time for a serious medical condition.  I didn’t know how much time I’d have to be gone, or the impact that the treatment would have on my entire life.  I wasn’t worried about what my school would say about it. I had this confidence because I know that our school is truly a family through thick and thin and not just when it’s time to take yearbook pictures or write a press release. Though an absence like this must have been very difficult for everybody (especially the five teachers who each took one of their planning periods to cover my class), the only thing I heard from anybody was concern for my condition.

This is why I’ll never leave St. John’s.  Education Week is right that pay is part of being respected, and I’ll agree with them that many teachers deserve a raise.  However, pay is not the only way that teachers can be shown respect, and is not a substitute for real respect.  If another school offered me a 25% raise tomorrow, I’d stay here.  Not because I don’t like money, but because I can’t leave a place where I matter as a person, and not just as a teacher.

Though, if you’re reading this, Chris, I won’t turn down a 25% raise if you offer it to me.  Just saying. 

ChatGPT – How dangerous is it?

Like all of you, I’ve been reading on various news websites about the AI named ChatGPT. The intent of this chatbot is to talk to people, answer questions, and write essays and papers – all of this is specifically mentioned on the website.

Though many people are happy with this (particularly students), many of us teachers are less than thrilled to imagine that a computer can do our students’ assignments for them. Though I haven’t done any polls on the subject, CNN and the New York Times both certainly seem to indicate that ChatGPT is the End Of Education As We Know It.

I figured that instead of reading articles about ChatGPT that indicate it’s the most dangerous cheating tool in the world that I’d just go there and judge for myself whether it’s good at helping people be bad. I asked ChatGPT a variety of questions, the results of which are here. Note: Because ChatGPT tends to be very long-winded, I have summarized its responses:

1.Question: How do batteries work? The answer to this was fairly well-written at a high school level. The main giveaway that this was fraudulent was an emphasis on the terms “primary battery” and “secondary battery” – while the definitions of these were correct, it seemed to imply that these terms are extremely common and important when discussing batteries. These are, indeed, terms used to describe batteries, but are certainly not something I’d focus on in a single paragraph example. When asked the same question a different time, it gave a far more complete and realistic answer.

2: Question: Explain how batteries work at a graduate school level: The answer was actually pretty good, though I wouldn’t say that it’s at the difficulty level of a graduate student.

3.Question: What digital watch should I buy? The answer didn’t commit it to any particular watch, but instead wisely indicated that watch preference was very personal and depended on its intended use. Though the answer was excellent, it didn’t really match the way that a normal person would write.

4. Question: What is a good project for a high school chemistry class? Several answers were given, but they were all of the “Study how [something] works by combining it with different chemicals.” The suggestions were either impractical (gases) or boring (salts).

5. Question: Write a short story about cats in the style of Henry Kissinger. I really liked the story that ChatGPT spat out. This tale involved two cats (Kissinger and Nixon) who lived in a grand palace. One day that palace was attacked by hordes of mice. Nixon’s instinct was to slaughter them, but Kissinger preferred a negotiated peace where they would feed the mice if they would leave. Nixon realized Kissinger was right and they lived happily ever after. I thought this was a very clever and fun story.

6. Question: Why does the electronegativity of elements increase as you move across the periodic table? The answer had a combination of correct and incorrect points. Electronegativity was described very well, as was the octet rule. However, ChatGPT indicated that the reason that electronegativity increases is the energy of an element goes up as the element becomes less like a noble gas configuration. This is kind of right, but doesn’t explain why fluorine is so electronegative, given that it’s only one electron away from neon (giving it a very similar electron configuration). I don’t think I would have identified this as plagiarized, mainly because it’s written in an odd style and contains several strange statements.

7. Question: Can you determine if somebody has plagiarized one of your answers? Though long-winded, the answer was very clearly “no.”

So, what’s the verdict on ChatGPT? I guess it depends on who you are:

  • For students, ChatGPT is a mixed bag. Some subjects (humanities, primarily) will be strongly threatened by its answers, while those of us in the sciences are likely to have less trouble (and not just because we don’t give many essays). Answers tend to be right some of the time, but have weird mistakes other times, so right now I’d say that it will give some students good answers and other students bad ones. So far, I don’t think the end of our world has come.
  • Teachers, on the other hand, have been given a great additional teaching tool. Teachers in the humanities can give students ChatGPT-generated responses to questions and have the students assess and rewrite them to make them more correct. We science teachers can do the same thing, except perhaps with definitions and other short-answer problems.

So, is ChatGPT a disaster for teachers or an opportunity? The verdict: It’s good for teachers to develop assignments, but a little too erratic for students to expect reasonable results. If I were a student, I wouldn’t use it for my papers.

Yet.

Those “we believe” yard signs

You’ve probably seen this somewhere in your area:

Now, I’m not going to touch most of these ideas with a ten-foot-pole, because I have a family and don’t want people to either kill us for supporting any of them or for refuting them. Lately it seems that everybody wants to kill everybody else for having opinions, and I’m not falling into that trap.

However…

I do want to comment on the “Science is Real” aspect of this sign. Mainly, because it’s stupid and/or wrong. Here’s why:

  • Taken literally, this sign means that “Science is something that happens.” I don’t think that’s what the people who use this sign intend to convey, because I think everybody would agree that there are people called “scientists” who do something that’s called “science.” A sign supporting this idea seems strange.
  • Taken figuratively, this sign means that “Science is true.” In other words, that science is correct. The problem with this viewpoint is that science isn’t a thing. You can’t put it into a box, and it’s not a thing that can be disproved or proved. Science is a process, so to say that it’s true essentially tells people that anything scientists say is true. Which is nonsense.

I’m going to assume that what the users of this sign mean to say is “Science is a process which, when performed properly, can help us to understand things about the world. Sometimes you get the right answer, and sometimes you get a wrong answer that is, in time, discovered and corrected. Either way, it’s a process designed to improve our understanding of the world around us.”

This fits poorly on a sign.

Is science real? Absolutely? Is this controversial? Nope – I’m pretty sure everybody agrees that it exists. Unfortunately, to say anything meaningful, you’ll need something bigger than a sign. Perhaps a conversation with people who disagree with you would be a nice start?

I’m going to suggest my own yard sign. Please feel free to copy it and make your own signs for your yard:


We believe

Namecalling makes it harder to solve problems.

Demonizing people you disagree with is pointless.

Societal problems are too big to explain on a sign.

We need to work together to make positive change.

We should talk civilly to those we disagree with.

Come on in and we can discuss these ideas. We want to hear whatever you have to say, even if we disagree with it.


If you end up making a sign like this, I’d love to see it. However, I have a strong feeling that this just isn’t going to catch on.

PowerPoint Presentations

(Updated 6/27/22)

I’ve just recently decided that writing things on the board is both boring and causes me to miss important topics. As a result, I’ve started using PowerPoint presentations with my classes.

Now, for those of you who don’t use these presentations, I treat them as baselines for the material I actually teach. I don’t just read the stuff from these slides, but use them as a starting point for my presentations. I find that, even with these PowerPoint presentations, I tend to spend a lot of time at the board answering questions and expanding on the material. I like doing this because it allows me the best of both worlds: Uniform material for each class, but individualized help for the specific questions of each student.

Please treat these PowerPoint presentations as guidelines and not as resources you can use off the shelf. They all reflect my personal method of teaching, so you should make whatever changes are needed to reflect your own style. In any case, I hope you find these useful!

Acid-base Powerpoint:

  • An introduction to acids and bases. Covers material through pH, but doesn’t go as far as discussing titrations.

  • A visit to the world of covalent compounds, and how their molecular structure leads to their observed properties.

  • How to draw Lewis structures. Doesn’t deal with expanded octet stuff, though.

  • What’s an equation? How do you balance them? That kind of stuff.

  • My talk on the first day of class. Obviously, you’ll have to do some serious work to get this relevant for your own classes.

  • A basic introduction to gases, including the best that Boyle, Charles, Gay-Lussac, Combined, and Ideal have to offer.

  • Hydrates, anhydrates, dehydration, hydration – you know, the greatest hits of hydrates.

  • The magical tale of how the behavior of gas molecules affects the overall properties of gases. I like this one because you can make it as complicated or simple as you want to.

  • As the first page states, this is a “guide to the things you’ll soon be breaking.”

  • A focus on the mole. By the way, I’ve stopped having students do calculations from particles to moles because it’s not something that they’ll ever run into in the real world.

  • Part 1 of everybody’s favorite electronegativity-related topic.

  • More wild times with polarity.

  • I’ve made what might be a controversial decision: I’ve decided to cut the part about doing calculations with significant figures. There are two reasons for this: 1) It’s nowhere near as important as discussing the whole idea of what a significant figure is, and 2) Nobody remembers it anyway.

  • You’ve got to admit: It’s a good method!

Pretty much you’d expect. Everything from the difference between a solution, a colloid, and a suspension through concentration and colligative properties.

  • The basics of stoichiometry and how it works.

  • An introduction to the six types of reaction, as well as a description of how you can tell whether single displacement or double displacement reactions will actually occur. This PowerPoint pairs well with a discussion of how to synthesize various ionic compounds (and related labs).

  • A voyage through the world of the metric system/SI units (I treat them as being the same thing, even though they’re not for simplicity’s sake, so please, no emails), how to convert between SI and Imperial units, and how to use metric prefixes as needed.

Teaching “Topics In Chemistry”

As is the case around the beginning of Spring, it was time to figure out what classes we would each be teaching in the following year. There was a lot of jockeying for position – everybody wants to teach honors and AP chemistry, while the lower level chemistry classes are a little less desirable for most. The least favored of these classes is “Topics in Chemistry.” After all, in this class, you’re stuck teaching the least science-loving and/or least advanced students about chemistry.

When it became my time to pick the classes I wanted, I chose honors chemistry (as does everybody)… and Topics in Chemistry. People seemed pretty surprised by this, as nobody ever signs up for Topics. As I understand it now, my next year’s teaching load will consist of three classes of Topics and two of Honors chemistry (though seasoned teachers will realize that nothing is written in stone until the first year of class).

Why would I teach Topics? After all, I’ve taught honors for a very long time, enjoyed teaching general chemistry, and even tried my hand at IB chemistry and undergraduate geochemistry. Many years ago I team taught two LD chemistry classes, but they were basically just the same thing as general chemistry. Why Topics?

It’s a funny thing. Nobody wants to teach Topics. However, I’ve also noticed that the teachers who have done it in the past generally have good things to say about the class. They talk about being able to do experiments that you can’t perform in other chemistry classes because there’s too rigid a curriculum. They talk about the students being generally laid back and receptive to trying new things. And they talk about how it’s kind of neat to try new ideas and new ways of teaching. This doesn’t sound like a punishment. It sounds like a cool opportunity!

I have to admit, I’m really excited to teach Topics. I’ve got a bunch of units planned, and each of them is based around some lab or other activity that’s fun to do. When safe, I’m even planning on trying brand new labs that I’m not even sure will work. After all, making mistakes is a big part of learning, and I want to take the opportunity to learn with my students!

How will this go? I guess I’ll find out. I’m excited to see what happens!