Interviewing on the road

Now that Spring Break is finally here, it’s time for me to drive down to Florida. Two days from now, I’ll be basking in the sun!

Of course, job seekers like myself don’t stop looking for work just because we’re on vacation. During the drive down I have a phone interview. On Thursday I have a video interview with a bunch of people from another school. I won’t be driving then, but I will be in an unfamiliar location. I hope there’s good wifi.

I once heard somebody say that you should never interview during your vacation because “your vacation is your time.” Personally, I can think of very few uses of my time that are more valuable than finding a job at a school that would be a good fit. Both schools at which I’m interviewing are excellent schools with excellent reputations, and I’m glad for the opportunity to speak with them about their open positions.

There will be plenty of time to bask in the sun afterwards.

Job Search Bloopers

As I mentioned a while back, I’m currently in the process of looking for teaching work in the Washington, DC area. I’ve been fortunate to have a fair amount of interest from a number of schools – one of the things about being a chemistry teacher with a good resume. By the way, if you happen to be hiring, make me an offer! (I don’t think people who do hiring read this blog, but it’s worth a shot!)

The most striking thing about applying for work is the sheer quantity of paperwork that needs doing. If you apply for a private school job, you can expect to fill out all of the paperwork about your education, where you’ve taught, and what your shoe size is. Public school systems are a little easier, with just one application needed for all of the schools in the district. In any case, there are lots of chances for little mistakes to find their way into the paperwork.

Though this paperwork can seem daunting at times, looking for a job occasionally has its lighter and/or frustrating moments. Here are some of the ones that I’ve run into during my search so far:

  • I sent one very good school a letter in which I indicated that I’d be interested if any science teaching jobs came up. Less than an hour later, a job of this very sort came up, so I emailed them again to let them know that I was interested in it and would be at a job fair they were attending. Unfortunately, the folks running the job fair changed my name from “Ian Guch” to “Ian Guch – CANCELLED”, which made me look a little less promising. I emailed the school again to explain the situation, and they fortunately understood all that had happened and will be interviewing me next week. Phew!
  • I sent an application to Stafford County Public Schools in Virginia. Unfortunately, my son is currently attending Stratford Landing Elementary School and my cover letter mixed up the names and proudly proclaimed that I would be excited to work in “Stratford” County. When I realized my mistake, I tried to delete the uploaded cover letter on their site only to find that this isn’t possible. To fix the problem, I uploaded a new cover letter in which I explained the circumstances around my error. I ended by indicating that the best way to teach me a lesson about the difference between Stafford and Stratford would be to hire me so I’d see the name Stafford every day. Hopefully their hiring manager will have a sense of humor.
  • As a chemistry teacher, I need to have passed the Praxis II exam in chemistry. Unfortunately, I lost the paperwork that goes with this, so I contacted the ETS people who gave me the exam back in 1997 or 1998. It turns out that they don’t actually keep a record of these tests taken more than ten years ago, so employers will either have to take my expired VA teaching certificate as proof that I’ve passed (you need to pass to get the certificate) or I’ll have to take it again. Fortunately, I don’t recall that this test was particularly difficult, so if I need to take it again I won’t have any problems.
  • As I made reference to a couple of posts ago, I’ve found that some of the schools I’ve talked to have been a little nervous that the commute will be too much for me and that I won’t be able to handle it. I think I’ve managed to convince them that I don’t really mind the commute much (NPR and audiobooks for the win!) However, given DC traffic I can understand why they’re concerned.

I doubt that these will be the last unusual things that pop up during the job search, but they did manage to either get me to smile a bit, or in the case of the Praxis exam, shake my head. If anything else that’s interesting comes up, I’ll be sure to post it here.

Frozen Groin? God Help Us.

I can’t believe that I’m writing this post, but I bring to you today a case where a teacher in Carpentersville, IL badly injured a student in his class by pouring liquid nitrogen on his chest and groin as he lay in the classroom. You can read more about this here.

Before I do anything else, I want to describe the things that went right after this occurred:

  • The teacher immediately voluntarily gave up his teaching position and resigned from the school as a result of what had happened.
  • The school quickly investigated the situation and took steps to make sure that this didn’t happen again.
  • The student who was injured was given prompt medical attention and is, as far as I can tell, in good health.

Of course, the best responses to an accident don’t make up for the fact that the accident happened in the first place, or that a student suffered an injury because of the negligence of a teacher. Because I have incredible powers of discernment and can read minds, I’ll describe from you what I believe probably happened in this case:

  • The teacher was teaching about phase changes and wanted to give the students something really cool to talk about. I think all of us chemistry teachers have the natural inclination to do flashy things to keep students’ attention, and by itself, this isn’t something that’s negative at all.
  • The teacher had read about the Leidenfrost effect, where pouring a liquid on a surface that’s much hotter than the liquid’s boiling point will cause it to instantly boil, putting an insulating layer of gas between the surface and the colder liquid. If you’ve ever seen water drops dancing on a hot cooktop, you’ve seen the Leidenfrost effect. What this teacher was trying to do is just a low temperature version of the same thing.
  • I’m sure this demonstration started with his pouring liquid nitrogen over his arm, which is completely harmless due to the Leidenfrost effect. He probably got a big response from the kids, who asked if they could do it.
  • He did the demo with the kids’ arms and it was a huge hit.
  • Knowing that the demonstration would be even more interesting if it lasted longer, he decided to pour the liquid nitrogen on somebody’s shirt. With the nitrogen gas trapped temporarily in the shirt, it probably led to a much cooler and much more interesting demonstration.
  • At some point, the teacher realized that this demonstration would not only be cool but also funny if he poured the liquid nitrogen on the student’s groin. The much thicker pants kept the very cold nitrogen gas in contact with the skin, causing the accident described above.
  • Why did he pour the liquid nitrogen on his student’s groin? I don’t know. The only thing I can think of is that he figured the students would find it amusing (?). This defies all rational explanation.

Let’s deconstruct this series of events and figure out what the teacher should have done:

  • Before doing anything the teacher should have checked to see if pouring liquid nitrogen anywhere on somebody is a good idea. I just did a quick search to see if I could find any good sources that says it’s a good idea and couldn’t find anything, but I won’t rule out the possibility that it’s up on the web somewhere.
  • If it did turn out to be an OK demonstration, he should have only done the demonstration on himself and not on a student. Though it’s always a bad idea to do something dangerous, it is of utmost importance that our students NEVER are in danger.
  • If he had found the demonstration to be safe and if he, for whatever reason, decided to do it on a student, he should never have poured it over their entire bodies. I’m pretty sure that’s not something that’s recommended by anybody, ever.
  • And finally, IF he had found the demonstration to be safe and IF he had performed it on a student and IF he poured it on their bodies, he should never have poured it over their groin. There are so many reasons this is a bad idea.

So, what have we learned from this debacle? First, we’ve learned that we should never perform a demonstration that we don’t know is harmless. Next, we’ve learned that we shouldn’t use students as subjects in demonstrations unless your demo is really, really harmless (baking soda and vinegar and the like). Most importantly, we’ve learned that teachers should stay away from doing demonstrations with anyone’s groin. Science education professors, please make sure to add this to your curriculum.

Public or private?

I’ve recently started looking for teaching work again. It turns out that you can take the teacher out of the school, but you can’t take the love of teaching out of the teacher. This doesn’t make for a very catchy slogan, but it’s the truth. It’s time for me to get back into the classroom with the kids. After almost a year of not posting in this blog, it looks like I’ll be back in business sometime soon.

The big question for me when I decided to get back into teaching was whether I should go into public schools or independent schools. I’ve taught at both before, but since this is really going to be where I stick around for the next 20-30 years, I figure I’d better make sure I’m in the right spot.

Both public schools and private schools have a lot to recommend them, as well as their own downsides. In my experience, here are the pros and cons of each:

Pay: If you teach at a private school, you can count on getting maybe $10K less per year than your public school counterpart (your mileage may vary). It turns out that even though private school students pay well for their education, this is more than made up for by the tax base of any school district. If money is your motivator, you should probably stay out of private schools.

Work environment: No matter what kind of school you’re interested in, you’ll find schools with good environments and some with bad ones. I’ve seen great public schools and I’ve heard of poorly-run public schools, and the same goes with private schools. My advice to you when you interview is to ask a variety of people at the school both what they like and what they don’t like about their school. Believe me, when you give people a chance to give you the dirt, they’ll tell you exactly what’s on their mind. Stay away from schools where answers include “it’s too political”, “the parents run the school”, or “the administration doesn’t respect the teachers.” This is a real red flag, and given that readers of this post are chemistry teachers who typically have several options to choose from, one that should have you moving on.

Culture: To overgeneralize, private schools have more “family”-like cultures, while public schools are more of a “clock in-clock out” type of deal. I’m not about to disparage one or the other because both have their places. If you’re the type of person who wants to do their teaching and then go home and not worry about it, you’re better off in a public school. If you’re a person who wants to get involved in “something larger”, then go to a private school.

Respect: I hear a lot about how teachers are not given any respect these days, but I haven’t noticed this to be the case. In public schools, teachers are usually respected as dedicated public servants who are dedicated to helping their kids get ready for the future. In private schools, teachers are also treated as role models and mentors. As with work environment, if you get the impression during an interview that the teachers are not given respect, move on.

In my own personal job search, I’ve been fortunate enough to have interviews with a number of good schools. Some of these schools are private and some are in large school districts. All of these interviews have given me a lot to think about, and I’m still trying to figure out where I want to go. One common thing about many of these schools, however, is that they’re concerned I won’t want to make the commute to where they are. Fortunately, I like audiobooks and NPR, but I can certainly understand why they’re concerned.

My best advice for job seekers in education is simple: Trust your gut. If you have a good feeling about a school, it’s probably going to go well. If you feel as if something isn’t right, move on. I think that’s probably good advice for job seekers anywhere, for that matter.

Wish me luck!

How to run a homemade summer camp

Hi all!  If you’re anything like me, you’ve been sitting inside the last three months with your child, trying to find something for them to do.  Thankfully, after endless worksheets and bad videoconferences with teachers, summer has come and with it, summer camp.

Except that all of the summer camps here were cancelled.  Of course.  However, me and some friends have put together our own summer camp for our kids, and it seems to be working pretty well.  Here’s how it works:

  1. Find some families who have been social distancing to your liking.  These families will be your fellow campers.
  2. Every week, a parent from one of the families will be the camp “counselor” and have camp at their house.  They can do whatever they want to keep the kids comfortable, provided that it meets whatever criteria everybody sets ahead of time.  More about that later.
  3. Everybody pays to run their own week of camp – the other weeks are free.  If you want to do expensive things, that’s A-OK, as long as you’ll be paying out of pocket for them.

That’s it!  Of course, every “that’s it” has a “except…” after it.  Here are the things that I’ve learned in the week that we’ve had the camp (I was the first counselor):

  • It’s best to have everybody bring their own lunch.  Though I’m pretty strict about having my son eat whatever is provided for him, other parents tend to want their kids to have special meals.  If kids bring their own, this keeps lunch from being an issue.
  • It’s important to determine the rules for “field trips.”  Do we wear masks at parks?  Are we allowed to even go to parks or stores?  Drive or walk?  It doesn’t really matter what specific rules you set, provided that everybody agrees ahead of time.
  • What do you do if a kid acts up?  I didn’t have this problem, but one of the families in our group has a kid who is notorious for having huge outbursts.  I made it very clear that if this happened, I was kicking the kid out and sending him home.
  • What if the rules in somebody else’s house are different than yours?  Really, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue.  I don’t do things the same way as the other families, but we have basically the same way of doing things.  If you’re really that far away from the other families, it may be best to find new campmates.

Overall, the benefits of camp has been good.  I’ve hung out a lot with my friends (I have a kiddie pool the kids use at the end of the day).  I’ve had some days to myself.  The amount of money I spent during my week of camp, while large (~$250) was still less than a week of camp, plus I don’t have to pay anything for the next four weeks.  Pretty good, I’d say.

Activities for the camp can be just about anything.  Here are some of the activities that I did, plus some that I know other parents are planning:

  • Build birdfeeders and make them squirrel-proof.  Mark Rober has a good video about this on his YouTube that I’m too lazy to look up.
  • Build and launch model rockets.
  • Croquet
  • Build birdhouses
  • Play Magic: The Gathering
  • Design your own board games
  • Go for a hike
  • Visit a park and play frisbee

You get the idea.  If you can think of it, it’s probably fine.

If you have questions about how to do this, feel free to hit me with an email at misterguch@chemfiesta.com.

Let’s focus on good news for a moment

Unless you’ve been living under a stone, you’ve been dealing with months of COVID-19 lockdown, followed by over a week of rioting and protests.  It’s all very grim stuff, and has made the news very depressing lately.

To cheer you folks up, here are five things I’d recommend to brighten your days:

  1. The Count (censored):  A video showing the Count from Sesame Street in a way you may never have considered before.
  2. FLuffee Talks:  A YouTube channel in which our star, FLuffee, examines the people of WalMart, people with very bad tattoos, and just about every other Florida Man – type disaster you can think of.
  3. Steely Dan – Aja (classic album documentary):  If you’re a big fan of music, especially amazing music made by nitpicking lunatics, this is for you.  Even if you’ve never heard of Becker and Fagen, this is some cool stuff.
  4. A Canticle For Liebowitz (book) – A monastic order keeps the knowledge of a dead civilization alive in the millenia after a nuclear war.  Great stuff.
  5. Space Force (Netflix) – A pretty realistic examination of the US Space Force and it’s mission.  I’m pretty sure, incidentally, that the real Space Force has got to be bummed that the fake Space Force in this show has a better symbol.

Keep your heads up!  Only 7 months are left until 2020 is over!

The Failure of Fairfax County Public Schools

My son is a fifth grade student in the Fairfax County School System in Northern Virginia.  Like most students, he has been quarantined because of COVID-19.  I supported and continue to support this decision.  In fact, about an hour before the schools announced they were closing, I had already decided to pull him out of school myself.  I believe the schools were reasonable in how they handled the timing of the closing.

What was a little strange was that the schools announced they wouldn’t be opening for another month.  For the next three weeks the teachers would be trained on distance learning techniques, while the fourth was a planned Spring Break.  Easter Monday was a scheduled holiday, so it was with great excitement that my son logged into the scheduled Blackboard group chat on Tuesday.

It did not go well.  Because FCPS had sent out links that required no particular sign in to get on the chat, there were cases where trolls interrupted the chats with racist and obscene content.  This was not the case with my son’s class – with those kids, the chat would just cut off at random times.

That afternoon, the following was announced by the Superintendent of Schools, Scott Braband:

As a parent, I was less than thrilled to hear about this.  This was particularly the case when it turned out that the school system had failed to perform upgrades on its Blackboard servers for 20 months.  As predicted, Blackboard blamed FCPS for not doing the updates and FCPS blamed Blackboard for failing to force them to do the updates.  The superintendent apologized several more times, school board members sent apologetic emails, our principal sent apologetic emails, and the teacher sent an apology that sounded suspiciously like he wasn’t being told anything more than we were.

On Monday, the kids logged into Blackboard.  Again, it didn’t work.

This led to another series of apologies:

  • The superintendent let us know that he was really, really sorry about the whole thing.  Because of this disaster, there will no longer be face-to-face learning for the rest of the year.  We’re going to fire Blackboard because they were so bad.  In fact, he’s so serious about being sorry that he instituted a blue ribbon panel of experts from the tech industry to try to unravel the mystery of how this could have gone wrong.  Who could have seen it coming?
  • The principal sent a letter explaining that, due to the screwups, there would no longer be face-to-face learning for the rest of the year, plus the other stuff above.  He also expressed how proud he was of his teachers and our school community.  Of course, they hadn’t caused the problem and had no ability to solve the underlying problem, but he left that part out.  For the rest of the year, assignments will be posted on Google classroom.
  • The teacher sent a letter repeating what the principal said, leaving out the part about how great the teachers were.  He promised to put stuff up on Google classroom.

Oh, one thing I forgot to mention:  None of the work given to the kids will be turned in to the teacher or graded in any way.  I’m sure this won’t cause the kids to take it less seriously.

Let’s sum up the above in a few bullet points:

  • The school closed because of COVID-19.
  • The school stopped instruction entirely for a month to train the teachers.
  • The first attempt to teach caused total anarchy, which everybody blamed on everybody else.
  • The second attempt to teach caused technical failures, which everybody blamed on everybody else.
  • Google classroom is now the teacher.

Except in the case of my son.  I, and many other parents, started teaching our kids the best we could once school stopped.  We’ve done math via Khan Academy, we’ve been reading Earth Abides for our literature “class”, we’ve done science using pure inquiry, we’ve had music and computer “specials”, we’ve had spelling and grammar practice, and he’s got a creative writing project where he’s making his own SCP.  He’s told me that he’s learning more at home than he ever did at school, and that he spends a lot more time learning at home, too.

The school system will undoubtedly take another crack at distance learning this year.  They’ll fix the system to find that it’s still broken.  They’ll spend my tax dollars on experts who study the problem without coming to any conclusions.  And they’ll ultimately  search for the guilty, punish the innocent, and reward the uninvolved.

Addendum:  While I was writing this, I got an email from FCPS that claimed to have “Five Things To Know This Week.”  The first?  “Distance Learning Continues.”  I guess they didn’t get the memo.

Addendum 2:  As of next week, we will have finished Earth Abides and will start reading Shambling Toward Hiroshima by James Morrow.  I recommend you do the same if you’re in the same boat I am.

Teaching from home

I’m not going to tell you all about COVID-19 because I’m sure you already know about it.  If you don’t, you probably aren’t reading this blog because you have no contact with the outside world.  This is your time to shine!

My son is out of school until April 13 and I’m stuck trying to teach him something worthwhile.  As a former chemistry teacher myself, I know the basics of teaching, but the specifics of teaching a fifth grader are a little beyond me.  However, with a little work and some creativity, I’ve been able to come up with a curriculum that might be useful for him.

Here are some of the guidelines I used when coming up with his curriculum.  Keep in mind that this is not intended to be a real homeschool curriculum, but rather something to keep him busy and learning until real school starts again.

  1. Make a learning schedule:  My son is learning for six hours today, in twelve blocks of 30 minutes.  Between each three blocks is a 1-hour break, with very short breaks in between blocks.
  2. Emulate the classes he takes at school:  My son has science, social studies, language arts, and a bunch of “specials.”  I’ve taken pains to include each of these in his overall studies so he doesn’t overdo the things he finds interesting but stays with the program.
  3. Teach topics that he finds interesting:  At this very moment, my son is reading “Earth Abides”, which is a book about how a small community survives a plague that wipes out most of mankind.  Clearly, this is something that’s interesting to a kid living in the time of COVID-19.
  4. Teach topics that he doesn’t find interesting but needs help with:  My son has dysgraphia, which means that he has trouble writing.  He works with a special ed teacher at school, and I’ll be working with him here at home to improve his writing.  Neither of us particularly enjoys this, and we both find it frustrating, but it’s something that needs to be done.  Fortunately, with the schedule we’ve set, we have limits on how boring and awful it can be.
  5. Experiment:  We’ve got a rare chance to experiment with things that our kids find interesting.  We were learning about sound today, and he had questions about why you can’t hear things so well behind a wall.  Thanks to a cookie sheet of water and a spoon hitting the surface, we were able to see how the waves move around an obstacle.
  6. Use online resources:  There are literally a zillion resources online that can help you to teach interesting stuff to your kids.  Scholastic has one that I’m using, and there are bunches of others.  (And yes, I know that you can’t literally have a zillion of anything.)
  7. Be flexible:  The good thing about teaching like this is that we can make changes to the plan if necessary.  If something is particularly interesting, we can spend extra time on it.  If we want to teach the same thing across different subjects, we can do that, too.  If we want to do a field trip, we can do that (provided that it’s to a place where other people are not).

One very good place to find quality resources is with homeschooling activities.  We may be doing this for a month or so, but homeschoolers do this all the time and have gotten very good at coming up with resources you can do at home.

Regarding homeschoolers, I know that some of you think of them as being religious nuts or as flaky hippies who don’t know anything.  Yes, some of them are religious nuts and some are hippies, but that’s true in society at large.  All homeschool groups put out reasonable activities – just make sure you adapt them for use with your own kids.  And don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – even an atheist can find extremely useful resources among religious homeschool groups.

I hope this has helped and that you stay safe during this pandemic.  Above all, remember that even if you do a lousy job with your homeschool experiment, you’re not going to permanently damage your child.  Do your best, and things will work out.