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.

Political stupidity made useful

At the time I write this, the American Federal government has been partially shut down for nearly a month.  Some people are working without pay, while others aren’t working at all.  I live in the Washington, D.C. area and can attest that the effects of this are real and are damaging to many everyday folks.

Why is this happening?  It’s happening because politicians are acting like idiots.  I have my own opinions about who’s responsible and I think you probably do, too, but whether we agree or disagree, I think that the complete lack of discussion between the two sides is appalling.  As we all know, to solve a problem both sides have to want to reach out to the other, and I haven’t noticed that this is true with either side.

Fortunately, as teachers we can use this mess to better inform our teaching.

  • Nothing happens if lines of communication are closed:  This is true in our personal lives as well as in politics.  If you’ve got an issue with somebody (as might happen in a lab group!), it’s always best to rationally discuss the issue and work it out.  It may be uncomfortable and you may thing it won’t work, but it’s always worth a shot.  If you’ve got kids in a lab group who can’t play nicely with each other, consider telling them this.
  • If people feel unwanted or unrewarded, they will respond by disengaging.  Right now there are employees considered not critical to the government who aren’t getting paid, and there are employees considered critical who aren’t getting paid and have to go to work anyway.  As a result, there’s a lot of absenteeism and work is not going smoothly at all.  We teachers need to keep this in mind when working with our kids, because if they don’t feel like they’re being rewarded enough for what they do, they’ll also disengage.  Fortunately for us, rewarding the kids doesn’t have to be anything major – simply telling somebody that they’re doing a good job and that you’ve noticed their effort goes a long way.  By the way:  Don’t use grades as your reward system – grades are something that the kids earn, not something they’re given.
  • Having somebody to blame doesn’t help anything:  In our budget issue, each side has spent a lot of time blaming the other as being completely wrong.  Let’s go out on a limb and assume that one of the sides is completely to blame for the shutdown.  Even if this is true (and it most certainly is not), assigning blame doesn’t make anything better for anybody.  Pointing fingers doesn’t solve problems, communication does.  This is something to remember when our kids have trouble working with each other, and when we have problems with parents or colleagues.
  • Relationships can’t be fixed in a moment.  I’m sure most of us already know from hard experience that a relationship with a student can be very damaged by a single thoughtless comment.  Though the misunderstanding can usually be worked out, there will always be a longer time in which the relationship itself has to mend.  This is something everybody (particularly our politicians!) can appreciate.

Though outrageous, we can use our government dysfunction as a teachable moment, both for ourselves and for our students.  If you know somebody who’s dealing with the shutdown, or if your family is dealing with it, know that this will eventually be OK.  Our politicians may be ridiculous, but ultimately they all want to do what’s best for the people.

A letter to my son’s teacher

My son’s fourth grade teacher sends out a weekly email to the parents of her students.  It contains news about what’s being studied, a breakdown of upcoming events, and some questions that parents can ask at home to reinforce the topics being learned.  This week the question was “Why do you think so many settlers died in the Jamestown colony in the first four years?”  I’m not sure why, but I had to email a response:

Hi Ms. Lawson,

When we asked Steve the question about why so many settlers died in the first year, as you’d suggested, he answered, “Because they were dumb as hell.”  Though I was surprised by this answer, I was pleased to find after some research that this is, in fact, the correct answer.
At this point, I’ve received no response.  However, given that I do science activities with her class on a weekly basis, it’s likely that she realizes I’m just being silly.

Common sense is so passé

Today’s fun educational story comes from Ohio, where a student wrote a message on the blackboard in his classroom threatening to murder everybody at his school.  For two days in a row. (Story)

Or so some of his classmates thought.  Upon investigation by the school, it turned out that the message “December 7, Time to [some symbol]” actually referred to the fact that the Super Smash Bros Ultimate video game was coming out on December 7.  When the concerns were brought to the principal of the school, who investigated, found that the symbol was emblematic of the game and harmless, and let the whole thing go.

Of course, this wasn’t the end of it.  Rumors started in the school that this kid really and truly was going to shoot up the school, which led to an investigation by the school resource officer which found that the kid was excited about the upcoming release of Super Smash Bros Ultimate on December 7.  A letter was sent home, etc.

I’m not writing to say that the school did anything wrong in this case.  It’s clear that, when it was brought to their attention, the principal and resource officer did exactly the right things in investigating a possible threat.  When the matter was explained to them, they did exactly the right thing in concluding that the threat was false.  In this case, the system worked.

What’s appalling about this situation is that both the students and parents of this school were so quick to judge that this kid, whom everybody thinks is “weird” (according to his own account), was going to shoot the place up even though the matter had already been investigated and concluded.

Let’s use this story as a cautionary example regarding the rush to judgement.  If a weird kid in the school puts something weird on the board, it’s entirely appropriate to ask if it means something odd.  However, when it has been investigated by the school, it’s time to let it go.  Problems with school shooters have either happened when 1) Everybody ignored warning signs; or 2) The shooter surprised everybody with their apparent harmlessness.  When the school does everything right in investigating a suspected threat, it’s time to let it go.

The boy who was twice investigated in this case was essentially bullied by those of his classmates and their parents who believed that somebody with seemingly odd interests is naturally harmful.  Perhaps instead of treating others like the enemy, we can try treating them with respect.

Safety hypocrisy

I was drinking my morning coffee and watching YouTube this morning when I came across this video by The Backyard Scientist.  For those of you who haven’t seen him, he’s a guy who does “scientific” things in his backyard, usually involving something destructive.  Highly entertaining, to say the least.

The video I mentioned above is titled “This Is Why You Need To Wear Safety Goggles” and shows a number of dangerous things involving power tools.  As with most of his videos, it’s fun to watch things get destroyed.  Unfortunately, during many of the demonstrations he doesn’t actually wear safety goggles at all.  Specifically, when he works with the impaling device/table saw and when he plays with the chainsaw/angle grinder.  Yep, you read that right:  A video that’s supposed to promote safety goggle use neglects to use safety goggles.

I’d like to say that this content creator is the only person who does this sort of thing, but I can’t.  In most of the chemistry classrooms I’ve visited, there are serious violations in eye-protection safety precautions.  It’s not uncommon for teachers to tell students to wear goggles and then do one or more of the following:

  • Fail to wear safety goggles, or wear them only when immediately in the presence of the lab equipment.
  • Fail to ensure that each of the students is wearing their safety goggles.
  • Fail to ensure that visitors to the classroom wear safety goggles.

One might argue that goggles aren’t always needed because eye-related injuries are extremely rare.  After all, we’ve all seen that safety goggles are typically damaged by being dropped rather than through accidents.  However, consider this:  It only takes one accident like this in your career to blind a child.  One instant of having a student fail to wear their goggles can lead to blindness.  Put like this, it’s clear how important it is to have everybody in the room wear their goggles.

The reason I focus so much on this, rather than on other topics, is that eye safety in a high school chemistry lab is the biggest concern we have.  Though it’s not uncommon for students to burn themselves or cut themselves on broken glass, these injuries are rarely serious enough to warrant even minor medical help.  Even in the very rare cases where medical help is necessary, a burn or cut won’t lead to the same life-altering injury that is caused by blindness.

The good news is that it’s very easy to practice good eye safety in the lab.  Just follow these steps:

  • Make sure everybody in the classroom wears goggles during lab experiments, whether or not they’re in proximity to the equipment.
  • Make sure everybody wears goggles until the last lab group has completed their lab.
  • Make sure all visitors to the classroom (this includes your administrator!) wear goggles during the lab.
  • You need to wear goggles during the lab to set an example.

To show the seriousness of this rule, the punishment for not wearing goggles should be a zero on the lab and removal from the classroom.  I know it sounds harsh, but there is nothing more important in a chemistry class than safety.  Though no credit on a lab can hurt a kid’s grade, an accident involving one’s eyes can cause permanent blindness.  As long as you make it abundantly clear that this rule is to be followed, it will quickly become a habit that your kids just automatically follow.

Enjoy the link to the video and The Backyard Scientist’s other videos – they’re interesting and fun to watch.  However, don’t be as casual when it comes to lab safety.


Our story today comes from Visalia, CA, where a teacher apparently had two mental breakdowns this week.  The nature of the first was not entirely clear from reports, but the second saw her declaring that it was “hair cut day”, running around with scissors and cutting students’ hair while singing the Star Spangled Banner.  The story is here.  It’s obvious that this behavior cannot be permitted, but it does bring up another question:  What do we do when teachers have a nervous breakdown?

Most people I know have a story from their primary education of a teacher who “lost it” and did something strange.  One friend of mine tells of a teacher who ran out of the classroom crying and never returned, while there were rumors that a fourth grade teacher at my school threatened a student and left teaching shortly thereafter.  Though there’s no way of knowing which of these stories actually happened, it’s clear from the anecdotal evidence that it’s not all that uncommon for people to have a teacher at their school suffer a nervous breakdown on the job.

So, what do we do when something like this happens?  As with so many things, we’re stuck reacting to the situation and making the best of it.  In the case of the haircutting woman, the students fled the room and sought help at the school office.  Given that this teacher had a mental breakdown, but wasn’t dangerous, this seems fine.

More importantly, what can we do to stop this from happening in the first place?  To me, the answer is “not much.”  Though teaching is a stressful job, I don’t think that there’s any way that we can make it less so without making everybody’s workload much less.  Until this happens, we can only hope that we’re not the next one to do this.

I’ve published an important paper!

As is my way, I’ve been wondering about strange and unusual topics.  In this particular case, I’ve been wondering about the human element in putting stuff into a blender.  Because there has been no scientific approach to studying this phenomenon, I figured I’d do my own experiment.

This experiment has been published as An Examination of the Effect of Prior Experience, Age, and Gender in Non-Food Blending Predictions.  Though this title sounds pretty scientific, it just refers to an experiment I did with putting rubber balls in a blender to see what happens.  If you want to skip past the science talk, you can download the same thing in human readable form as Which People Are Best at Predicting Whether Something Will Blend?  And if you don’t understand how the statistics in either paper works, you might want to also have a look at the About Statistics document.  I’d like to give special thanks to Tom Dickson for inspiring this work with his own studies.

I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know what you think, and if you find any methodological, typographical, grammatical, or otherwise ridiculous errors, email me at misterguch@chemfiesta.com.  And feel free to nominate me for an important prize if you’d like.

Has Physics Been Stagnating?

I just read an interesting article in Nautilus titled “The Present Phase of Stagnation in the Foundations of Physics is Not Normal.”  This is an incredibly thought-provoking article and I highly recommend it.

The basic premise of this article is that nothing new has happened in our basic understanding of physics since the 1970’s.  Essentially, physics has gone from a field that comes up with better understandings about how the world works to a field that is more interested in dotting each i and crossing each t.  As opposed to changes in the early/mid 20th century, experimentalists are now “poking in the dark” because there are no new predictions to test.  Sure, we’ve got the concept of dark matter, but as the author states, this is just a placeholder for a phenomenon we don’t understand.  Her assertion that physics involves a lot of “blathering about naturalness and multiverses” seems to make sense, based on what little we’ve heard from the world of physics lately.

I think there’s a lot of truth to what Dr. Hossenfelder says in her article.  I’ve heard about experiments with the Large Hadron Collider and we still hear predictions of doom from the late Stephen Hawking, but they haven’t really told us much that’s new.  I like new particles as much as everybody else, but I’m not sure they’re doing anything but keeping particle physicists out of the unemployment lines.

There are, in my mind, three main points that we should consider.  And all of them lead to a hopefulness that’s not present in this article.

  1.  We’ve heard this before.  Michelson famously said in 1894 that there was nothing left in physics to discover.  As a species, we’d pretty much figured out everything that classical physics had to tell us.  We were dotting each i and crossing each t as we are now.  Of course, this turned out not to be true.  Not only were quantum mechanics and relativity on the horizon, but Michelson himself had performed a famous experiment disproving the aether seven years before he made his famous comment! Clearly, physics was getting ready to do something.
  2. Innovation isn’t constant.  There have been large blocks of time in which no really innovative stuff has been discovered.  This is true not only for physics, but for all sciences and areas of study.  The reason is this:  The world’s supply of genius isn’t constant.  Sometimes we get a whole bunch of geniuses like Rutherford, Bohr, Einstein, and the Curie family, but in other periods we end up with less awesome intellects.  Sure, every age has brilliant people, but most brilliant people don’t have the insight to invent truly new ideas.  Hence we get Dr. Hawking’s nonsensical rantings about space aliens and God alongside his brilliant astrophysics work.
  3. We don’t know what to ask.  We can only solve problems that we know actually exist, and at this point we don’t have any of those.  Consider the classic book Flatland, which posits a world of two-dimensions.  Even if the inhabitants of this 2-D world see weird stuff happening, there’s no way for them to imagine what a world of three dimensions is like.  We’re living in a similarly limited universe, and to imagine something fundamentally different will require an imagination and creativity that we haven’t seen in a long time.  We’ll have to wait.

So, is innovation in physics gone?  Right now, yes.  I’ll agree wholeheartedly with the author that nothing much is happening and that lots of money is being spent on pointless papers.  However, it only takes one of these physicists to think in a wildly different direction to spark the next revolution.  I hope it happens in my lifetime.