We Heard You Were Burning Things (and Other Non Sequiturs)

I still get up early. And drink way too much coffee. And have difficulty finding time to use the restroom. And lunch is still eaten on the fly, if at all.

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I still get up early. And drink way too much coffee. And have difficulty finding time to use the restroom. And lunch is still eaten on the fly, if at all.

There’s a lot overlap between medicine and teaching.

You could also say that I’m doing well.

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This year has flown by. I went from being on sabbatical, to (within a whisker) of being a hospital administrator, to substitute teacher working on certification, and to now a certified high school chemistry teacher. I teach 6 classes – 4 sections of junior level chemistry, one 9th grade section of physics (I’m as scared as the students are; I just re-learned components of vectors and the pythagorean theorem), and one section of AP Chemistry.

And I’m trying to get a functional lab up and running.

I’m learning a lot. It’s also safe to say that I’m never bored. I’m pretty certain that I’ll have to learn how to write grants in early 2019, and probably add a second certification.

My days are full – and time just shoots on by.

Back in August, I was trying to figure out first day activities with the students. My instinct was to say, “Hi, I’m your teacher. Let’s get to work.” I’m a dive-right-in sort of person – but it was strongly suggested to me that my intended approach probably wasn’t the best idea. And I think they were right.

What I did do was find a few simple demonstrations on the first day, and have my students get comfortable making observations and predictions off of what they saw. The power of science is not creating a generation of science nerds, but realizing that with a few good observations and a little bit of ordered thinking, you can get really damn far.

I didn’t do anything revolutionary. Alka Seltzer tabs bubbling in water with food coloring in the same flask with vegetable oil (it’s a poor science teacher’s lava lamp). Bouncing a few soccer balls off one another. Setting fire to a brillo pad with a 9 volt battery (the students liked that one; my principal walked in on me while I did this demo. To his credit, he didn’t bat an eye). But the students seemed to get comfortable with the notion of talking and thinking through things. At a minimum, it bought me a little instant credibility.

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Back in late July, I went to Texas for training on how to teach AP Chemistry via the National Math and Science Initiative (henceforth referred to as NMSI). I traveled with a new colleague of mine. He isn’t a science teacher; he’s an English teacher. Because getting pointers on teaching AP Literature at a math and science conference makes sense. My colleague and I made good companions (and are now really good friends). We’re both a tad on the earnest side, both have a dark sense of humor and a little neurotic, and we’re both under 5’7”. So we have a lot in common to say the least.

Having a shared experience is still a wonderful thing, and both of us being new to teaching high school (he’s been an adjunct professor for universities for a while), we both had (and have) a lot to figure out.

We froze our asses off in air conditioned classroom while it was 100F outside. We wrote syllabi in our spare time back at our hotel. We even ventured out and found some Texas brisket. And by the way, to all you Texans out there, your brisket is overrated. Mine is better. It’s like comparing Denzel Washington’s career to Tony Danza’s. It’s not even close.

My colleague and I are two doors away from each other on the third floor of my school. Side note, my room number is 314 (matches the St. Louis area code). So every day, I get to chat with at least one adult for 5 minutes at 6:30 in the morning, and again at the end of the day. It’s nice to have a little routine.

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Our schedule is like this: the student have 8 classes per semester; they have 4 classes on “A” days and 4 on their “B” days. Each class lasts 90 minutes. On my “A” days, I monitor the cafeteria at lunch. It’s an interesting way to observe the students. It’s a little more orderly than Lord of the Flies, but not much. I generally walk around the cafeteria, talk to a few students, and then make sure the students are behaving reasonably in the courtyard. For whatever reason, not many students talk to me when I’m outside. I haven’t figured that one out yet.

Back in late September, two young women – they had to be 9th graders with how sheepish they were – started pointing and walking in my direction. It took them 90 seconds to make the 20 yard trek.

“Are you a physcis teacher?”

“Well, I teach one physics class. Mr. XXXXXX teaches the other.”

“So, you do teach physics.”

“Yes…. why do you ask?”

An awkward silence (of which I’m getting used to) seemed to last a minute; it was probably 5 seconds.

“Can we be in your physics class?”

“I don’t see why you would want to. Your teacher is excellent!”

“We heard you were burning things.”

“Who said that?”

“On the first day. Our friends told us you were burning metal. Can we be in your class?”

Of all the conversations that I thought I would have in my first year of teaching, that wasn’t on the list. It might be my favorite question so far this year.

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Of note, when the fire alarm goes off, and the school gets evacuated, and you happen to be the new chemistry teacher, you get blamed for the smoke alarm. For the record, it wasn’t my fault. Some rubber belt burned in the AC system and but an awful smell in the building. That’s not my fault, but it’s useless to explain to one’s colleagues. Rumors spread quickly.

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I always wondered when I would be “accepted” by the students. Different things come at different times for a variety of people. And no one will tell you – you just know.

I let the students know at the beginning of the year that I’m after school for a while most days (Sonia is now working full time in another school district, and no one gets home in my house until a little after 4 PM. I can get a lot of work done between when my school day ends and 4 PM, so I don’t bring as much work home). If they need help with something, all they need to do is talk to me and make sure I’m not leaving early on a particular day. If you need help – no questions asked.

No one comes in the first few weeks of school. That was to be expected.

Somewhere after Labor Day, a group of 4 young women from the junior class marched in around 2:30 PM (this hadn’t been discussed). In true teenage fashion, they started flinging their backpacks on the tables in the room. And they flopped down in some chairs.

“Dr. K, we need your help.”

I was writing some lesson plans, but it was something that could clearly wait.

75 minutes later, they marched out of my room. They come back every 2-3 weeks now – to clarify some ideas.

I think I’ve been accepted.

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Not everything is ice cream and cherry pie (and by the way, I actually don’t like cherry pie). There are frustrations, both large and small.

I may have to learn how to say “show your work” in several languages because English ain’t gettin’ it done.

I’m amazed by the number of students that don’t think that they need to read outside of class to understand anything. It’s mind boggling.

I could work full-time, daily, for two months on taking inventory of the lab I inherited and still not be caught up. It is the definition of “a work in progress”.

I’m learning to dislike the days before holidays – students are really difficult to get to focus on a good day. If they have something they are looking forward to outside of school, it’s like a squirrel trying to climb a pole greased with Crisco. Forget about it.

Yes, you can draw a picture to help you with a definition. If you draw it, you likely know it. It’s a corollary I learned from Ocean’s Eleven, “Don’t give me seven words if five will do.”

On our first chemistry lab – one class managed to break glassware in the first minute. Literally. That takes talent. It takes even more talent to drop a thermometer down the drain of the sink.

And, for the love of God, show your work.

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I’ve also had the opportunity to stay connected (or re-connect) with teachers that taught me. I’ve stayed in contact since my graduation from Knox with Dr. Larry Welch. I’ve been able to consult him as to what type of background and knowledge it’s helpful for students to have as they enter college. It’s good to have friends in places to help you direct where the students need to go. I really appreciated having someone help me figure out my role in a bigger educational picture.

It’s also helpful to have a teacher tell you where you need to go. Mr. John Oliver (no, not the moppy haired British guy) was my high school chemistry teacher. I was able to pick his brain this summer. I was anticipating that he would have a lot to say about curriculum or how to teach kinetics.

It wasn’t like that at all. It was more focused on philosophy, persistence, and kindness to yourself (myself). He gave me a copy of a speech that gave about a decade or so ago as he was picking up a much-deserved teaching award. While it is directed at teaching science, it would be good reading for anybody with respect to personal improvement and stalking a goal. If I can get his permission, I’d like to publish it here on my blog. The copy of that speech may be the most helpful thing anyone has given to me as I have started teaching.

I hope that I’ll eventually be as half as good as either of them.

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My students were pestering me to put together a quiz on Kahoot. For those of you who don’t know (much like I didn’t know until 3 weeks ago), Kahoot allows you to assemble a quiz where the students can compete against each other in real-time online. I didn’t see the big deal about it, and frankly, I still don’t. Other than it allows you to use your phone to take a quiz, I just don’t get it.

I asked my own kids about Kahoot. Do they use it? Do they like it? Andrew and Allison don’t agree on much academically. They are both good students, but they very much excel in different arenas. Their consensus? “You aren’t on Kahoot? Dad… everyone loves Kahoot.” Apparently, I needed to be on it yesterday.

I now have an account on Kahoot. It seems to be decent as a review activity, but I still don’t get it.

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I get asked daily, “When are we going to blow stuff up?”

I’m wondering if that will be a daily question for the next 20 years.

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I’m working very similar hours to what I used to in pediatrics. Or close to it. Given what I have to do with lesson planning, grading, trying to implement labs, etc… I put in between 50-60 hours a week on teaching; maybe a little more (or a little less, it just depends on the week). I work until I feel like I’ve done enough to put the students in a place to have success. On one level, I’m working just as hard as I used to. Did I not learn my lesson?

The difference is that I sleep in my own bed every night, knowing that I won’t be woken up unless I have to pee. I haven’t missed one of Andrew’s soccer games or Allison’s cross-country meets. I can still go to the grocery store on a last minute notice if we need something. Sonia and I divide and conquer more than we ever could two years ago. The collective stress level at home is drastically improved, and both Sonia and I are working full time. Why? Because we both have time and have the ability to make time for things other than work when we need to.

The only person not happy with the new arrangement is Louie, our albino parakeet. She is now attention starved by the time we get home. I swear that she doesn’t live in her cage between 4PM and 8PM anymore.

Collectively, we’re in a better place.

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I’m really very satisfied with how things are going. I can see how to improve things for my current students and how to improve instruction for the future. I can see places where I need to get better, but also places where I can really tap into my prior career and connections to benefit my students. There will always be another project to work on, a lab to improve, a grant to write, or class to prepare for.

I’ll never be bored.

Not that boredom has ever been a problem, even if I’m not burning things.

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Last short story, I promise.

I spent between my 18th and 26th birthday trying to do something different, live someplace different, and generally “see other places”. I wound up moving back to St. Louis and living a mile and a half from my parents. I’ve lately given up on trying to do something different for the sake of being different. You just have to do what feels right and is true to you.

It’s probably a good thing that I’m not trying to unique for the sake of being unique. As it turns out, the school where I’m teaching was the high school from which my Grandpa Fischer graduated from in the late 1930s before joining the CCC.

I don’t believe in fate. It’s certainly ironic. But it’s the right spot. I’m needed here, the work is fulfilling, and I’m as close to being at peace as I’ll probably ever be. This will do just fine.

 

Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 41 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I fell out of the Ugly Tree, and hit every branch on the way down.

2 thoughts on “We Heard You Were Burning Things (and Other Non Sequiturs)”

  1. My father-in-law is a chemistry professor. It’s fascinating to see how your approach and attitude differ from his. Keep up the good work! These blogs are very entertaining.
    Of note: In one of my first classes with Larry Welch, he created flames so high and wide that I had to evacuate my front-row seat. Good times. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love your blogs but more I love that you are enjoying what you are doing and sound peaceful (in the chaos that is teaching). So happy for you

    Like

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