The Original John Oliver

I was fortunate before I started teaching to talk to my high school chemistry teacher, John Oliver. He is a great science historian and excelled at making difficult material accessible to high school students. I was fortunate to have coffee with him this summer as I was seeking out how to teach high school chemistry. He was light on details (and he was correct) and heavy on general principles. “Be kind to yourself” was a refrain I heard from him more than once.

Not the formerly moppy haired, HBO broadcasting, parrot-look-alike-wannabe, British comedian.

I’ve been fortunate to study under many wonderful people. In college, I did research for two years under the direction of Dr. Larry Welch. He’s the best storyteller I’ve ever met, and he taught me extreme attention to detail and the importance of being methodical. He is an analytical chemist after all. I can also talk track & field and national parks with him – he’s a mentor and a friend.

Dr. Tom Clayton was the person who finally got me to think in 3D. I live in a 2D world; I can’t draw to save my life, and I flunked finger painting in kindergarten. But his Advanced Inorganic Chemistry class was one of the most interesting courses I’ve ever taken. And I finally was able to see depth and the Z-axis. Without his class, I would have been terrible at suturing, and I would have a terrible time teaching now. I owe him a debt of gratitude.

Dr. Janet Kirkley taught the hardest class I’ve ever taken (Biochemistry). She was a stickler on reaction mechanisms and pathways. I spent hours in the Knox College Library on dry erase boards pouring over mechanisms. She was (as far as I’m concerned) the most organized professor I’ve had, and she pushed me – hard. She was also kind about it, and had the best non sequiturs about rock music ever. The legend at Knox was that during grad school, she caught a red-eye to see The Clash play in London, and then caught a red-eye back to the states so she missed minimal (if any) lab time. (Side note, I’m talk about London Dispersion Forces soon with my students, so I snuck this clip into one of my slides):

I was fortunate before I started teaching to talk to my high school chemistry teacher, John Oliver. He is a great science historian and excelled at making difficult material accessible to high school students. I was fortunate to have coffee with him this summer as I was seeking out how to teach high school chemistry. He was light on details (and he was correct) and heavy on general principles. “Be kind to yourself” was a refrain I heard from him more than once.

He also gave me a portion of a speech he gave after winning a teaching award in the mid-1990s. I don’t have the whole speech, but he did give me 10 things a chemistry teacher should know when teaching. But I wouldn’t publish his work if it didn’t generalize well to other purposes. I’ve referred back to it frequently this year – and I think it can serve as a bit of a guide how adults and students can direct their own improvement. So please, don’t just think of this as a chemistry guide, but take the nuggets in here and generalize out to yourself. I don’t think any explanation is necessary.

What follows are all the words of Mr. John Oliver and are not my original work. I cannot thank him enough for sharing this with me (and I have his permission to share it with you). Without further delay, here are his words regarding be a successful chemistry teacher.

Rule number one: Learn your subject matter and how to communicate it. Both are important. A few years ago, the American Chemical Society proclaimed, “Chemical information and the ability to express that information are of equal importance.” This statement was in reference to assessing student achievement, but the combination is even more crucial for teachers. There are many people in the world who understand thoroughly significant portions of the body of information known as chemistry. Some of these people are lousy communicators. Unfortunately, some college and secondary  teachers are numbered among this group. If these people are unwilling or unable to improve their communication skills, they will never be effective teachers. They will rely on the skill of the students who have survived the process to that point (and they are skillful) to teach themselves. These students learn in spite of, not because of, or augmented by the teacher. If on the other hand, you possess the ability and the desire to communicate, but question your command of the subject matter, by all means learn the chemistry. I would submit that that may in fact be the easier skill to acquire.

2. Teach less than you know, but know more than you intend to teach. Students in introductory courses are by definition beginners. They don’t need to be blown away by your chemical expertise or distracted by extraneous details. What they desperately do need is a Guide to lead them into the maze of chemical information. If they get lost at the beginning, they will never find the hidden depths. On the other hand, they need to have the confidence in you or they won’t follow your lead. Teachers who have an informational reserve which can be tapped judiciously to answer a question or to illustrate a point inspire that confidence. Instructors at this level who teach at the limit of what they know are in trouble. Students usually view chemistry as a risky undertaking. It’s a risk to their grade point average and to their intellectual self-esteem. They are more likely to take that risk and will follow you farther into unfamiliar territory if they believe you know where you’re going.

3. Don’t forget that chemistry is an experimental science. The lab component of a chemistry course is messy, expensive, potentially dangerous, time-consuming, and absolutely essential. It has unfortunately been eliminated or severely curtailed for the negative reasons I mentioned in many places. If this is a trend, it is a dangerous one which has detrimental implications for the future and seems to forget the lessons of the past. In Germany in the mid-nineteenth century, as revolutions spread throughout the rest of Europe, a quiet revolution was taking place in the way chemistry was taught. Justus von Liebig and Friedrich Wohler insisted that undergraduates be brought into the lab. Their students enthusiastically spread this doctrine around the world, and the result was a tremendous proliferation of chemistry programs and useful research. In the US, Josiah Parsons Cooke at Harvard and Ira Remsen at Johns Hopkins, both products of that German system, introduced teaching laboratories for the first time. Even tiny Oberlin College in Ohio had a German-trained professor, Frank Jewett, who encouraged his students to experiment. One of his students was Charles Martin Hall, who developed the Hall Process and made aluminum available to the world. Students will always learn by doing; experimentation is how we “do” chemistry.

4. Don’t submit to the tyranny of the textbook. When I was a beginning teacher, I was on my own. No one in the building knew more science than I did. I was outranked only by the textbook. I believed everything in the book was not only true, but also important. I know now that neither belief was justified. Chemistry books contain far more material than can or should be covered in any one course, and I’m concerned that they have become encyclopedias of chemistry rather than useful teaching tools. They’re the products of marketing considerations, not instructional ones. Publishers are unapologetic: It’s a smorgasbord – if you overeat, that’s your problem. They are far more concerned that no other publisher be perceived as having provided a more lavish spread. Heaven forbid if their introductory text lacks a chapter on ceramic chemistry or crystal field theory. Inexperienced teachers and students lack the confidence and the “permission” to overrule the textbook and make their own decisions. Which brings me to my next rule…

5. Organize the subject for the student’s benefit. My students are for the most part, very organized people. On a personal level, they are far more organized than I am. They have learned at an admirably early age to budget time, set priorities, and have mastered the mechanics of the education process to the extent that we label them “good students.” But how can they as beginners, organize the vast body of knowledge that is chemistry? How can they distinguish the items that will be built on later and which lead deeper into the maze from the dead ends and side channels that clutter the book? They can’t; that’s the job of the teacher. I believe that the source of a good deal of the frustration which some students feel in introductory chemistry is this inability to cope with the organizational problems presented.

Of all the rules on the list, this is the one I wish had more time to discuss with you. I recently took part in a seminar on this very subject where a number of experienced teachers spent three days dissecting the structure of chemistry. And I use the word structure because successful teachers seem to have an almost architectural view of the material presented. At the introductory level, we construct a foundation on which future courses can build. The structural elements of that foundation must be carefully selected and connected to provide a base which is broad enough and secure enough to support future development. I would quickly offer another opinion which time does not permit me to defend. I believe it is time for us to view chemistry as a multiple-year discipline at the secondary level. I am fortunate enough to be at a school which is part of the International Baccalaureate program. We have three years of chemistry, three years of biology, and accelerated physics and each year we graduate a number of students with most or all of that package. This additional time allows us to develop the subject in a methodical way, and the students we produce are a testament to the efficacy of the program.

6. At least occasionally, measure yourself and your student by an external standard. As you can tell, I believe in the right of the individual teacher to take considerable control over what goes on in his or her classroom. But we don’t exist in a vacuum. Our students do move on; we owe it to them and ourselves to be accountable to some standard of performance. The International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, and the American Chemical Society all provide suitable instruments. The standards are high, and they should be. One of the worst mistakes a teacher can make is underestimating the ability of their students.

7. Be consistent and persistent. Repetition and reinforcement are essential to learning. No matter how brilliantly a concept is presented, most students will internalize it only after it is put to use and reinforced a number of times. Good teachers do this seamlessly as a part of their daily routine. Whenever appropriate, material from earlier in the course is reinserted and more and stronger connections are made; the foundation grows. It may seem repetitive and monotonous to you, but it is effective, and I would suggest that even a superficial consideration of the television and musical listening habits of your students will persuade you that they find it both comfortable and appealing.

8. Never be satisfied with your current level of skill. You can’t become a good teacher unless you yourself are willing to learn. I said earlier that I had never done any student teaching, and in a formal sense, that’s true. But I’ve been a student of teaching; I’ve made it a point to seek out the best chemistry teachers I could find at conventions, Woodrow Wilson Institutes, ChemEd conferences, local ACS meetings, and what I’ve learned from them has been by far the most powerful and significant influence on my teaching. These outreach programs are so effective in promoting good chemistry instruction that I find it troubling and a bit mystifying that they constantly struggle to find sources of funding. Corporations with a stake in the chemical future of this country could make no better investment in their own future than to fund these programs.

9. Take pride in what you do. When I first started teaching, I used to tell people it was just a temporary thing. I went on a couple of five-year-plans; “I’ll teach five years and then I’ll get out.” Five years became ten; ten stretched into fifteen. And somewhere along the line I stopped being apologetic about it – even to myself. It wasn’t until then that I became I good teacher. Like anything else, it has to be more than just a job; it has to be part of you.

The last rule can stand without comment: 10. Afford your students dignity and respect, and you’ll never want for either.

And that’s all there is to it.

I believe that teaching and learning are complementary and inseparable. It’s a bit like oxidation and reduction; you have both or you have neither. And we all at one time or another take both roles. I learned to teach from other teachers and now I take special satisfaction in being able to return that favor. When my former students who are now teachers seek my council, it’s more than gratifying, it’s like a circle closing. You see it is the process of civilization. It is one of the most profound and distinctive features of our species that we have a collective understanding which can grown only by benefiting from those who have gone before. Late in life, Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen farther than other, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” Well, I’m no giant, but the wonder of it is that we don’t have to be. Whatever our intellectual stature, we are part of the base that the future is built upon. I’ve had the privilege and the honor of boosting a good number of talented students into that future and I’m not finished yet. My only regret is now that I’ve finally figured out how to do this I wish I had more time left.

I like very much a story which was apparently also a favorite of Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist who changed forever the way we think about atoms, and which I think speaks to this dual quality of teaching and learning which involve all of us. The story goes that in an isolated village there was a small Jewish community. One day word came to them that a very famous rabbi was to speak in a city located some distance away. And because they were eager to learn what the great teacher would say to them, they pooled their resources and sent a young man, a student, to listen. When he returned, the entire congregation gathered to hear his report. The student said, “It was wonderful! The rabbit spoke three times. The first talk was brilliant, clear, and simple. I understood every word. The second was even better; deep and subtle. I didn’t understand much, but the rabbi understood all of it. The third talk was by far the finest; a great and unforgettable experience. I understood nothing, and the rabbi himself didn’t understand much either.”

Sometimes we feel like the student and sometimes we’re the rabbi. The beauty and the mystery of science is what attracts us in the first place and in our search for answers we seek out those who seem to understand. In the course of time the roles change and we may become the ones who are sought. It’s an elevated position, a position of honor, and whether we do it daily or on an occasional basis, we must always take it seriously. Because the truth is that science is not the information – it’s the search. We search separately and together and the sharing of the knowledge is every bit as important as the knowledge itself. Humankind will never abandon the search; but we must also never forget that the village waits. And so we must never stop trying to communicate, in the hope and the confidence that some day our students will understand better than we do. Thank you very much.

And thank you much, to all my teachers, especially the ones mentioned here. And thank you to Mr. John Oliver for permitting me to reprint part of your speech. It was too good not to share.



Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 44 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I blog sporadically, and if there's a theme in here, please tell me what it is!

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