The Impression That I Get

When you get inspiration from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, it’s a good day.

This was on one of my dry erase boards after a final. I took a picture before erasing it; I had to keep it for posterity’s sake. I had great students this year.

I’m not a person that believes in very many absolutes. Even my strongly held positions, whether held by evidence or feelings, are subject to change. If you show me enough evidence, if you show me where I’ve been wrong (or I show myself where I’ve been wrong), I can switch my view. I hope that I’m not unique in this, and that I’m getting less unique all the time.

Year One of teaching is almost in the books. It has been a whirlwind from this time in 2018 until now. At this point last year, I had finished a long-term substitute teaching job that I HAD to have in order to get my permanent Missouri teaching license. I had passed my first of two tests for my chemistry certification. I was developing a Chemistry class (because the preceding teacher was less than ideal), an AP Chemistry class, and I was figuring out how I was going to teach physics. All at the same time.

As this summer approaches, I’m still busy, but it’s a good busy. I’ll have Chemistry and AP Chemistry again in the new year – with the full confidence of the administration and students behind me. I won’t have Physics (although working with Mr. Rosado was great), and I’m bringing Anatomy and Physiology back at my school (see, my M.D. isn’t dead!) I’m taking a biology certification exam (turns out that because of plants and fungi, my M.D. doesn’t get me any special treatment as far as being “grandfathered” in for biology certification) in the summer – but that’s without the pressure of my job depending on it. I have some curriculum to develop and courses to tweak (some of which I’ll be paid to do), so my summer is not wide open. But it’s not insane. It’s comfortably full at this point.

What I’m left with are impressions of how I thought this year would go vs. how it actually went. Or, in some cases, things that happened that I could reasonably foresee, and others that were kind of interesting and eye-opening. And others, like many times, just make you go, “Oh.”

1. Nurses and teachers really are almost the same person. Practical. Pragmatic. Intensely hardworking. Wealth of knowledge. Down to earth people. That was an accurate description of 95% of the nurses I worked with (sure, there are a few people that don’t fit the mold). I always got along better with the nurses during my medical career than I did with most physicians. I felt like a square peg in a round hole for most of my pediatric career (my insanely dark sense of humor probably didn’t help either).

That description also fits the teachers I work with, and I suspect it fits most teachers. Sure, there are a few that might be “cashing checks”, but that’s not most people I work with. The staff of teachers that I see every day is prepped and ready to go. All they want is to try and to help and improve a group of young people to get them ready for whatever is next. It’s a big job, and they work hard at it. And they’re a good group to be around. I’m happy to be a part of them. There was a reason I did my electronic charts on the nursing unit – I felt like I fit in there. I finally feel like I fit in professionally. It’s a relief.

2. I thought that the AP Chemistry class would be the easiest class for me to teach; I was wrong. I studied chemistry extensively in college and was a whisker away from applying to graduate schools. In medical school, I had to study a lot of biochemistry and biochem related topics – and then utilize them as a professional. I’m comfortable with the subject matter. So, a roomful of AP students who are motivated + my expertise = the easiest of my 3 classes that I teach. Right?

It wasn’t incorrect, at least not completely, but it wasn’t correct either. There was a wide variation in how much chemistry the students had previously learned. Then, throw in a confidence factor and the traditional “who will do the work” factor, and it was more difficult than I envisioned. Plus, the “lab” I inherited was far from perfect – it took me a semester just to dig out enough space in the junk to have meaningful labs (I’ve just now rid myself of 80% of the junk attached to my room – there’s more storage that needs to be organized – that’s a story for another day). Most of my students learned to attack to the work and take the shot at putting themselves out there – it’s ok to be wrong; that’s how you learn. I’m proud of the group. But there were more factors at play than I had thought before I started teaching this group. It was not the most difficult thing I have ever done; it was also more difficult than I had predicted to myself.

3. I thought the freshman Physics class would be the hardest class for me to teach; I was wrong. OK. Freshman start the year immature (for the most part – not everyone). We start, and we wait for maturity to set in. And we wait.

And wait some more.

It’s January – keep waiting.

It’s starting to warm up again – keep waiting.

OK, it’s April; signs of maturity begin to rear their head.

I’m a pediatrician/chemist/biochemist. Of all the “hard” sciences, I have the least formal training in physics. I assumed the subject matter would be really hard for me to teach, and that I could handle the discipline/classroom management by leaning on the pediatrics experience.

I was correct on the latter; the former, I overestimated the difficulty. I applied John Oliver’s “know more than you teach.” I prepped more this class at the get-go than my regular chemistry class. That might have saved me. Physics is hard, but it’s not THAT hard. The bigger issue is keeping 14 and 15 year olds on task enough and getting something productive out of them. That’s an issue involving patience. My professional life and parenting prepared me for that. I overestimated the struggle that physics would be. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would; but, having said that, I’m glad I have Anatomy and Physiology next year instead.

I like it when people are direct and they tell you exactly what they want.

4. After following some Facebook teaching groups – all I can say is that no two high school teaching jobs are exactly alike. I see many posts (in AP teaching forums especially) that are very demonstrative and clear-cut – “Teach it this way.” Basically, if your students aren’t getting the job done, too bad on them.

I see other posts where administrators are clearly undercutting their teachers.

I see other things that I recognize as closer to my experience.

Then I see other ideas that make me wonder what planet someone is on.

All I can say is that I’ve learned to interpret these posts with a great deal of caution. The teachers that post, for the most part, have very good intentions. They want to help and generally believe in that their approach will work and might be the best way to do something.

I apply the “you can take an x-ray to five radiologists and get six different readings” principle to this one. No two jobs in high school are alike. The student bodies are different. The parental involvement is different. The income levels, administrative support, financial resources – all different. This all affects what you can do. Interpret advice with a great deal of caution – not skepticism, but caution.

5. Unless you have the full support of your administration to be an autocrat, if you want your students to buy into you, you must buy into them first. I’ve never been in the situation where I can be Napoleon. I don’t have the personality. I guess you could bully the students around – they know it coming in to the year – and you can be an effective teacher. I know some people brag about being able to do it this way or opine to be able to do it this way. I don’t think that, long term, it’s an effective strategy – at least not in most environments.

Or, I think you can win this way in the short term. I think you squash a lot of souls and kill the desire to continue learning in a lot of students. See #9 on my blog.

This also falls under, “The sky is blue, the Earth is round, and vaccines are safe and effective.”

If have to explain a little bit here. I had put up a list of “Things I learned this year” – 1. Keke doesn’t love me; never has and never will. 2. I’ll never understand K-Pop. I do like Snap & Crackle though. 3. Post Malone really does suck. So does John Wick. 4. It’s been 9 months; I still get Kahoot. 5. In all sincerity, you have been my most conscientious class. You are good students. Thank you for affirming that I made the right call by teaching. See you in August. Best wishes, Dr. K. Apparently this student is a John Wick fan and doesn’t care that I think Keanu Reeves isn’t that good of an actor.

6. No matter how hard you try, some students still won’t buy in. And you have to be OK with that. This was/is hard for me. Whether it’s because of a maturity issue, home issue, previous issue with school, someone having failed them previously, personality issue, or some combination thereof, not every student will buy in – even if you are being earnest. As a pediatrician/parent/someone that just wants young people to do well, this is hard to swallow. I’m not thrilled about it. I don’t love it. But year #1 is over, and there are some students, that despite my best effort, still won’t buy in to what I’m trying to do. That I’m really here to help them succeed. I’ll analyze over the summer, change what I can, and take another whack at it. But you’ll never get 100% – you have to know this, understand this, and accept this. You don’t have to like it, and you can always strive to do better.

7. As a Chemistry teacher, I am now at peace with the “when are we going to blow something up” question – it just comes with the job. I blew up a balloon one day as a joke to see if that would suffice. It didn’t.

“When will you blow something up?” “Will we blow something up today?” “How come you haven’t blown something up yet, Dr. K?” I’m surprised someone didn’t offer to disable the smoke alarms if that would have got me to move faster.

My cousin (Allen Kesselring) told me that you can’t be a great chemistry teacher until you blow something up. The problem is finding something that won’t wind up evacuating the school. I don’t have access to liquid nitrogen or dry ice (solid carbon dioxide), so doing something non-toxic is hard. The citrus fruit battery was cool – but it’s not blowing something up.

This meant a lot to me.

So, I found a work around…. The students seemed pleased, and I’ll just have to keep finding unique solutions, because this question ain’t going away. Now to get my hands on some dry ice or liquid nitrogen….

8. Much like medicine, you’ll get thrown into situations that you have no training for. Just deal with it. I remember that when I first went into practice, that despite my wonderful training, there were tons of things that training just can’t address. Teaching is no different.

What do you do when you think someone has appendicitis at the start of class? (being a former pediatrician, that’s shockingly easy for me)

What do you do when a student faints post-blood drive (again, shocking easy for a former pediatrician)

What do you do when a student shares personal information with you on the essay portion of a test?

How long do you wait with a student that’s having a bad day before you tell them to, “take a walk and get a drink of water? We’ll talk in private when you get back.”

That kind of stuff. That’s the important stuff. Because you have to know your students. You must read the situation and react to them and their needs. And sometimes, you just make a call.

One of my top Chemistry students was prepping for an AP test (not the Chemistry AP exam) and was beginning to freak out a bit. I pulled the student into the hall. Here’s the following sequence (somewhat paraphrased, I didn’t write this down.)

“Hey, are you ok?”

“My AP Psych exam is tomorrow. I’m worried I won’t pass it.”

“OK. You know, when I went to AP training, they tell us there’s no such thing as pass or fail. It’s qualifying score or non-qualifying.”

(Silence for a few seconds).

“My wife taught me in my career change that sometimes it helps to look at the floor instead of the ceiling. What’s the absolute worst thing that happens to you tomorrow?”

“I get a 1 or a 2, and then I have to take general psychology again in college.”

“OK. Did you learn a lot this year?”

“Yes, a ton.”

“Will that be an easy class for you in college if you have to take it?”

(Brief pause) “Yes, it will be a bit easier, at least.”

“That’s a good thing. So, keep your notes and materials from this class. Now, what’s the best thing that happens tomorrow?”

“I get a 3, 4, or 5 and I get college credit.”

“So, does anything bad happen tomorrow?”

(Brief pause) “Not really.”

“OK. The pressure’s off. Knock the test dead. Do the best you can. This is a rare win-win, no matter what you do. You’ll do better if you don’t go in feeling like this is do-or-die. You’re very intelligent and well prepared. Deep breath.”

(Brief pause. Slight smile) “Thanks, Dr. K. I needed that.”

I saw the student after the AP test. They said they thought they did pretty well, and had a reasonable chance of a 3 or higher. Who knows if their self-assessment was correct? But that exchange isn’t in any teaching manual. It comes from years of working with young people and caring about the big picture. And I’ll have them in AP Chem next year. Which leads into #9…

This is why I teach.
And this.

9. I like working with high schoolers because, once you have some buy-in from them, the work and fun possibilities open up. This is my longest section, by far.

It took a while, being a new teacher, to get the students to recognize that a) I’m in this for the long haul and b) yes, I want them to do well in my class, but I’d much prefer that they just do well overall.

I showed up to soccer and basketball games. I worked dance concerts and band concerts (by the way, making it through middle school band concerts – keeping track of the students before they go on stage, keeping them organized and hoping they stay lined up – oh my God). I worked school functions.

One student – in early May – said, “Dr. K, you show up to a lot of things here.”

“Yes, I do. I’m really happy to be here and to be teaching.”

She smiled. “Thank you. I’ve noticed. We’re glad you’re here.”

If I didn’t have a Y chromosome, I would have cried.

But it happened in less noticeable ways, too. When students struggled with concepts and they finally got something, I was thrilled, and I let them know it. We were doing something with stoichiometry, and one student finally got a hard calculation. I threw 2 dry erase markers on the floor and went sprinting out of the room, with my arms above my head, yelling in victory.

I was gone running down the hall for about 30 seconds.

I came back, and the class was quiet – “Are you mad, Dr. K?”

“No, I’m excited. You guys are starting to get it!!”

“We thought so, that’s why we didn’t go and find you. We figured you’d be back in a minute.”

Also, with stoichiometry, I was trying to teach different ways of doing the same thing. I taught the way I learned from Mr. Oliver. I taught a method that my mentor from NMSI showed me this summer. Two students in one class told me they found a “new way.” To be clear – it wasn’t new. It combined one or two steps, but it was something I hadn’t shown, but is perfectly valid. They asked me if they could do it their way instead. I asked them 2 questions – “Can you repeat it so it’s not a fluke? Can you teach it to someone else? If you can do those two things, then yes, absolutely, do it!”

So, I drew up a couple of problems on the spot. They solved them quickly using their preferred method. Then they explained what they did (and WHY) to the class. A few students switched to doing it their way. They were a bit surprised that I allowed them to do it “their way.” I told them that frequently that there’s no one correct way of doing something. If you can repeat what you are doing, if it makes more sense to you one way – DO IT!

Work got easier. A majority of the students (not all) realized that if you work, we can loosen things up and have some fun as well. During finals, I tried to write something on the board to my classes, thanking them for their work for the year, and letting them know how much I appreciated them – and how glad I was to be teaching because of them. I also cracked a few jokes – mostly poking fun at myself and pop culture. (“That’s tough” is apparently the equivalent of “cool” – it took me a bit to realize this). What was fun for me was writing these lists on the board as the students took their tests. I could hear laughter with some things I wrote (which I liked) and groans with others (which I really liked).

One hour asked me if I was going to put up a list (word had leaked out, and they didn’t want to be forgotten). It was pretty funny – at the end of the day, these students might be 16 and 17, but they’re still growing up. They’re a mental mix of young adult and kid.

I also had a throw-away question on the test – the joke is not original (I completely stole it). What was more fun was to see some of the responses. Some students heckled me back in response to what I put on the board. Some students wrote kind notes back to me. Some students just let me know that it really was a bad joke. Whatever.

The point is this: in my environment, you have to get the kids to buy in first. Let them know you actually care and like what you are doing. Then, work comes first – but you’ll help them through it. Once that’s established, the world opens up. Relationship, work, then enjoyment/fun (I don’t like saying fun, because I know “fun” is subjective in a school sense. But if they can look forward to my 90 minutes, that’s a good thing).

I have a stack of recommendation letters to write this summer. I told my students that you don’t have to make an “A” for me in order to get me to write for you. I just need to see you do good, solid work – to your capacity. If you do that, I’ll go to bat for you. I’ve placed a few students in touch with nurses I’ve worked with, so they can learn about nursing school and the nursing profession. That’s the really fun part – getting the students a leg up on where they want to go. It all starts from buy in. It’s worth the investment. I guess I could have done things as a dictator – but I think in the long view, this approach will work much, much better.

10. I have another “thank you” list – you should have known one was coming by now. Thank you to the following people: My colleagues on the 3rd floor, who made this year quite enjoyable for me – Mr. Smith, Ms. Bein, Dr. Tamarkin, Ms. Cato, Ms. Harris, Ms. Wimbley (double shout out to Ms. Wimbley!), Ms. Price, Ms. Kohli (awesome AP coordinator), Ms. Bubash, Mr. Kelly, and Madame Sarich.

Thank you to Mr. Niederman and double thanks to Mr. Rosado for all of your help with physics and friendship – you came in clutch a few times this year.

To Coach Drew, Coach Pickens, Coach Hoffman, and Coach Thomas – thank you as well – you have been a pleasure to work with and I hope to see more of all of you.

To Dr. Schmidtz and Ms. Stortzum – thank you for helping taking me under your “wing” and helping me along in year 1. I won’t forget it and will repay kind in kind.

To Ms. King and Dr. Metzger – thank you for all of your help and having my back this year and I’m looking forward to round 2 next year.

To Mr. Warmack – thank you again for giving me a shot and bringing me on-board. This has been a most rewarding year for me, and I appreciate your support and trust – I won’t forget it.

To my consultant, Mr. Cooper – Thank you for pushing me this year, but doing so in a way that wouldn’t ole me right over the edge. You had me read well from day #1. I look forward to working with you in the future.

To Mr. Joe and Mrs. Elizabeth Chamber and to Dr. Larisa Selimovic-Milo  – thank you for encouraging me to apply to the SLPS. Now you have to deal with me.

One more time, to Martha Keeley – just thank you.

Thank you to my NMSI mentor, Lisa McGaw – everyone should have one Lisa McGaw in their life. She knows EVERYTHING about chemistry and education and taking care of young adults. I lucked out working with her.

Thanks to my Mom and Dad – who helped me put dry erase boards in my classroom, funded one DonorsChoose project for my classroom, and supplied tools so my students could build a citrus battery at the end of the year. If any of my students find this blog, I’m being honest here – if it’s not for my parents – about ¼ of my classroom doesn’t exist.

Thanks to Sonia, Andrew, and Allison. Sonia bought snacks repeatedly at Costco for my students. She brought the kids to sporting events at my school, and also funded another large portion of the classroom. As busy as I was – I was still home more than I had been in medicine (no going in at 2 AM, I slept in my own bed, and even if I had to do work on weekends, I would always be home to help). If any of my students are reading this, if it’s not my wife and kids – much of my classroom never would have come together. It’s not just me that’s invested in you.

Year #1 is in the books. Let’s do Year #2. But I need to watch some St. Louis FC matches first – home of the Fighting Chupacabras!!! Now, please, can we get an MLS team. Please???!



Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 42 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I'm occasionally active on Twitter; you can find me: @STLLenny and on Facebook (@trialofmilesjk)

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