Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Question: What makes a good science teacher?

It took me forever to answer this question, mostly because I don’t know the magic formula that makes a good science teacher, but I finally came up with a useful answer. Well, I think.

I think that a good science teacher has the same qualities that any good teacher has. I have had many more terrible teachers than good ones, so I will begin by telling you about the qualities of those teachers whom I hated, and then I will tell you a little bit about the best high school teacher I ever had.

I hated (science) teachers who;

  1. made me feel stupid (mostly because I happen to be female). Seriously, how many times can one be completely ignored or publically ridiculed for asking questions before they stop asking anything at all?
  2. told me I was stupid (a certain high school math teacher comes to mind .. I am tempted to name him here because he was such a general menace to learning. And hey, I am good at math, too. But I was bored nearly to tears in his stupid class).
  3. didn’t care about their subject (or anything else, for that matter) — even smart kids have a tough time learning from teachers who Really Don’t Care.
  4. knew very little about their subject(s).
  5. talked to us as if we cared little about the subject.

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Okay, now that I have said all that, I will tell you about my World History teacher who, despite my early (and lifelong) love of science and math, opened my eyes to the value of history and made it entirely easy to fall in love with this subject, simply because he was so fascinating to listen to.

Every Friday was “casual day” in my World History class. Mr. Bell, an elegant and articulate man who often wore a suit and tie, came in to class and began Friday’s lecture by sitting on the corner of his large beat-up wood desk, and told us stories about what was happening in the world each week. As if it mattered that wheat farmers’ kids knew anything about the world and its problems.

Mr. Bell spoke of world leaders as if he knew them personally, and his stories and humor made them come alive for us. He related conversations to us that were published in magazines and newspapers as if he had heard them himself. He described the situation and told us about each leader’s motives and past. Suddenly, instead of being remote and distant, instead of merely being two-dimensional photographs in US News & World Report, in Time magazine or in one of the many newspapers, these world leaders and their advisors became living and breathing human beings whose spectres seemed to be prowling through swirling dust-motes in my classroom, casually weaving between our desks, explaining and defending their actions and words to all of us, to the daughters and sons of carpenters and mechanics. And we sometimes decided their actions and words were inadequate, or worse.

Then, after Mr. Bell’s presentation ended, the entire class would go to the library where, for the remainder of the class time, we were allowed to read anything we wished, as long as it was about world events, and then we wrote a one-page report about what we read. Amazingly, instead of patrolling the library like an overzealous security guard, Mr. Bell would loosen his tie, snuggle into a chair, sometimes with one leg draped casually over the arm, and read alongside all of us.

We all loved asking questions of Mr. Bell. Even though he had a quick sense of humor, he never ridiculed us, never treated our impressions as if they were silly or insipid; no, he always thought seriously about our questions. That alone motivated me to zealously read US News & World Report and several newspapers every day so I could formulate a question to ask him each Friday, so I could be the one to ask him that one special question that would cause him to pause, that he would linger over during class time, that would make him think, that he would savor like a fine wine while he carefully considered his response.

In addition to making history live for me, and in addition to all the other valuable lessons that he taught me, Mr. Bell showed me through his shining example that good teaching is a combination of qualities; knowledge, passion and compassion, enthusiasm, love of learning, vision, humor, and of course, “chemistry” with the students — basically, all those qualities that make us human is what good teaching is all about.

Where ever you are, Dave Bell, thank you so much for being the fabulous teacher that you were. You were, and are, unforgettable to me.

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So, now that I’ve written this little tribute to my World History teacher, who was the finest teacher I had in high school, now I ask you, dear readers, what makes a good (science) teacher?

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Comments

  1. #1 Dawn
    June 28, 2006

    a good teacher has passion, a passion for what he teaches. My best teachers were passionate about what they taught. Mr. Harney, my anthropology teacher was a gifted teacher, so much fun. so exciting. And Mrs. Lupton my english teacher, who taught me to be open to independent films and great writers no matter where they are from.

    thanks GrrrlScientist, ahhh memory lane………….

  2. #2 Zappa
    June 28, 2006

    In 1982 to 83, I had the same science teacher for both 7th and 8th grade science. She was an inspiration to me. She let me drop calcium metal into water and demonstrate that the gas being emitted was hydrogen in 7th grade (I was a geek from the get-go). She loaned me the schools video camera so I could video tape my fish after weeks of ringing a hidden bell while feeding them to record the reaction the first time I rung the bell without feeding them. It was to see if, using classical conditioning, fish can hear (they do, I discovered). And via her science fairs, I meet a real-life paleontologist (Bill Simpson at the Field museum) who let a 13 year old poke around his lab and ask questions. Whom has also since inspired me as an adult to get off my can and go to grad-school, after meeting him again 20 years later.
    She also let me out of school so I could see a lecture by Donald Johanson at the Field Museum. He is still the only famous person I’ve ever asked for an autograph.

  3. #3 biosparite
    June 29, 2006

    I would have to say my father was my first and one of my best science teachers. From Atlanta my family would travel to Clearwater Beach, FL, off Tampa for summer beach vacations. When I was four and five, he would bring me out to around five feet of water and have me bobbing around in a lifejacket while he pulled up starfish and sand dollars from the sea bottom. At the start of one trip he removed a few arms from a number of starfish. Around a week later he took me back out and found one of the starfish with new arm buds. So regenration was part of my mental toolkit before I even started kindergarten. Although educated as a lawyer, my father was a polymath with an encyclopedic memory who could often call up information from his Boy Scout nature projects. My parents also gave me a prehistoric-animals book for older children published by the American Museum of Natural History and featuring the great dinosaur dioramas from the Museum for my first-grade Christmas, and my father’s boss’s wife gave me the profusely-illustrated Giant Golden Book of Astronomy when I was in kindergarten. What is salient about all this is that the investment of time by these adults was not lengthy or burdensome but directed and highly-effective. They showed me the way, gave me the resources, and turned me loose to make of it all what I would.That early exposure has enriched my whole life. At age 57 I still interrupt my own law practice to go to the field. I see silicified fossil bryozoans emerging from 455-Myr-old limestones I dissolve in hydrochloric acid and then go to Galveston beach to look through a dissecting microscope at modern forms that cling to floating seaweed. I help out with butterfly counts for NABA. I enjoy perusing SCIENCE and NATURE every week. Native bees that visit my butterfly/pollinator garden have my attention at the moment, and I have a mason-bee house on order from Knox Cellars. I just wonder whether I would have all this if my parents had been indifferent to challenging me with the books and experiences they gave me before I got halfway through the first grade.

  4. #4 Mel
    June 30, 2006

    Enthusiam for the subject and teaching, a good sense of humor, and respect for the students.

    What makes a good science class isn’t quite the same, and good teachers can teach less-than-good classes.

  5. #5 impatientpatient
    July 3, 2006

    You made me cry…. this is how I want to be when I finally get my teaching degree.

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