APS News

Zero-Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science

The Joy of Teaching ... But First....

By W. R. Marshall

Editor’s Note: Wolfgang Ketterle did not actually engage in any of the conversations described below. They are fiction. But, according to the author of the article, everything else is based on real conversations with the folks involved in the “business” of education.

Wolfgang Ketterle, 2001 Nobel Laureate and John D. MacArthur Professor of Physics at MIT, has read about the record shortages of math and science teachers in American schools and decides to lend a hand. He leaves MIT and comes to Springfield to teach high school. He calls to offer his services:

“Hello,” says Professor Ketterle. “To whom would I speak about teaching at your school?”

“That would be Principal Skinner.”

“Not Seymour Skinner? We attended the Max Planck Institute together.”

“Yes, that’s our Principal Skinner. I’ll give you his office.”

“Thank you,” Professor K says.

“Principal Skinner’s office,” says a woman pleasantly.

“Yes, hello, my name is Wolfgang Ketterle; I’d like to speak to Principal Skinner.”

The woman gasps, “The Wolfgang Ketterle? The Wolfgang Ketterle, who along with Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the Bose-Einstein condensate?”

“I am that guy,” Prof K confesses.

The pleasant voiced woman gushes, “Big fan, Dr. Ketterle, big fan, been following you since you worked with Pritchard back in the ‘90’s.”

“I’m flattered, thank you.”

“Now what can I do for you, Dr. Ketterle?”

“I’d like to teach at your school.”

“Wonderful. Wonderful. Just send me your Letter of Clearance from the County and I’ll set up the interview.”

“My what?”

“Your Letter of Clearance.”

“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage,” Prof K says. “Just tell Principal Skinner it’s Wolfie.”

“Dr. Ketterle,” the woman replies. “He can’t interview you unless you have a Letter of Clearance from the County.”

“He can’t even speak to me?”

“Not if you’re looking for a job.”

“I see. And how do I get such a letter?”

“You have to call the County School District. Here’s the number...and I think you’re much better looking than Cornell or Wieman.”

Prof K calls the county.

“Hello, Teacher Recruitment,” says another pleasant voice. “How can I help you?”

“I’d like to get a Letter of Clearance so I can teach high school.”

“Are you state certified?”

“Well, I’ve been teaching Physics at MIT for a while.”

“I see. Do you have a teaching certificate from Massachusetts?”

“I have a PhD.”

“Yes, but no certificate.”

“I won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001.”

“Yes, well, that’s very nice. You’ll need to be certified before you can teach high school. You can find the County paperwork on-line, but I wouldn’t bother filling that out until you’ve done the State paperwork, we can’t process the county papers until you’ve completed the state paperwork. Here’s their number.”

Yet another person with a pleasant voice answers the phone and after getting the details says, “Dr. Ketterle, you’re a perfect candidate for our Alternative Teacher Program. It’s where we bring non-traditional people into the classroom; lawyers or business people or college professors, you know, people who haven’t taught.”

“But I taught physics at MIT.”

“Yes, but you didn’t teach high school. It’s very simple really. You send us $75 along with the paperwork you’ll find on our website. Make sure you include your work history, letters of recommendation, transcripts, etc; and don’t forget your fingerprints. Then you’ll have to take the praxis exam in your subject; we have to know that you know your subject. The test only costs $100 per subject.”

“But I won the Nobel Prize in Physics; I can get you a letter saying I know the subject.”

“Yes, well, we have to protect our children...where was I...oh, yes. There’s a four week course you’ll have to take before you can start, they’ll teach you things like classroom management, curriculum, teaching methodologies and so on, but the beauty of our program is you can get your certification while you’re teaching, and the money you’ll be earning will help defray the cost of the classes you have to take. We’ve really worked it out so everyone wins.”

Prof K takes a deep breath, “I see, and how long will this take?”

“Depending on how quickly you can get your paperwork together, as little as two months, but it might take as long as three.”

“And then I can teach?”

“No. Then you can go back to the County and after you do their paperwork, they’ll issue you a Letter of Clearance–then you can start to interview.”

“But I discovered the Bose-Einstein condensate.”

“Look, Dr. Ketterle, I hear that a hundred times a day. We don’t want to waste our principals’ time interviewing people who aren’t good candidates. It’s for the children you know.”

Mark Twain said it best: “God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board.”

W. R. Marshall is a novelist and syndicated columnist. 

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff