Voices from the Classroom: A Journey There and Back Again

Drew Isola

This is my second year back in the classroom after a two-year absence spent serving as a Teacher-in-Residence (TIR) for the PhysTEC Project (www.phystec.org). I’ve been a high school physics and math teacher since 1982 and returning to the classroom, after spending two years on campus working to improve physics teacher preparation, was another first, in a long line of career firsts. My first year of teaching, watching my first class graduate, my first year teaching 8th grade, teaching AP classes for the first time, the first time I watched a former student graduate college, the first time I attended the funeral of a former student.

It was almost four years ago now that the PhysTEC Project leaders from Western Michigan University convinced me to take a leave of absence and come on board as the TIR (http://www.phystec.org/components/master-teachers/). They had tried a few years earlier to convince me when the project was just getting started, but I managed to come up with too many reasons why I couldn’t step away temporarily from my classroom. But this time was different, my school district agreed to the arrangement and so my journey began. Little did I know what I was in for and how different my life would be.

Believe it or not, life as a high school teacher is a fairly isolating and somewhat secluded existence. I know that sounds difficult to believe. I mean, you are surrounded by hundreds of teenagers everyday, thrust into every aspect of their lives whether you want to or not, and are required to instill motivation, enthusiasm and curiosity in them everyday through the intensity and brilliance of your classroom ‘performance’. By and large, your whole life revolves around every detail and event that they choose to bring into the classroom. Your mind is constantly focused (before, during and after school) on what you’ve done, what they’ve learned, what they’ve missed, and what they still need to do before the end of the marking period. Becoming a TIR brought me out of that small worldview in ways I didn’t expect, such as: finding myself in a Wal-Mart on a Wednesday morning on a school day and feeling like I was doing something wrong; eating lunch and going to the bathroom whenever I wanted; forgetting to eat lunch because the bell didn’t ring.

As an experienced teacher I thought I was fairly aware of what was going on in my classroom, in my school and even with local and statewide education issues. I worked on professional development committees for my district. I helped lead local workshops for elementary teachers to help them teach some of the more difficult physics-related topics that they were required to teach. I also assisted a few local districts with curriculum alignment issues related to changes in state science standards. But once I began my TIR experience and attended national meetings to meet with people from all over the country working on the PhysTEC Project, my awareness of physics teacher preparation issues and physics education improvement projects expanded exponentially. To be honest, I had previously only been vaguely aware of organizations like AAPT, APS or even the NSTA. I had attended a few MSTA conferences here in Michigan, which I found very interesting and helpful, but never even entertained the thought of attending or being involved in a national organization. Because of PhysTEC, I’ve had the opportunity to attend and present at numerous national meetings the past 3 years. Something I’m sure I never would have done on my own.

Being a TIR in the PhysTEC Project is like living in a fish bowl. Everything you do must be documented and measured. At every PhysTEC site around the country every activity that is planned and every change that is implemented is discussed and analyzed before, during and after it happens. It is held up against the three guiding questions that have focused the work of the project for over seven years:

Are we producing more physics teachers?

Are we producing better prepared, high quality teachers of physics?

Are these teachers staying in the profession longer?

Basically, the PhysTEC Project is a very large, long term, social experiment in physics education and physics teacher preparation. Those of us who work (or have worked) on the project are used to being constantly asked questions about what we are doing and what impact is it having in these three main areas. So I was a little taken aback, and somewhat unprepared, when I was asked a few months ago as the lead-in to this article, “How has your participation in the PhysTEC Project impacted you personally?” I didn’t have a quick answer and I had to think about it for a while.

Now being caught unawares by a question is not a normal state of affairs. As an experienced classroom teacher I am bombarded by unusual questions on a regular basis and am rarely knocked off-guard by one, “How old are you?” “Didn’t you wear that shirt yesterday?” “Did you know you have gray hairs?” “Did you know that you are older than my parents?” The most recent classroom question that gave me pause came just after I was explaining for the umpteenth time that being called ‘Doctor’ because you have a PhD does not mean one is qualified to give medical advice. One of my louder and more outspoken students asked if having a PhD meant that I could teach college to which I responded, “I suppose so.” He quickly followed up with, “Then why would you want to teach us?” The question caught me off guard because of all its subtle implications and unspoken thoughts that obviously inspired it. I was able to quickly recover because of my many years of being put on the spot in the front of the classroom, smiled sweetly and said, “Because I am so excited everyday to be able to help you learn how to solve quadratic equations.” Everyone snickered and we moved on. But the question is a good one that every teacher, no matter what level or what subject they teach, should be able to answer. Every teacher should be able to look out over their class whether it’s an elementary science class, a high school physics class, or a college level modern physics class and answer the unspoken question in their students’ minds, “Why would you want to teach us?”

So, how has my participation in the PhysTEC Project as a TIR impacted me personally? Well, it definitely has given me a much broader perspective on what is happening and what needs to happen to improve the teaching of physics at the national level. For example, I now get to serve on the AAPT Committee for Teacher Preparation, work on writing teams for documents to support the new statewide physics standards here in MI, and still participate in science standard alignment committees in my local school district. Much of what I have experienced these past few years has validated many of the conclusions and beliefs I have developed over the years about teaching and what new teachers need. I am heartened and encouraged by what I see and hear from colleagues at the university level who work hard on such matters. I am extremely impressed with the level of importance these colleagues attach to the input they receive from experienced classroom teachers, like myself, who are serving as TIR’s past and present at PhysTEC sites around the country. TIR’s and Master Teachers are treated as professionals by their university colleagues much more frequently now than was the case 10 years ago. They are looked at as a source of invaluable input and a wealth of knowledge from the world of the K-12 classroom.

Most importantly, being a TIR for those two years has impacted the way I teach. I am more cognizant than ever before of the important role that high quality teaching plays in student achievement. I am much more focused on being aware of what it is my students are actually learning (or not learning). I am able to make much more informed choices about what are the most fundamentally important concepts of physics that students should learn and what information, topics, and end-of-chapter problems are excessive and only add to students’ confusion and frustration. Lastly, my increased awareness of my students and what it takes to help them learn has helped me do a better job of answering the question, “Why would you want to teach us?”

Drew Isola (disola@alleganps.org) now teaches at Allegan High School, Allegan, MI and is still active in the PhysTEC Project as a ‘former TIR’.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.