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For over 25 years, September was an exciting time for me. It has meant the start of another year working with young people in a chemistry classroom and a new season coaching athletes on a running team. I was always looking forward to the new school year, the new season, while reflecting on lessons learned from previous years.

This fall is different. I have left the classroom to lead an education technology startup I founded. It’s been an interesting transition, and we will see how it feels when Labor Day comes around — and I am not in the classroom.

The beauty of being an experienced teacher is that time allows one to collect and practice teaching techniques, many of which are borrowed from other teachers. To borrow implies that something will be given back, but since I picked up many of these methods from casual conversations, observing other teachers, or being a student myself, returning the favor has been difficult to do. However, with hat tips to the many marvelous instructors with whom I have worked and learned from over the decades in the classroom, I have decided to give back by sharing some of that borrowed wisdom.

Lesson #1: Keep the message clean and simple

The first lesson comes from my own high school English teacher, Sue Jewell, with whom I am still in regular contact — even 38 years after my days at Wayzata High School in Minnesota. Her teaching of composition remains with me, even as I write this piece. In a series of three lessons, she was able to help us grasp the power of thoughtfully-arranged words to capture a message.

She first assigned a traditional five-paragraph essay for us to write. The next day, we were told to take the same information and condense the ideas down to a single paragraph. The day after that, we had to take that shorter piece and write just a sentence or two to convey the essential meaning of the original essay.

Each time I see the “Internet slang” term tl;dr (short for “too long; didn’t read”), I think of that three-day writing process. Communication, both verbal and written, should be concise to be powerful. This lesson is especially important when crafting responses to parent emails and when writing those important letters of recommendations for students’ college applications. 

Lesson #2: Be ready to be stumped

Thanks to our years of experience teaching, it may appear to our students that we know everything. A wise biology teacher told me it’s because we have heard the same questions so many times that we are prepared with a response. It becomes an exciting discovery when we have a new question put to us, and modeling the behavior that follows is an important part of the teaching process. Being able to say “I don’t know,” and then looking for the answer, is strong proof to students that learning never stops, and that it happens regardless of whether one is being graded.

Lesson #3: Withhold information

Though I was never really a fan of traditional worksheet and cookbook-style lab reports, my predecessor in AP chemistry was a true master at designing activities that were open-ended and routinely left out key information. The second lab of AP chemistry was one of her best examples: students had to devise a procedure to find the percent composition of a mixture of solid sodium phosphate and barium chloride.

When I took over the class from her and started to look at the lab activities, I asked her how best to accomplish the task. Of course, she did not tell me directly! She let me struggle with the problem on my own until I figured out the solution.

Later, I would tell my students that story when I gave them the assignment the day before the lab activity. I would then leave the room, and tell them they had 20 minutes to devise a method by discussing it together. They were allowed to ask three yes-or-no questions when I returned to the class. Each of them had to be able to explain the process to me before doing the lab the next day. Invariably, they all did. In this instance, my being out of the classroom was far more effective than my being there.

Lesson #4: It’s a performance

As teachers, we are telling a story. Our lessons are a theatre with an audience of students interacting moment-to-moment to drive the plot forward. Two different English teachers showed me the dance that happens when careful questions interplay with student responses — and the way the results can challenge and engage a room. One of these teachers also taught me the effectiveness of a simple prop — for example, a small bottle of white powder for the pre-lab activity described above. Such ordinary objects can be used to support the “story line” of the lesson without being a distraction. For this reason, most of the demonstrations I performed in chemistry class were relatively simple. For example, on different occasions, I had my students:

  • Coordinate their movement between opposite sides of the room to create an equilibrium condition
  • Stretch rubber bands and feel the difference in temperature to show entropy
  • Take an imagined field trip (with their heads down on their desks) as I described a surprise trip to a hot, sunny beach to demonstrate specific heat

Lesson #5: Honest passion delivers

There is no faking it: if you do not love what you are doing in the classroom, the students will know it. Enthusiasm is a powerful force and will help students (and athletes, in the case of coaching) to set high goals and strive to accomplish them. I have been blessed with many role models in this regard, and continue to be amazed at the joy and creativity that abound in the teachers I know and meet. I will single out two teachers in particular, both from my high school in Minnesota: my physics teacher, John Koser, and my cross country coach, Bill Miles. These two passion-driven instructors guided me by example. It is because of these individuals that I became a teacher myself.

In conclusion

Taking inspiration from Lesson #1 above, let me try to condense this article down to a single sentence. Here’s my attempt:

Good instruction inspires both students and teachers to creative discovery.

I am not sure if that sentence adequately captures the feeling of gratitude that writing this piece brings to me. Sue Jewell, my former English teacher, has this quote on her Facebook wall: "We are all just walking each other home." I agree with that sentiment: Let’s all learn from each other.

Photo Credit: ACS (Top), Laura Korotkin/Detroit Country Day School (Bottom)