Buy that special someone an AP Physics prep book, now with 180 five-minute quizzes aligned with the exam: 5 Steps to a 5 AP Physics 1

Visit Burrito Girl's handmade ceramics shop, The Muddy Rabbit: Yarn bowls, tea sets, dinner ware...

15 March 2018

Thoughts about mentoring new teachers

I was asked, "what does your department do to mentor new teachers?"

We haven't done anything formal, nor do we really want to.  The veterans have generally taken it on themselves to keep in touch with the new people, answering questions and being available as we can.  My philosophy is, there's no point in talking at new teachers before school starts more than we already do (and we already talk at them way too much).  Teaching – for the first time, or at a new school – must be experienced.  "Mentoring" consists of showing through our actions the type of teacher we hope that the new folks will become.  The best way for new young teachers to learn is to watch the pros, and then to talk shop.  

I think veteran teachers underestimate the fear of failure and the desperate, beaten-down mindset of the new teacher.  (Possibly because we have consigned those dark years to the deepest inaccessible recesses of our brains.)  I remember being so, so worried about doing things wrong, knowing that I was not as comfortable and in charge as my colleagues, knowing that there were complaints everywhere from students testing my resolve, feeling the disapproval of my colleagues.  I beat myself up so much -- and colleagues and bosses beat me up so much -- that I never really realized what a damned good job I did in my first couple of years.  I felt like I was expected to be perfect, and then to get better; I felt like, even though I recognized and tried to learn from my mistakes, that nevertheless I was always in danger of being sacked for my lack of perfection.  (And in fact my contract was not renewed.  At two separate schools.*)  It wasn't until I had been teaching for nearly a decade that I stopped feeling like I had to prove myself every day.

* How’d you like your physics programs now, schools that booted me out the door?  

My wife taught English as a 22 year old who was the youngest person on faculty, and one of only four women.  She similarly felt the constant disapproval from colleagues, the *perceived* disapproval from the older men in her department even when it wasn't there, and the disapproval from herself for not being practically perfect in every way.  She never noticed just how badly she was being treated by the school; she just assumed anything that wasn't perfect was all her fault.  Her colleagues, her students, and the administration drove her out of teaching.  And that is too bad, because she was really, really friggin' good for a new teacher.  She would be bloody amazing now had she stuck with it.  

Those same effects were *this* close to driving me out of teaching, but for one kind offhand comment from a veteran.  I'm glad I stayed, but I still sometimes wonder why I did.   

I suppose I think of mentoring new teachers much like sabermetrics thinks of evaluating baseball managers -- it's not possible for a manager to significantly improve his team's chances of winning by making "good" strategic choices.  The best managers statistically are the ones who back off and don't make actively stupid strategic decisions.  In that vein, formal observations and formal, scheduled discussions are often more intimidating / loaded with perceived disapproval than effective.  But those veterans who take care to develop personal and professional relationships with new teachers will place themselves in a position to serve as a sounding board, and then to gently offer advice where asked.

I can tell you what sort of "mentoring" did NOT work well.  It was NOT effective when I was told to use the calculus teacher down the hall as a resource -- he was actively unfriendly, unhelpful in a practical sense, and unenthusiastic about helping; he threw in some piss poor advice to boot.  I needed someone to tell me when I did things well, to talk through my ideas without dismissing them immediately out of hand, to allow me to try new things without prejudging the results.  I needed someone to vigorously shut down ridiculous complaints, to smite loser arseholes (like those who were caught but not held accountable for hollering "BITCH!" outside my wife's classroom her first year), to quelch the malicious gossip from students and less-than-friendly colleagues before it could snowball.  Then, only then, did I need someone to give me advice.  What I actually got was a bunch of old folks who freely dispensed advice, but who also sent messages in body language that I wasn't part of their club, and that it was largely my fault that the students whined about me -- blame the victim.  Know that this isn't just a me and my first school issue -- my wife had the EXACT SAME experience.  And I'll bet you know of someone else with this experience, too.

Just telling a new teacher to work with veterans who aren't invested in mentoring does not work.  One cannot be mentored when every event, every question is loaded with judgmental baggage.  It takes a special, special veteran teacher to build enough trust with a new young teacher such that the new teacher is willing to open up, to ask tough questions, to ask for advice, and to take advice without feeling sandbagged.  The number of veteran teachers capable of building that trust is, sadly, negligible. 

We should, wherever possible, put new faculty in close physical proximity with veterans who are easy to talk to.  A while back we got three physics teachers new to my school, two of whom were new to teaching as well.  Having the three of them share an office was priceless.  I was just down the hall, and was always in the coffee room.  Just that proximity let us develop a camaraderie.  We want new folks nearby to those who will be both helpful and nonjudgmental; folks who will not butt in unless asked (or unless it's blindingly obvious that butting needs to be done).  Even if no actual advice is dispensed, just watching the professionalism of our veterans builds a positive corporate culture in which we have to convince faculty to STOP working rather than to start.

Point is, there can be no formula for mentoring new or young teachers.  So much is driven by personalities and relationships.   I'd say that former football coach Clint Alexander has been a better academic mentor to me, and to a large number of our faculty, than pretty much anyone else I've met professionally - when I had trouble with a student or a colleague, I asked Clint for advice, even though he wasn't a fellow teacher in my department.  Our head track coach has mentored his assistants in a way that goes well beyond track.   We can't know ahead of time whose spouses or families will get along with those of a new teacher.  We can't predict who will get along well within a department, or who will become more friendly with teachers on a coaching staff.  

All we can do is continue to hire and develop veteran teachers who remember what it was like to be new, and who consider it their job to support new folk in an atmosphere of authentic, non-judgmental caring.  Keep the control freaks, those who judge, those who give too much credence to silly kid complaints, far away from the newbies.  Keep those who work hard and professionally visible and prominent; make it clear to the new teachers through our actions what phenotypes of teachers are valued by the school.  That's all we can do.  After that, teachers will have to sink or swim on their own abilities.

07 March 2018

Handing back work

It seems like such a small thing... but the manner in which you hand back routine student work makes a difference, especially in the tone of the class.

Firstly, let me kindly point out the underlying principle that, speaking in generalities, students don't care about a routine assignment once they've handed it in. 

Don't believe me?  Try an experiment.  Don't place students' work directly on their desks.  Rather, place the work easily accessible in the back of the room, or on top of a table down the hall, somewhere that requires a student to exert extra but minimal effort to get the assignment.  Do this for at least three routine assignments. By the third, I'll bet that only a couple of students bother to go get their papers, even if "going" to get the papers requires merely a walk to the back of the classroom while people are filing into the room.

For years now I've handed back student work in a slotted cabinet in the back of the room.  Each student has a numbered slot into which his papers are placed.  Only one or two students go back there on any given day, unless I make them. 

It's important that students know you're somehow looking at and evaluating their work; otherwise they won't take it seriously.  In the long term, your students really do appreciate your care in crafting, reading, and handing back routine assignments, because they will eventually recognize that your care for their assignments is an expression of your care for them personally.  Right now, though, yesterday's problem set might as well be as ancient and relevant as the OJ Simpson trial.

So why don't I force students to look at their previous work by placing it on their desks?  

In that case, I'm practically begging students to argue about points, to wonder why they only got two out of three when their friend got three out of three "and he said the same thing!"  I'm encouraging questions on the order of "well, if you really think about it, this answer could be right, can I have some points back?"  Faced with a graded paper, my students look straight at the final score, then at their classmates' final scores; then they start rationalizations that go so far beyond sour grapes as to become aged wine.

By returning papers in the back of the room, you have a grace period to tell the class briefly "hey, on last night's problem, you can't set the tension in the rope equal to mg, because the object is speeding up.  You have to write Newton's second law for both objects and combine the equations."  Everyone paid attention to that 20 second statement; everyone is now constructively considering whether they made that error or not.  Had their papers been in front of them, 3/4 of the class would have been leafing through the pages trying to mine for points, and won't have heard your statement anyway; half of the rest are considering whether the number of points they lost for that error was commensurate with their sense of justice, or whether they should summon Batman to fight for their points back.

Usually, a student who makes a couple of errors on a problem set doesn't need to have those rubbed in his face; it's far better just to mention common errors in general, but then move along.  They've been brought up in a system where 93% is an A, where anything less is on par morally with trigamy.  They get way too upset about their lack of perfection.  If they don't see their paper, even if they're purposely ignoring their paper in order to avoid confronting their imperfection, then that's a positive result.

Of course, there are times when you need a student to take a look at a routine assignment, particularly when that student's responses were nowhere close to on target.  In that case, require an extra help session of that student, and make him go get his work to show you.  This is the time to make the student redo the problem the right way... when there's no social value to the performance art inherent in "but teacher, can't I have pity points for writing F=ma?"  Redoing the problems from scratch can build confidence and bust misconceptions.

And, handing back the rare major test can be done without recourse to the back-of-the-room method.  I suggest either handing back a blank test with an indication of which problems require correction; or, discussing common issues briefly while holding on to the tests in the front of the class.

For regular assignments, though, you avoid a lot of headaches by making students take a bit of an extra effort to fetch their work.  You can focus on physics, rather than lawyerly discussions about grading.

24 February 2018

Mail Time: Is Pluto's Angular Momentum About the Sun Conserved?

Dear Greg, 

I have been reviewing with my students and want to pose this question to them but am having a bit of difficulty with the solution:

The dwarf planet Pluto goes around the sun in an elliptical orbit.  Consider Pluto only.  Is its angular momentum about the sun conserved?  Justify your answer.  

I know that in an elliptical orbit the distance between the sun and Pluto would change and therefore angular momentum would not be conserved.  However what is throwing me off is considering Pluto only.  Does this mean you do not take into consideration the elliptical path?

Angular momentum is conserved when the system experiences no net torque.  Pluto alone is the system.  What forces act on Pluto?  Just the (gravitational) force of the sun.  Does that force provide a torque about the sun?  No - the force of the sun on Pluto is always directed toward the sun, so there is no lever arm for that force about the sun.  (Another way to say it: the line of the force of the sun on Pluto goes through the axis of rotation, which is the sun itself.)  So angular momentum is conserved.

How does that square with the elliptical orbit?  Angular momentum for the point-object Pluto is mvr, and that can’t change.  So when the distance from the sun r is small, the speed v is large, and vice versa.  That is in fact the case for all planets.  The earth moves faster around the sun in (northern hemisphere) winter, when we’re about 3% closer to the sun, than in summer when we’re a wee bit farther away.


10 February 2018

Oh My Gawd, It's a Test!

How does your class react when you announce an upcoming test?

Ideally, they say nothing.  They register the reminder with the same demeanor with which the New England Patriots took the field for their seventh Super Bowl this century: calm confidence mixed with a tinge of nervous anticipation.

Too often, though, your announcement incites a game of misery poker, each student in turn offering a complaint, a sarcastic comment, or an increasingly dramatic vision of how the upcoming test will ruin his life.  How do we as physics teachers encourage an appropriate culture around testing?

It starts with the very first comment about the very first test.  If you let small passive-aggressive comments go unchallenged early, they'll eventually turn into big actual-aggressive comments that can't be mitigated.

I deal firmly, kindly, and somewhat publicly with the student who fans the flames of drahma.  "Oh my goodness, I studied for hours and I know I'm gonna fail.  Here goes nothing."

In front of all, I'll put the same phrase in the context of sports: "Johnny, you're a baseball player... you just said to your team and coach, 'I'm next up to bat.  Just know that I suffered through these horrible practices all week, I'm still terrible, and I'm gonna strike out right now before I let a grounder go through my legs next inning.'  What would your coach say?  Oh, that's right, she'd bench you.  She'd replace you with someone who wasn't explicitly and aggressively saying he'd let the team down."

On a team, such chicken little talk gets the social shunning it deserves.  Why do we let it pass in academics?  Nip it in the bud.  The silent majority of students will appreciate the more positive atmosphere you create by shutting down the drahmatists.

If a student continues to kvetch, or even if he gives me negative body language, I'll take him aside and appeal to his* ego.  "So, Johnny, you're one of the better students in the class.  How do you think your words make Joey feel?  He's going to think, jeez, if JOHNNY thinks he's gonna fail, what chance to I have?  The class needs positive leadership from you, Johnny, and leadership begins with poise and confidence."

* I teach at a boys' school.  I imagine that my approach would work similarly in a co-ed environment, but I have no direct evidence.

But students have legitimate questions about the upcoming test.  Of course.  I can't shut those questions down... I must communicate the form, content, and performance expectations of the test.

Nevertheless, I don't need to answer silly or irrelevant questions; I don't need to answer questions twice; and I don't need to answer passive-aggressive questions that are really whiny complaints.

What's going to be on the test?  Answer it once per year: everything we've discussed.  [Smile.]  I'm not doing my job as a teacher if I give you permission to forget everything I've taught you.

Make the format consistent and transparent.  Hand out the cover sheet ahead of time, indicating the number of each type of question and time limits.  If the students don't expect surprises; and better, if the gossip amongst generations of students never includes stories of surprise or gotcha questions; then you can more reasonably demand that your students stop with the fear-mongering.

Will there be a curve?  Again, answer out loud once per year: the cover sheet includes the point values for each section, along with the number of points necessary for each grade.  If you pass a sheet like this out for every test, there's no reason for anyone to ask about it in class.

What if I fail?  Are there retakes?  Can I do extra credit?  Can I lawyer up after the test to convince you to give me an A?  Can we go back to that fourth down play when New England didn't cover Nick Foles and the Eagles scored the winning touchdown?  What do you think, should we give the Patriots another try?  I mean, they've worked their tails off all season, they tried so hard, can't we have some mercy on them?  

I have a connection with most of my class through sports.  Feel free to use other avenues of public life.  "Can we go back to early November 2016?  Remember when Ms. Clinton didn't campaign in Wisconsin, Michigan, or Florida?  Perhaps the Republican party would allow a re-vote, or some extra credit for Clinton in the electoral college... after all, she tried so hard..."  

Whatever works for you and your class.  Just shut down the complaining.  It will be appreciated by most, and worth it come exam time.

05 February 2018

Carry on

Welcome back, class.  I know the first day of school after break is sorta useless, and I know it's hard to remember things we talked about two weeks ago, so... you just lost a day of teaching.

Look, it's not like I'm blind or stupid.  I notice the days that are more difficult to maintain student focus.  Typical culprits include days immediately before or after a scheduled vacation or a major non-academic event like the state championship football game or the prom.  I know my seniors will engage far better in the fall than the spring, while freshmen are the opposite.

Fact is, these difficult days are still school days.  I've still got a job to do; the AP exam or the class final doesn't get pushed back because of last night's Duke vs. North Carolina game.  These days will never be as effective as an ideal day.

But that doesn't mean simply punt on them.  Have a plan.  Do something as active and engaging as you can manage.  These aren't the days for long discussion or lecture sessions, not for testing, not for difficult creative lab work.  These are good days, however, for straightforward, active lab work.  For one of those The Physics Classroom interactives.  For starting a new topic with an eye-catching demo showing a discrepant event.

No matter what your plan, though, your demeanor is the most critical component to the quality of your class on a difficult school day.  

Why do students consider that, for example, they shouldn't have to think too hard in class the day after the Super Bowl?  Because all the adults around them say so.  (Not, in the vast majority of cases, because the students were out drinking and climbing greased lampposts until 5:00 am the night before.  Philadelphia-area schools possibly excepted.)

If you start class with a pre-made excuse to not pay attention, well, why are you surprised or disappointed when the students don't pay attention? 

Keep calm and carry on.  "Did you see that game last night, Mr. Lipshutz?!?"  "Yes, it was fantastic!  I'd love to talk through the Eagles' gutsy playcalling at the lunch tables - amazing.  For now, though, here's our three minute bell quiz which will remind us of last week's topics... you may begin."

30 January 2018

US Invitational Young Physicists Tournament 2018 results and 11-year participation

A big thank you to Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia for hosting the 11th annual US Invitational Young Physicists Tournament.  This past Saturday and Sunday, a record fifteen teams competed in physics fights over four problems involving:

     * measurement of the moon's orbit
     * electromagnetically coupled oscillators
     * blackbody radiation laws applied to light bulbs
     * projectile motion in air

This year's winners, in their third visit to the tournament: Phillips Exeter Academy of New Hampshire, led by physics teacher Scott Saltman.

In second place was The Harker School of California, led by Mark Brada and Miriam Allersma.

The winner of the Swartz Poster Session was Shenzhen Middle School, led by Chen Shaorui.

The overall order of finish is below.  Our rules state that a number of places are shared by similar teams.  The ** means that this team won the prestigious Bibilashvili Award for outstanding physics.  It is awarded to teams with superior physics understanding, irrespective of their placement, at the tournament director's discretion.

     Phillips Exeter Academy**

Second place:
     The Harker School**

Third place:
     Rye Country Day School**
     Cary Academy**
     Yorba Linda High School**

Fourth Place:
     High School affiliated with Renmin University, China

Fifth Place:
     Shenzhen Middle School**

Sixth Place with Bibilashvili Medal:
     Woodberry Forest School**
     Nueva School**

Sixth Place:
     Pioneer School of Ariana
     Qingdao No.2 High School
     Vanke Meisha Academy
     Princeton International School of Science & Mathematics
     Spartanburg Day School
     York Country Day School

And scroll down to find the list of all teams who have participated in the USIYPT since its inception in 2007.

Next year's tournament will be January 26-27 at Rye Country Day School in New York.  If you'd like to come as a juror - or if you'd like to bring a team from your school - please email me.  More information about our tournament is available on the official website,

Participating USIYPT schools in the 11 tournaments since 2007:
The Harker School, California – 9 tournaments, 3 championships
Rye Country Day School, New York – 11 tournaments, 2 championships
Shenzhen Middle School, China – 7 tournaments, 2 championships
Woodberry Forest School, Virginia – 11 tournaments, 1 championship
Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire – 3 tournaments, 1 championship
Brisbane Girls Grammar School, Australia – 2 tournaments, 1 championship
Raffles Institution, Singapore – 1 tournament, 1 championship
Pioneer School of Ariana, Tunisia – 6 tournaments
Nanjing Foreign Language School, China – 5 tournaments
Princeton International School of Science and Mathematics, New Jersey – 4 tournaments
High School affiliated with Renmin University, China – 4 tournaments
Cary Academy, North Carolina – 3 tournaments
Phoenixville Area High School, Pennsylvania – 3 tournaments
Wildwood School, California – 3 tournaments
Oak Ridge High School, Tennessee – 2 tournaments
North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics– 2 tournaments
Oregon Episcopal School – 2 tournaments
Vistamar School, California – 2 tournaments
Guilderland High School, New York – 2 tournaments
Qingdao No. 2 High School, China – 2 tournaments
Vanke Meisha Academy, China – 2 tournaments
High School of Jur Hronec, Slovak Republic – 1 tournament
Calverton School, Maryland – 1 tournament
Madeira School, Virginia – 1 tournament
Pioneer School of Manzeh 8, Tunisia – 1 tournament
Georgian English-Spanish School, Tbilisi – 1 tournament

Participants, team leaders, and jurors at the 2018 USIYPT at Randolph College

20 January 2018

Guest Post: Bill Payne on using Audacity as a timer

Folks, Bill Payne submitted a note to the Modeling listserv that'd I'm sharing with permission as a guest post.  I always love using free software to get data that otherwise would require expensive commercial apparatus; Bill has a fantastic method of determining time intervals to millisecond precision using audacity - google "audacity" to get the free download.  Bill also provided a link to a set of follow-up questions in this excel file.  Take it away, Bill:

Bill: My kids and their teacher love shooting darts, both the kind with the suction cup end and the round end.  Last week we used the computer program Audacity to time how long it took a dart to reach a target 1 m, 2 m and 3 m away.  Audacity will give the time in milliseconds between any two sounds: the firing of a dart gun and the dart hitting the target, or you can roll a steel ball down a ramp, see where it hits the table, and place a whiteboard a measured distance from the point the ball hit the table.  Audacity is much easier to set up than photogates, and it's a free download.

Audacity will let you highlight and delete the parts of the graph you don't need, such as the flat line leading up to the firing of a dart gun.  That sets the time of the firing of the gun to zero.  Then expand the graph with Command 1 to stretch it out (repeat Command 1 to stretch it out more and more).  Cut the rest of the leader out to get the firing right on zero.  Then put your cursor on the beginning of the part of the graph when the dart hits its target, and read the elapsed time at the bottom in milliseconds.  Calculate velocity: V = d/t.

Only problem is, now the kids want to have a dart-gun war.  I put them off to the end of school.  :-)

Bill Payne
Physics Teacher
Host of modeling workshops at Birmingham-Southern College

16 January 2018

Trust the Process

I had a rough class Tuesday.

I thought about changing course.  I didn't - I kept plunging forward.  And everything worked out beautifully.

We were working on the direction of force and motion using these in-class lab exercises.   I encourage you to take a look.  They involve three situations:

1. Jumping on or off a force plate
2. A hanging object attached to a cart
3. A fan cart attached to a hanging mass over a pulley

In each case, two forces act on an object.  Students are asked to determine the direction of acceleration, and then which of the two forces is larger.  Finally, they go to the back of the room where I have equipment set up.  They use force probes and plates to verify their predictions.  Nothing here is quantitative - we don't predict a value for the tension in a rope.  In this exercise, we only are comparing which of two forces is larger.

Sounds easy enough, right?  "The object moves up and slows down, so acceleration is downward.  Net force is also downward.  That means down forces are bigger than up forces, so the weight is bigger than the tension in the rope."

Hah.  No, on Tuesday I kept hearing "In order for the object to move upward there must be more forces pulling than pushing upward than downward.  And the object has weight, so the tension in the rope is massive.  Plus here are three more sentences full of nonsense please count it right."  I'm barely making this up.  My class was getting palpably frustrated.

In 80 minutes of lab work, about half the class completed one exercise; the other half completed zero.  I had a major assessment scheduled for the last part of Thursday's 90 minute class.  Would the students be ready?  Should I reschedule?  Should I stop the lab work and start just doing problems in front of the class to assuage their frustration?

It's hardly ever a good idea to slow the pace of the class just because students seem to struggle the first time seeing a difficult concept.  If Newton's second law were easy, I wouldn't be employed. Doing problems in front of the class doesn't help anyone - the only way to learn physics is to make mistakes, then to learn from those mistakes.  Students must be active, not passive, otherwise they'll make the same mistakes on the assessment that they were making in class.

So I pushed on.  Thursday's class began with a brief quiz, followed by five minutes of discussion about the problem set.  Then back to lab work for 45 minutes before the major assessment.  I braced myself...

The pace of work ascended to the next available energy level.  Everyone finished at least two exercises.  About half the class finished three.  And scores on the major assessment were as high or higher than ever.

Trust the process.  When you're doing creative lab work, or any sort of physics teaching that isn't just you telling students how to do problems, frustration and wrong answers are a natural part of the learning process.  Let that frustration happen.  Keep morale up as best you can.  Because the epiphany will come.

And what of the two or three students who didn't perform well on the assessment?  Wouldn't they have been better served by a different approach?  Perhaps, but not likely.  In any case, their epiphany will come, too.  In fact, during the next Monday's test corrections class, one of these three poor performers looked at me with a wry smile.  He said, "you know, I kept making dumb mistakes.  I should have known these answers, they seem really easy now.  I'll get these next time no problem." 

29 December 2017

Responding to parent complaints about grades

Dear Mr. Jacobs,

Hope you are having a happy holiday. We just got Johnny's grades. While we are pleased that he tries so hard and cares so much about your class, Bunny and I are disappointed that his exam didn't push his grade up from a B+ to an A-. Junior year is especially important for college, and Johnny's goal is a 3.6.  We are hoping you will reevaluate some of the more subjective portions of the course grade, or perhaps allow him to do some extra credit to bring him up to an A-.  We know you want the best for those you teach, and you wouldn't want to see a diligent student denied his future because of just a few points here and there.  When is a good time for you to meet with us to discuss his grade?  Sincerely, Mr. Smith.

No, reader, I didn't hack your email account - this is just an amalgam of all the similar notes and conversations I and my colleagues have dealt with over the years.

How to respond?

Not with aggressive complaints, not with scathing wit and sick burns.  Yes, Mr. Smith's note is full of passive-aggressive assumptions of bad faith.  So what.  Bring it down, bring it down.*  You are in charge here.

* Han Solo, in The Force Awakens, as Finn delights too much in his dominance over Captain Phasma.

Part of what gets your dander up as a teacher in this situation is fear.  Fear that you'll be trapped in repeated unproductive meetings defending your grading procedures to ever higher-level and physics-clueless administrators. Fear that Johnny will begin spreading discontent and despondence throughout his class.  Fear that if you don't emphatically shut down Mr. and Mrs. Smith then Mr. and Mrs. Jones will start canoodling to change Brittany's grade, too.

Yes, all these things could happen.  But the fact remains - you are in charge. You assigned the grade; a nasty email from a parent puts you under no obligation to reevaluate the grade.  A batter may give the umpire a Look and the manager may scream "where the $&*# was that pitch?"... yet the umpire should not timidly change the call from "strike" to "ball."

However, neither should the umpire get sucked into a heated discussion of his or her strike-calling philosophy.

Let's calmly consider the most politically practical and appropriate response to the Smiths - the response that's least likely to cause all the teacher's fears to be realized.

Dear Mr. Smith (copy to science chairperson, principal, and college counseling director),

Thank you for your note.  Johnny has indeed been a diligent, positive contributor to our class this semester. I'm pleased with how hard he's worked at developing his physics skills. The semester grades are final.  I'm confident that Johnny can continue to perform well in the second semester. 

Have a wonderful break.

Now, I just wrote this response off the top of my head.  I'm sure readers can improve upon it - please post in the comments.  And I'm sure others have different approaches to dealing with disappointed parents, so please read comments to hear from them, too.  I'm not the only teacher with good answers for the Smiths.  Above is merely my personal approach to such a conflict.

The important components of my reply:

1. I've said nothing negative about Johnny - instead I've acknowledged and validated the Smiths' view of their son as diligent and positive.  Even if Johnny were evidently not a diligent student, I wouldn't point that out, I'd just find something else to compliment.

2. I've said nothing about the grade.  The point here is that no grade is a reflection on the character of a student; no grade, even if "bad" in the parents' minds, should be nitpicked.  My refusal to engage in discussion of grades means the parents have no room to advance a counterargument - the next email can only regurgitate the same points already made, which will look even more whine-y and arrogant the second time 'round.

3. I have responded directly to Mr. Smith's inquiry, with a polite, neutral, but unambiguous "The semester grades are final."  Mr. Smith can't complain that I ignored or talked around his request to reevaluate his son's grade.  I would not hedge here - sure, there are exceedingly rare circumstances under which grades may be revisited, like... like who cares.  None of those circumstances applies right now.  So I won't bring up their existence, or the Smiths will spend an enormous amount of energy convincing themselves and others that they do apply.

4. The final sentence is positive in tone, subtly reminding Mr. and Mrs. Smith that in fact I do care about Johnny, I root for his success, I'm proud of him so far and will continue to be... and that we still have another semester in which Johnny and I have to work together.  No need for an umpire to threaten the batter with "You argue with me again and the strike zone will reach to the moon."  Better to just remind him or her, "Here we go, batter, we've got seven innings to go.  Let's play ball."  The actual effect of each of these two sentences is about the same; so use the gentler words that will obtain the desired result.

What about the Smiths' next move?

You as a teacher worry perpetually that parents will complain to an administrator, which in the best case sucks your time away from teaching, and in the worst case leads to hostile conversations and actions involving Your Boss.  We all know that the Smiths will likely carry their fight for a revised grade past you to your administration.

By visibly, intentionally, and unambiguously copying your response (which, of course, includes the text of the original email) to those bosses, you've preempted the potential appeal.  You've put your administrators in the best possible position to support you.

See, even a good, supportive administrator has an obligation to reply to polite inquiries from parents.  If that administrator is unaware of your initial conversation before hearing Mr. Smith's further complaint, (s)he will reasonably come to you to hear your view.  While that's 100% responsible behavior on the administrator's part, it sets up an unfortunate false equivalence between your position and Mr. Smith's - the administrator seems to be adjudicating a dispute between two litigants, each of whom has equal standing.

By copying the administrator on your reply, you've indicated to everyone (including Mr. Smith) that Mr. Smith's concern has been resolved to your satisfaction.  When Mr. Smith tries to go over your head, the administrator would have to directly and publicly contradict your decision in order to take Mr. Smith's side.  Good administrators won't do that; even bad administrators don't like to be seen publicly undermining their teachers.

So if you don't trust the competence or goodwill of your bosses... still copy them on the response, but openly include a copy to an administrator you do trust.

How do you respond to the follow-up note from Mr. Smith, which is copied to all, making further arguments about how much you have hurt Johnny, pleading with even more emotionally charged language?

You don't.  See, you're in charge.  You don't need to win an argument with Mr. Smith.  You don't need to convince him that he shouldn't challenge your authority as teacher, or that Johnnie will do just fine at college whether he gets an A- or a B+ this semester.  Your job isn't to bring forth righteous justice, it's to bring forth peace.  Let Mr. Smith have the last word.  Let him look petty.  Carry on in the next semester as if nothing has happened.

17 December 2017

Do I enjoy giving exams? Yes.

The question was once asked of me, in a most appropriate manner, whether teachers enjoy giving exams.  The asker seemed brain-dead from his first night of studying, knowing that he had a full week of hard academic work in front of him.

Though he was too polite to verbalize the expression in his face, I suspect his deeper thought was: “Why do teachers put us through this heck of cramming?  Do they get sadistic pleasure out of it?  Do they enjoy tormenting their students?  Weren’t they students once?  WHY DO THEY DO THIS TO US?”

Since the questioner was so polite, since he truly seemed curious about the answer, and since I’m sure much of the student body asks themselves the same question three times* each year, I think the question deserves an answer.  I can’t speak for teachers in general, nor even for teachers at my school.  But I’ll answer for myself:

* my school is on trimesters, not semesters

Yes, I enjoy giving exams, despite the enormous amount of work they create for me and for my students.  But probably not for the reasons you might think.  Put yourself in a teacher’s loafers for a moment…

When exam day arrives, I have dedicated the previous eleven weeks of my life to teaching physics.  I am “on duty” virtually nonstop when school is in session, especially in the fall when learning physics is most difficult for my classes.  When I’m not actually in class teaching, I’m grading assignments, preparing lectures and demonstrations, writing problems and assignments, helping students… You can ask my wife – all trimester I am thoroughly, monkishly, devoted to helping my students learn physics to the best of their ability.

The exam is an opportunity to find out how well I’ve done teaching, and how well my students have done learning.  I want to know – did those long hours, those occasional interminable days and early mornings, did they pay off?  Did I really succeed in develop every student's physics skills?  What can I do better?  What can THEY do better?  What did we do well? 

I think of my teaching job much like a coach’s job.  Did Mr. Hale enjoy the state cross-country meet?  Well, of course he did.  Even though it was the runners who performed, not the coach, Mr. Hale still saw the fruits of his team’s months-long labor in the “final exam”  of the year’s last race.  As in every season, he rejoiced not only for the runners who placed near the top of the league, but also for those who showed dramatic improvement under his tutelage. 

In my class, then, the trimester exam is equivalent to the biggest game of the season.  I am cheering for everyone to do well.  I know from experience that most students, in fact, will do well.  I'm ready to use the exam as a learning tool for those who don't do well - as a learning tool for that student, and as a learning tool for me as I figure out how to help that student do better next time.  

Do I enjoy a student's poor performance?  No.  Yet I thoroughly enjoy the successes, which vastly outnumber the failures; and even when students don't do well, I enjoy the process of finding out how good I and my students have been.

Now let me throw this question back at the student who asked it.  Do you enjoy the state cross country meet?  Because if you don't work really, really hard during the season, you're not likely to win the race.  Even if you do practice well, a freak trip-and-fall could wreck the performance that you've worked all season to produce.  And you could lose not because you didn't work hard, but just because another runner has more natural, raw talent than you do.  YOU COULD FAIL.

So, grasshopper: 

When you feel the same nervous, excited anticipation for your final exam as for the state championship... 

When you develop the same discipline in academics and in sport to prepare every day throughout the season, not just the night before...

When your hope for success overwhelms your fear of failure... 

...then you, too, will enjoy exams.