This is my fifteenth year of teaching chemistry and physical science to high school students. I love my job. Each day I have something exciting going on in my classroom: a demonstration, a lab, or a group activity. But my science-teaching career didn’t start off this way; I had a horrible first year of teaching (don’t we all?).
My first teaching job was in a small high school in rural Virginia. I was the only chemistry and physics teacher at the school. I had no one to turn to for help with all the issues that a new teacher faces, and more tragically, no other science colleagues to work with who loved teaching science. I was on my own in my lab with 20 students for five periods a day. I made all the mistakes that new teachers make in their first year. After the first week, I lost the kids attention and I had no idea how to get it back. My carefully crafted lectures were incredibly boring and way over my students’ heads. By Christmas, I realized that my bad classroom management skills were making my life miserable. I didn’t know what to do to make it better. Lab prep consumed so much of my time, and then the experiments were disasters. Let’s just say that I was very discouraged by the spring term. By the end of the year I was ready to throw in the towel. I actually took three days of sick leave when I got my new contract. I was immobilized by the thought of going back for another year, but I was certain that things shouldn’t be like this in my classroom. After three days of crying, fretting, and soul-searching, I decided to sign on for another year at the school. I vowed to make it a better year by seeking out help from other chemistry teachers.
Over the summer I attended a weeklong workshop for chemistry teachers in Virginia put on by the local American Chemical Society (ACS) chapter. Excuse the cliché… this workshop changed my life. On the first day, we met Bassam Shakhashiri, the guru of chemical demonstrations from the University of Wisconsin. He did a demonstration presentation for the group and then followed it with a hands-on workshop so we could learn how to do these demonstrations. That was the day my eyes were opened to the wonderful world of science education.
This blog is not only a celebration of my 15th year in the classroom, but also a tribute to Dr. Shakhashiri who changed the trajectory of my teaching career (or some would say “created a monster”). My plan is to perform one demonstration each week from Shakhashiri’s Chemical Demonstrations, A Handbook for Teachers of Chemistry, the “bible” of chemical demonstrations, a five-volume set of demonstration books. Even though I do demonstrations in my class almost every day, this year I will incorporate one new demo a week from the Shakhashiri collection. I will use the blog to reflect on the preparation, performance, and effectiveness of the new demonstrations.