There comes a time, often at the end of the semester, when you look around your classroom once the students have left, and let out a big sigh.
Am I doing the right things?
Am I helping students grow in ways that are best for them?
Then you get an email from a former student that says things like this:
I got selected to be a part of a research group in the department of PHYSICS! Can you believe it? The one subject I did not like at all is the first research opportunity for me!
All these great opportunities wouldn’t have happened to me if you didn’t have patience to make me understand physics. I now understand why you wanted me to figure out how to approach a problem all by myself instead of telling me what to do step by step.
I never realized how important it is to be able to do more than calculations until recently because I have been helping out a friend with her chemistry homework. However, I feel like that is all I do - help her finish her homework instead of helping her understand how to analyze a problem before jumping to equations.
I don’t want her to jump to equations because, at the end of the day, chemistry is a science, not math. We use math to help us, but a calculated answer means nothing by itself. It is the ability to analyze and interpret numbers than differentiates us from computers. Going to back to my friend and her chemistry homework, I noticed a lot of things that she says that reminded me of myself and physics.
For example, she would say “I don’t get it, it seems so easy, but I just don’t know which equation to use.” Then when I try to guide her to figure out which equations to use, she just interrupts me with “Just tell me which equation to use, and I can do the math.”
Doesn’t that sound like me in physics class? It frustrates me how she takes such a mathematical approach to a scientific problem. I mean it’s great that she can do math, but so can the computer.
I am telling you about my experience because I want to first let you know how much I appreciate your patience with me, and second, I want to apologize for that things I said about physics. It must not have been very pleasant to hear someone talk about something you are obviously interested in in such an aggressive tone.
I am sorry for complaining about physics the way I did last year, and if you students in the future complain about a subject feel free to relate my experience with physics to them. Also, I am very happy that you made me struggle with physics last year because now when I don’t see how to solve a problem immediately I know how to use the tools available to me to experiment to find the right answer.
Moreover, do continue to do explorations with your students because they are so helpful when it comes to critical thinking....
...I know you always take the opinions of your students seriously, and I know that you have stepped away from doing explorations because our class had such a negative attitude towards them; however, knowing how to use a different program can help student develop their problem solving skills, which makes them a more competitive student.
If you know me at all, you know that this hits many of the questions I have about my own teaching. One perspective is certainly not every perspective. I'm certainly not going to stop questioning. That said, this message made me grin with pride. It means a lot to hear that something you do in the classroom enables students to make opportunities for themselves.
With the student's permission, I was eager to share the email as a way to help others remember why we do this job. You might never know the impact you have as a teacher until you do.
Keep this in mind as you approach the last teaching days of the year, everyone.