Ray Smola is a physics teacher at the Department of Defense Education Activity, Heidelberg High School, and a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
This award was a huge surprise to me. It obviously could have been given to many other worthy Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) teachers. I have met many of these science teachers at workshops and trainings and learned much from listening to them.
I feel that this award is an external justification for a decision I made twenty years ago to go from chemistry into teaching. I was not a very effective communicator, and my friends surely had their doubts. But it seems that an almost total lack of talent can be overcome by years of enthusiasm and persistent attempts to improve.
My decision to teach has been wholly satisfying to me. I get to experiment on students every day, discussing ideas, watching them learn things I teach and things I don’t. Our students come from all over the world, with a tremendous variety of experiences. I will never forget the Bulgarian girl, who arrived with only a few words in English and was fluent by the end of her first year. Or the Norwegian-born student whose family suddenly couldn’t pay the tuition, but didn’t have to after the community raised money for them.
This variety is very interesting to me. But it also makes teaching challenging, because many of the students arrive with gaps in their knowledge base, having moved from different systems. We teachers must move carefully from one topic to another and frequently test students’ understandings. Of course, many of these students eventually leave and fan out across the world. It is really great to hear from them on Facebook or email years later.
My students at Heidelberg High School have responded well to my high expectations. Many of them are so bright that they really haven’t been challenged in a while. I try to get them doing experiments right away, daring them to prove something and getting them to doubt the easy answers. Our department uses the Vernier sensors and software pretty heavily to get quick and accurate data that the students can graph and turn into conclusions. I am also a big Moodle (Course Management System) fan and use it to deliver individualized homework assignments and other content online. The students seem to like the technology and master it so quickly. My students also use low-tech whiteboards and dry erase markers pretty effectively, too. These are good tools and really help set up the environment so students can succeed. It makes me very happy to see students totally absorbed in a problem or experiment, so that I am free to walk around and discuss their ideas.
This is the first of two blog posts exploring Defense Department recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. In our next post, we’ll hear from Timothy Kelly, mathematics teacher at Baumholder Middle-High School.