What teaching means to me

Sometime yesterday morning a former student of mine — Dan Breen ’12 — was involved in a car accident. Things were touch-and-go all day and a vigil was held last night on campus which is when most of us learned that Dan was fighting for his life. Unfortunately he passed away this morning.

I didn’t know Dan that well. He was a relatively quiet student in a class of strong personalities. It was a two semester introductory physics course for primarily biology and natural sciences majors and I’m a notoriously tough teacher. I try to challenge my students to think deeply about the subject and I expect a lot from them. I tend not to lecture and like to think of myself as being a militant practitioner of the Socratic method. But I certainly have no illusions about being the world’s best teacher. I try to learn just as much from my students as they hopefully learn from me. They may not realize it, but I do actually take their comments and criticisms to heart. And of the hundreds (maybe thousands?) of students I’ve taught in the past thirteen years, I remember more than they may realize.

There are the obvious memories like the time when I was teaching at Simmons College that I taught class in a full clown outfit, red nose and all (I got some very strange looks from the toll booth workers on the Tobin Bridge that day). Or the time that two of my former students presented me with a large, green, flashing (yes, flashing) bow tie with gold shamrocks on it and cajoled me into wearing it during class. The tie is still on my desk (though I will admit that I haven’t worn it since). Or the time I jokingly told one kid I’d give him an A if he could solve this impossible puzzle that someone had given me as a gift (and that I “stored” on my desk) only to see him solve it right then and there. I used to play chess with one guy at lunch almost every day. I remember taking one class to the beach to teach geometry in the sand. My office is still littered with devices and projects students have made over the years, including a rather large telescope. I remember the time an ice storm caused a power outage during a final exam. I remember the stunned feeling in the room the day after 9/11 and how we just talked about anything and everything. In fact I was teaching a class when I first heard what had happened.

I usually remember the faces, though I don’t always remember the names. I’ve been lucky enough to stay in contact with a number of them (partly thanks to social media) and one or two have even become colleagues. I’ve seen pictures of their spouses and their kids. Several have been to my house. One babysat for me and my company hired another two. Some have become friends.

Dan was, unfortunately, witness to one of my darker moments. The spring semester of 2011 was a difficult time for me personally. I had several things happen in my personal life that elevated my stress levels to the point at which I was having heart palpitations. In the midst of this my father-in-law, whom I had known half my life and to whom I was quite close, passed away quite suddenly. Not long after, the strong personalities in that class mixed with my heavy stress in such a way that things came to a sudden head one day and I lost my cool. It’s the only time I’ve ever lost my cool.

I don’t know how that affected Dan. He wasn’t one of the ones I stayed in touch with. But he was still my student. I care about my students — every last one of them even if I don’t always remember their names — because teaching is about more than just collecting or dispensing knowledge and skills. It’s about compassion and the mutual desire of teacher and student to learn. It’s about helping people grow as human beings (and that applies to the teachers as well as the students), about finding themselves, about their — our — dreams. But it’s not just about the ones I stay in touch with. It’s about all of them. That’s what teaching means to me.


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