A Teacher Devoid Of Common Sense

, , , , , , | Learning | July 1, 2020

A very long time ago — in the 1970s — I was taking a general science course called “Physical Science”. This was a required course, so the classroom was very large and packed full of students, most of whom were only present because it was required.

The instructors of two adjacent Physical Science classrooms frequently opened up the temporary wall between the classes and held joint class sessions, especially when reviewing material for examinations. The instructors had very different teaching styles; [Popular Teacher] was popular with students and always cheerful, while [Strict Teacher] was very formal and was widely reported to have never smiled. 

Even in my early teens, I was very interested in science. I frequently read science and engineering journals at the school library — which irritated the head librarian as those journals were intended for the teaching staff. As a result, I was usually bored to tears in the Physical Science class. The material presented was intended for a general audience of people unfamiliar — and often uninterested — in science, specifically to give students a basic understanding of what science was. I was enrolled in [Strict Teacher]’s class and often clashed with him when he put out material from the required curriculum which was outdated and/or inaccurate. 

“There are three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas,” [Strict Teacher] explained.

“Excuse me, Mr. [Strict Teacher]?” I interjected. “I read an article in Scientific American which says plasma is a fourth state of matter.”

“I read the same article,” the teacher explained, “but I have to teach what is currently in the course textbooks.”

Since I was usually right, we would have a brief discussion in class about the new information which hadn’t made it into the course materials, and my grade never suffered for challenging his authority.

[Popular Teacher], on the other hand, did not enjoy being questioned by students. He was popular with most of his students because he encouraged those with no interest in science to tease and mock those who wanted to learn. Oddly, [Strict Teacher]’s students tended to have higher test scores in all manner of scientific subjects than the students in [Popular Teacher]’s classes.

During one of the joint class sessions, while discussing scientific terminology, [Popular Teacher] mentioned that the suffix “-oid” was used to describe something similar to the root term. A couple of students asked about hemorrhoids, which [Popular Teacher] said didn’t count. Another student asked about asteroids, at which point [Popular Teacher] began to mock the students questioning him, calling them “nasty kids.”

[Strict Teacher] went rigid with anger, because [Popular Teacher] was belittling students who were at least interested in the material, encouraging their uninterested classmates to bully them. Because he was unwilling to confront [Popular Teacher] in front of the students and thereby diminish [Popular Teacher]’s authority in the classroom, [Strict Teacher] held his tongue, but he looked annoyed.

I raised my hand, and [Strict Teacher] called on me.

“Excuse me, Mr. [Popular Teacher],” I said. “’Hemorrhoid’ is a medical term adding the ‘-oid’ suffix to the Greek word for ‘vein’. ‘Hemorrhoid’ basically means, ‘little vein.’ So that was a valid question.”

“All right, smart guy,” said [Popular Teacher]. “What about ‘asteroid’, then?”

“Also valid,” I confirmed. “’Aster’ is the Greek word for ‘star’, so ‘asteroid’ means ‘little star’.”

[Popular Teacher], slightly taken aback, just said, “Okay, whatever.”

As [Popular Teacher] tried to get his lesson back on track, I noticed [Strict Teacher] turn quickly away from the class… to hide his smile.


This story is part of our July 2020 Roundup – the best stories of the month!

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