Meet Dan Fullerton, the first science teacher to be interviewed for this site! Dan is a microelectronic-engineer-turned-physics-teacher at Irondequoit High School in Rochester, NY. He is also the creator of APlusPhysics.com and writes his own blog about teaching called Physics In Flux.
Type of School: public high school
Years taught: 5 of high school; 9 at the college level
Number of students this year: about 100
You were an engineer for major technology companies like Eastman Kodak and Samsung for 10 years; at one point, you were the head of several engineering groups at Kodak. What made you change careers to teaching, a field that does not pay as well? Why were you willing to move away from doing technical research?
In 2003, I was asked to teach a course to upperclassmen and graduate students at Rochester Institute of Technology as an adjunct professor. I loved it. And I continued teaching, in both on-campus and distance learning formats, year after year.
After about five years, I found I was becoming frustrated with the number of students who talked about how they had hated physics, or didn’t understand the basic principles. I couldn’t imagine how that could happen, as physics should be one of the coolest, most engaging, hands-on and practical courses students take in their high school careers. So I talked to my then-fiance about switching careers and making the move to teaching high school physics.
The financial impact was considerable, but I get up every morning wanting to go to work, and I have to force myself to leave my classroom. Every year I fall in love with my kids (and am heartbroken every June when they graduate), but they come back to visit!
How does your experience of teaching college physics compare to teaching physics to high schoolers? What motivated you to teach high school full-time?
I find teaching high school more challenging. As an adjunct professor teaching the same course to upperclassmen and grad students day after day, the technical piece was simple, and I basically shared my knowledge in two-hour lectures twice a week to students who were highly interested in the topic. It was the students’ responsibility to keep up and build understanding.
As a high school teacher, I have to work considerably harder to engage my learners, develop relationships with them as I learn their strengths and opportunities, and find ways to help them learn not only physics, but more importantly, skills such as learning to teach themselves, logical thinking, organization, prioritization, working in teams, and taking responsibility. It’s a monumental task, but one that is extremely rewarding.
What do you most enjoy about your work?
More than anything I enjoy seeing my students grow. The first few weeks of school each year, we set the stage for the classroom atmosphere and student expectations. It’s chaotic, wild, challenging, and frustrating as a set of very diverse learners realize they’re going to have to come together to build a learning community.
By the end of the year, however, I plan complete lessons where I don’t say a word. The students come into class, know what they’re supposed to do, and dive into activities that allow them to build their own understandings. I become a facilitator instead of a lecturer, and I have a classroom full of teachers teaching themselves and each other. When you get to this point, it’s an amazing feeling to be able to sit back, watch and listen to the wonderful things going on in the room.
If you could change one aspect of your job, what would it be?
I would love the ability to adjust my teaching topics on the fly and write my own end-of-year final exams. We currently end each year with a standardized state-administered final exam, which follows the prescribed course curriculum.
I can imagine a physics teaching nirvana where a class that has a strong interest in electricity and magnetism spends an extra month on semiconductor devices. The students in a second section of the same course might have a stronger interest in modern physics, so we could spend a couple of extra weeks on relativity, black holes, quantum theory, or whatever catches their interest. I have that ability to a certain extent, and I understand the need for state standards and the value of our final exams, but a fella can dream…
What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?
The biggest misconception about teaching has to be the hours. The belief that teachers work from 8 to 3 and get three months off each summer just isn’t so. I’m in by 7 a.m. each day and out at 4:30 p.m. at the earliest; usually spend a half day working each weekend during the school year; and spend hundreds of hours working on curriculum and resources in the summer — so much so that the start of the school year is usually a “slowing down” period!
What teacher made the most impact on you and why? What would you tell him/her now?
My high school math teacher, Mr. Richard Genung, was extremely demanding, strict, and everything had to be done his way. Once I learned to listen to him, though, everything started coming together. I was able to graduate high school with credit for Calculus 1, 2, 3, and 4, and only had to take two pure math courses in college as an engineering major. The discipline he instilled in me put me ahead of my colleagues from a math perspective for years. To this day, I can hear his voice telling me to justify my answers, and show all work as presented in class. He was a truly amazing, dedicated, and caring instructor, whose efforts put me in a great position to succeed in so many future endeavors.
What advice do you have for aspiring or beginning teachers?
The best advice I could give to new teachers would be two-fold. First, let your students know you care. You’d be amazed at what mistakes they’ll forgive if they know you care about them day in and day out, and it’ll make class fun for them and for you.
Secondly, take great notes your first couple years. Document each lesson, then as soon as it’s done, reflect on it and update it with what you’d like to change for next year. Put it on paper immediately, and file it away, so next year you can go right back to it, and immediately see what you’re going to modify. It all piles up if you don’t stay right on top of it, building yourself a giant database of lessons and resources.
I store all of my materials in Evernote digitally so it’s very easy to search, update, and print out, but a stack of file folders or binders would do the job just as well!