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Friday, September 22, 2023

So, I lost a teaching job last week

How it transpired is something that a LOT of people have thought I'm making up.  But it really happened.

I was on my first day of substitute teaching.  And I went into that school all shiny and shaved, shirt tail tucked into my khakis, best boots... I was going to make an impression on the students and faculty alike (say, why don't most men seem to tuck their shirt tails in anymore?).

Most of all, I went in bearing in mind all that my own teachers, and substitute teachers especially, had handled us as students when I was in school.  Yes even the subs, many of whom are still burned into my memory.  They knew they only had a day or two to make their mark upon their students' educations, but they were determined to make the most of it.  That's precisely the mindset that I was going to emulate.

The assignment was a high school science class.  Chemistry, to be more specific.  The teacher had left a video for the students to watch, and then afterward they were to set about making 3D models of the atoms of various elements.

The video was about the electrons of an atom, how they orbit the nucleus in different shells.  And how each shell has a maximum number of electrons that can be in them.  We're talking very basic chemistry, per the model that Neils Bohr gave us.

The last example given in the video was about sodium.  The narrator described the nucleus, the first few shells going out, and then the last shell.  Which in sodium has but one electron.  And this lonely particle is what is most responsible for sodium being so drastically reactive.

How reactive?  It didn't touch on that in the video and that's too bad.  Well, when a quantity of sodium comes in contact with water it combusts.  And VERY dramatically at that:



This is something that every high school chemistry textbook going back at least the past eighty years has described (or at least used to).  It's also something that the chemistry teacher at my own high school demonstrated one day.  He had a tripod out on the football field holding aloft a brick of pure sodium.  Below it was a bucket of water.  He let the sodium brick drop and fall into the water.

The explosion was heard over five miles away.  Dad said they even heard it over the sounds of the machinery at the quarry he worked at.

I thought that along with telling them about Neils Bohr also being an Olympic-class football (aka soccer to us yanks) player, the students might find that virtue of sodium to be pretty interesting too.  So I shared it with all three classes that I had that day.

It turned out that the students did indeed appreciate my example of how an element like sodium can react with other substances.  All because of that one electron on its outermost shell and looking for stability.  Some of the students asked if we could do that during our class time.  I had to tell them no. But I like to think the visualized image will stick with them.

The following day I taught at another school.  And after returning home that afternoon I got a phone call.  Telling me that my services had been suspended pending an investigation...

It had gotten around that had I told the chemistry students about sodium's reaction with exposure to water.  The administration at the school considered this to be describing how to create high explosives.

Which was the absolutely LAST thing I would have intended.  It was nothing but describing a very simple interaction between valence electrons, involving one of the most basic elements on the periodic table.

Apparently the word "explosive" has been stricken from the vocabulary of secondary education in the public schools of these United States.  I'm going to assume that the mechanics of the internal combustion engine and the bursting forth of Orville Redenbacher popcorn kernels from their original volume will likewise now be deemed forbidden knowledge from the Dark Ages.

Well, I was invited to write and submit a statement about the incident to those investigating it.  I typed it up, trying to describe everything that had transpired.  I then zapped it out across the ether toward the proper authorities.  And I trusted that they would arrive at the same conclusion I was on: that I had not done anything wrong in teaching the fundamentals of chemistry to high school chemistry students.  I sincerely believed that I would be back in the classroom soon.

That was not to be however.

So, I'm no longer allowed to be a substitute teacher in that particular school system.  But for one glorious day I taught those kids some really neat concepts of science.  Like when one student asked about what neutrons do, I turned that into an explanation of how gas centrifuges enrich uranium into nuclear weapons-grade yellowcake.  And no, the school did not possess a gas centrifuge either (the students asked).

This is ridiculous.  There is no reason whatsoever to be afraid of basic chemistry. Ignoring it and making it a punishable offense to teach about it is certainly NOT going to ever deter real bad guys from using that knowledge.  Science is supposed to be neutral. Objective.  Pure science is on a level playing field and irrespective of agenda.  It simply IS.  It seems officials are now ascribing qualities to science in accordance to their whims and feelings, and not purely of physical principles.

Oh well. I gave it my best.  I don't regret for a moment what I taught those young people.  If it got them to thinking a little differently or deeper about the world around them and its wonders, then my task is complete.

Who knows?  Maybe I'll get to someday return to the classroom.  Just imagine the flames I would set alight if I taught the young people about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights!

But it could have been worse. I could have instead been fired for blowing up that little red schoolhouse...


Mark, Brick NJ said...

"It seems officials are now ascribing qualities to science in accordance to their whims and feelings, and not purely of physical principles."


Where the hell have you been for the past four years???!!!??

Anonymous said...

You did nothing wrong. If anything you instilled them with proper respect for the materials they are working with. Even chemists and engineers with years of experience in the outside world undergo retraining occasionally. It keeps them situationaly aware instead of falling into habit. That was overkill to keep you from subbing there again.

Fellow Randroid said...

High explosives? Yellowcake? You sure know how to make elementary chemistry fun :)

Solomon Grundy said...

You know I'm one of your loyal readers Chris and I don't dispute what you're saying. Last weekend I saw Oppenheimer and now I'm wondering what you think about scientific knowledge, if the Nazis and then the Soviets were also working on their own atom bombs. What should have been done about that?

Roanoke Reader said...

High school chemistry teachers used to demonstrate chemical reactions to their students all the time. At the start of our course our teacher poured a pile of powder into a glass dish. He then poured a small amount of another powder on top of that. "This is good for when you're commiting arson and need time to get away" he told us. He went on talking about lab safety. Two or three minutes later the dish had foot high flames erupting out of it! That did drive home the message about being careful in the lab. I doubt modern teachers are allowed to do stuff like that. Too many people looking to file lawsuits for their kids negligence.

Chris Knight said...

Hi everyone! Hey Solomon Grundy. That's a good question, and I have pondered it before...

I think that the potential for science and technology has always been around us. Waiting for minds brilliant and tenacious enough to find it. From the beginning of the discovery of radioactivity, it was only a matter of time before people like Szilard and Einstein began to meditate on its power. And the atomic bomb was the "natural" evolutionary final product of that, unfortunately.

The United States won out in the race to the atomic bomb because we had the smartest people on the planet collaborating together in Los Alamos and elsewhere throughout the country. Many of those people had been run out of Germany, Hungary and everywhere else in Europe. Moreover the U.S. was *fully* committed to developing the atomic bomb, in ways that Germany did not. The Nazis really did shoot themselves in their capacity to research atomic weaponry, when they caused their country's greatest scientists to flee west. I'm tempted to say that America had Germany "by the (anatomical reference)" and that wouldn't be inaccurate at all.

Had Germany developed the atom bomb on their own, it would obviously be something we would have to counter militarily. Thankfully it never came to that. But it never came to that and really never came close at all.

As for the Soviets however...

Russia DID use American-bred research and development toward the creation of their own atomic arsenal. And the spies who gave them that information were justifiably imprisoned if not executed. If the Russians built nuclear weapons on their own, with *their* scientists and engineers, that would have been an entirely different matter ethically. As I said, the knowledge is and always has been out there to be discovered, more or less by everyone equally. The Soviets cheated when they stole America's hard-gained nuclear secrets from this country. And thus was born the cold war that had not people like Reagan, Thatcher, and Gorbachev arisen to the scene, would have possibly ended in nuclear conflict.

Just because we were the ones who first discovered the know-how of atomic energy and weaponry, does not mean that were were morally compelled to *share* that knowledge with *everybody*.

It might have been another five to twenty years before the Russians caught up with American nuclear technology development, had it not been for spying and espionage tilting toward them the cards we should have kept close to vest. As for what kind of world THAT would have been, one can only imagine.

Chris Knight said...

And since you brought it up Grundy, it saddens me to say that I have not seen Oppenheimer yet. I'd like to catch it while it's still in theaters though, and it would be great if it can be in an IMAX theater. Looking forward to seeing how the Trinity test is portrayed!

Sherri said...

Just what I said in comment on your last post, you need to teach history and social studies. The kids today are coming up without knowledge about their country. They don't know how much the government and "the swamp" are sucking away off their lives. America had some great and brilliant people who inspired her to freedom and goodness. I think there are still people like that waiting for God to use. The old blood of liberty is still there waiting to be stirred. Heed that call when it comes Mister Knight!

Anonymous said...

I've seen those child appropriate science kits on Amazon that are more dangerous than what you were teaching them.


Chris Knight said...


You sound much like a landlady who I had many years ago.

I mean that in a GOOD way! :-)

She believed that America was ripe for a revival of patriotism. That someday we would turn back to what made this nation good. Not "perfect", because there is no such thing as a perfect country. But a place of virtue and dignity and real character and honest work again.

She passed away still believing that it could happen. I like to believe that she was right.

Chris Knight said...

Hey Droo,

Behold the Gilbert Uranium-238 Atomic Energy Lab.

Perhaps the most dangerous children's science kit ever assembled by mere mortals. It came with cloud chamber and Geiger counter. A few other odds and ends. And of course pieces of real radioactive uranium ore.

This hit the market in the early 1950s, for the then-astronomical sum of $49.

But there were much less expensive science kits aimed at the children/adolescent market too. So many of them that Toys R Us had an entire aisle dedicated to science-oriented merchandise. Everything from chemistry sets to telescopes with (for the price point) pretty good optics.

The chemistry sets were a a long-enduring staple of young scientist education. My sister had one even (I however stuck with my beloved 3-inch refractor telescope with equatorial mount :-). I can still feel the lining of my nose retract from the aroma of that bottle of sulfur that came with it.

"Science kits" today tend to be good for only a few "experiments" and then there is no more reuse value. The kits of yesteryear were far more open ended and encouraging of experimentation.

But for a few glorious decades, even our children walked among giants.

Anonymous said...

If this was Facebook I would "like" this just for the gif from the Thomas Dolby song.

-- Shane

Duke Hauser said...

You likely taught more real chemistry than those students had all week. Making 3-D models of atoms isn't very educational. That may be good for middle school but not high school students who it's time to introduce larger concepts to.

KyleS said...

Don't let this get you down my friend. Years from now you will be laughing and a lot of other people will be laughing about this and laughing at the school. You didn't do wrong, the school did.

Aaron's said...

Chris, you are... The Most Interesting Teacher In The World. Dos Equis should hire you as their spokesman.

I remember being shown sodium and water in high school also. Just one tiny amount of sodium and it went off like the Fourth of July. It had its effect though. We became VERY committed to lab safety, especially when the teacher said one of the substances we'd be working with would color our skin purple. Well of course there's always that one idiot who didn't believe it. It was Christmas before his finger began to turn pink again.