Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Are you smarter than a chemistry teacher?

During my senior year of high school, I took AP chemistry. (I know, you're very impressed.)

I had possibly the worst teacher in the history of the world, Dr. Alkaline. Her idea of teaching involved copying our textbook onto the blackboard verbatim, without any sort of explanation or demonstration. It was painful.

One day, Dr. Alkaline had to do some calculation that involved conversion of units and she incorrectly converted cubic centimeters to cubic meters. It wasn't a careless error, but rather an intrinsic misunderstanding of basic unit conversion.

I was a math team dork, so I pointed it out to her. Dr. Alkaline told me I was wrong. The guy sitting next to me, a fellow math team dork, chimed in that I was correct and she'd done the calculation incorrectly. She continued to insist she was right.

Until the next day, when Dr. Alkaline admitted in class that we had been right. At least she owned up to it.

And most baffling of all, Dr. Alkaline had a PhD. We had to call her Doctor. Is that mind-blowing or what? We wondered what the PhD could possibly be in. Definitely not chemistry. Do they award PhDs in stupidity?

Moral: If you're going to teach AP Chemistry in a magnet high school, try to know basic math. Otherwise your snotty students are going to talk about how dumb you are for the next 15 years.

Bonus question: How many cubic centimeters are in a cubic meter?


  1. A lot.

    We had teachers with PhDs at my high school as well. I felt sort of bad for them. They were only there because they weren't able to get real jobs in academics or industry. Trust me, there are a lot of PhDs who finish and aren't very good.

    Have you seen Breaking Bad?

  2. We were lucky if our teachers had a degree from a reputable college. Our state doesn't require subs to have anything more than a GED to teach any course at the high school level. I guess that's what you get growing up in a rural state and in the ghetto school of the city.

    1. In my state, if you haven't gone through all the crap the teachers' union wants - and you can't find a list of those standards anywhere, just a requirement that you be teacher certified from certain colleges, which also do not tell you what exactly you have to study - you cannot get a teaching job.

      As in, my husband, who is an electrical engineer who was the head physics grader and a chemistry tutor in college, could not teach high school math, chemistry, or physics unless he went back to school. For how long and which subjects, who knows?

      It appears the union is more concerned with controlling the supply of teachers than in making sure that there are teachers who know their material.

  3. PhD just means you did the work; it doesn't mean you have intrinsic knowledge or passion for a subject. I almost missed out in a career in medicine because of a horrible first teacher in science.

  4. Maybe she had a PhD in science education or something like that.

  5. My AP Chem teacher was worse - no textbook, just him chatting us up about his daughter @ UC Davis ( undergrad, not med school), guns, his house, and cars . . . I learned nothing of any real value other than mourning the loss of my honors chem teacher who would have taught the class had he not left to be an assistant principal . . . But he was kind of a jerk, a good teacher but a jerk.

  6. My experience is that the "value" of the PhD itself has a lot to do with the standards of the institution and department that grant it, and the willingness of the graduate committee to see that those standards are upheld. But once it's in your hands, it's all on you. You either fly or crash-and-burn on your own steam. Personally, I can't imagine having a doctorate and teaching at the high school level, but that comes from a science background. Maybe it's different in other disciplines.

    A gazillion.

  7. 1,000,000cm3 = 1m3

    i happened to have an awesome chemistry/AP chemistry teacher (same guy), who got me really interested in chemistry.