What’s your kryptonite?

Remember Superman? Not the recent movies starring what’s- his-name, but the television series produced in the 1950s. Clark Kent, the “mild mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper” would duck into the nearest phone booth (remember those?), and shed his suit in favour of tights and a cape, with the trademark “S” emblazoned on his broad, manly chest. Superman was “stronger than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound...”

You get my drift; the guy was amazing. But the crooks knew how to fell this veritable giant.


This mythical element could reduce Superman to (black and white) jello. Superman was lucky if he could breathe, let alone fight crime (and help people) if he was anywhere near the stuff. As chemistry teachers, many of us have our own kryptonite — that one unit or lesson that maybe we didn’t quite master, or that gets dropped for lack of time. Maybe you’re a little rusty on electrochemistry. I was. Back in the day, this was my Achilles heel. At some point I was taught electrochemistry — but my understanding was fragile.

I found it challenging and didn’t rise to the challenge. Years later, when I had to explain it, I didn’t do a good job. I was short-changing my students at the expense of my comfort level with the topic.

After a year of this, I couldn’t stand it. So I rolled up my sleeves, and really studied electrochemistry. Before the internet, this meant looking at a bunch of textbooks, making a stack of notes, doing a ton of problems, and asking questions that I wasn’t comfortable asking. I was a chemistry teacher, after all; I was supposed to know this. But I finally “got” it — and ended up loving it. For the past however many years, I’ve started my AP course with redox and electrochemistry, and bring it full circle with ΔG = -RTlnKeq  =  -nFεocell in the final classes.

If you’re teaching kryptonite-free, carry on. But if you’re not, do something about it. Turn kryptonite into your best unit. Use the internet; let YouTube explain it; engage your colleagues or reach out to someone new. As chemistry teachers, we need to be super-Supermen (and Superwomen).

Our students don’t need kryptonite — ours or their own.

[Thanks to Ken Hoffman, my good friend and fellow chemistry teacher, for inspiring this column.]