Thank you… for the struggle

I gotta say, everyone, that it was huge to receive the Chemical Institute of Canada’s 2017 Beaumier Award for High School/CÉGEP Chemistry Teachers. I’m sure that my employer is very pleased; I won’t be slacking off any time soon.

A close relative — okay, my wife — puts little stock in awards and prizes. She’s all about substance — character, and everything that goes with that. Just thought I’d mention that.

Now I would like to talk about what got me here. First —and this will resonate with married men — I thank my spouse for her support. I thank my employer for creating an environment conducive to professional growth and total job satisfaction. Without people in your corner, success can be difficult.

But really, I arrived at this lovely spot through struggle.

My story distills like this: I have a late November birthday and I skipped a grade — a recipe for academic and social disaster.

And it was.

Much of the time, I was totally out of my depth.
I managed occasionally to understand a concept;
I remember how good that felt. Mostly I remember sitting in class not quite grasping things, while doing my best to write it all down. I was too shy, too afraid, to ask for clarification. I told myself, “I’ll figure it out later”.
I remember staring down homework, problem sets, lab work and test preparation that overwhelmed me.

It wasn’t a time thing: I wasn’t captain of the football team, yearbook editor with two part-time jobs or a volunteer commitment. All I did was go to school. But
I didn’t understand the work.

How did I get through?

By struggle, hard work, commitment, perseverance, ownership…

And resourcefulness. This was pre-internet; I knew the library like nobody’s business. If I couldn’t figure out the answer, I’d look it up…

At one point, a brilliant student who deigned to be my friend,1 gave me his study tips: Treat school like it’s your own business: never come to a meeting (class, lab, test, exam) unprepared. That means revising (re-writing) notes with the aid of the textbook, website(s), journal reading, etc., after each class and creating a summary. This tactic, which took a lot of time, got me through. I was not smart — I simply worked hard all the time.

I didn’t really start to understand all the things that I was supposed to understand until I began teaching. I know more chemistry now than I did after defending my Master’s thesis. There is nothing like having to explain something that forces you to really understand it.

Which brings me to my points.

First, struggle is good. Tell this to your students — and their parents. It’s okay to work hard, to not get the answer right away. Some things are worth working for.

Second, we owe it to our students to cultivate an atmosphere open to questions. All kinds of questions: probing, intelligent, big-picture, insightful, detail-oriented; to mundane, you-learned-this-in-Grade 9, “just making sure” questions. We need to welcome everything that students throw at us.2 Because students can’t learn what they don’t understand.

We have one job:  to teach and foster understanding. We do this through lessons, conversations, handouts, assignments and lab activities.

Students have two jobs: In class, they must engage — ask questions, make comments, take good notes. At home, they need to revise their notes (by hand, NOT on a computer) and do homework. Students need to learn.

I would like to thank the readers of Chem 13 News by including an activity for their Grade 11 classes in this issue.

Enjoy, my friends…


  1. A belated thank-you to Dr Anthony Ralph-Edwards.
  2. That said, really low level questions can be dealt with one-on-one after class.