Teaching Physics…

I was booked to substitute for the physics/aeronautics  teacher,

“He’ll leave you plenty of instructions…” texted the upper school administrator, “you’ll be fine.”

It was the first day back after Christmas and 0 period (0730) was a one semester elective.  The students had never had the teacher I was subbing for, or taken a class in aviation.

The only thing I knew about flying was what I had learned from my uncle as a child,

“Only fly a one seater that way you don’t have to worry about anyone else…” he was a loner.


“Never let your dog sit in your lap, he will obstruct your view of the instrument panel…” his Cavalier King Charles Spaniel would go up with him.

I asked the students why they had chosen to take the class imagining they had aspirations one day to fly commercially or own their own single engine plane,


“It was the last elective,”

“I didn’t want to do math or English,”

or a simple shrug of ‘dunno’, were the answers I got.

Great, I thought, not even an enthusiastic bunch whom I could woo with stories of Amelia Earhart or Charles Lindbergh.   I’d have to settle for my two lame observations!

“Did the dog’s ears pop?”  one of the boys asked.

I shrugged my shoulders.

I distributed the course syllabus and handed out packets about weather and the class read quietly for the remainder of the period.  I tried not to yawn.

Physics was slightly different since the students already had a semester under their belts.  However, despite the teacher’s detailed notes and his confidence that I could work with the few helpful formulae he’d written out for me, I was completely in over my head and told the class that they probably knew more than I did…

“I doubt it,” one girl said.

“That’s ok Ms. McNeny, the Colonel posts all the answers and the workings on Google Classroom if we get stuck…”

“Great,” I said.

“And answers to the odd numbered problems are in the back of our books…”

“Great,” I repeated.

The day dragged with three successive physics classes none of which improved my aptitude although by last period I could confidently read aloud the practice problems I’d copied onto the board in the morning to make me look as though I knew something!


I had two more days to go of this drudgery so decided to bring something to the classroom table that would be more up my street but still have relevance to physics.

“I’m interested in people, who they are, how they live,” I announced to my first physics class the following day.

“I want to know what’s going on in their minds while their city’s being bombed,”

they looked up.

“When do they find time to cook or do laundry after walking miles each day for water?”

All eyes were on me.

“How they keep themselves warm in a cave without electricity?”  I looked around at the students.

I had their attention.

“Are any of you curious about other people’s lives?”  I asked.

They shook their heads.  I’d forgotten they were seventeen and just a little self centered.

One girl raised her hand,

“We had to write five things we’d done for someone over the holidays.”

“We did?” said another.

“Yes, it was easy, I just wrote all about what I’d done over the Christmas break.”

See what I mean?

“Well, I’m going to tell you about the physicists whose laws you used for yesterday’s problems concerning springs and rotation.”

Some heads plonked down on desks, others stared off into space while others listened and took notes.

They were all quiet as I told them about the Englishman Robert Hooke and the Parisienne Leon Foucault.

“The Brit. was a seventeenth century polymath,”  I began, “who had a run in with Isaac Newton and was nearly lost to history.”

Poor old Hooke, he was a Jack of all trades and had weak follow through skills, or ADD,  and found himself  at the centre of some heated disputes about who should take credit for many early discoveries including gravity.  He was not well liked by his peers.

“The Frenchman’s teachers wrote him off as lazy when he was really brilliant and probably just bored in class!  Sound like any of you?” I asked as I looked out at my reluctant students!

Yet he went on to accurately identify the speed of light and demonstrated proof of the earth’s rotation through the use of a pendulum aptly named after him,

“The Foucault Pendulum,” I said as the class drew to a close.

I have to say my time spent with each class was so much more rewarding… and some of the students did thank me afterwards.

I spoke to the physics/aeronautics teacher over the water fountain the next time I subbed.

“There was no way I could even fake that I knew anything about your physics classes last week despite your very clear notes…” I laughed as I shook his hand, “I introduced them to two of the young men responsible for the physics they were working on.”

“That’s fine,” he said, “they completed all their work and managed the quiz when I returned … that’s all I wanted.  Thank you.”

And we went on,

“To talk…of cabbages and kings…and whether pigs had wings.”  (Lewis Carroll)



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