I went back to high school for a day

On Wednesday, I’d had a little private pity party, moaning to myself how I really disliked my teaching schedule and would never do this again. You see, this semester, thanks to a sudden schedule change, I was teaching two very different classes back to back — I’d finish lecturing in genetics, and immediately have to swivel and scuttle off to teach introductory biology. I like to have a little break between my classes, a time to reorient myself, review the material, put my feet up, sip a little wine (OK, I don’t do the last bit, but I can dream.) I have been spoiled.

Thursday I was a guest at the local high school. Yikes. One class after the other, all day long. You get your lesson plan all mapped out well ahead of time, because once that first class launches at 8:25, you are on a fixed trajectory all day long, with only a few minutes between classes. Forget moments of reflection, don’t even think about the imaginary glass of wine, because a succession of students are going to march in and occupy your classroom.

I don’t think I could cope with teaching high school. Much respect to those who do — you are all overworked and underpaid.

On the positive side, though, it was a pleasant experience…for a day. Just a day at a time. The big difference between college and high school is that college students are generally so damned serious. They’re paying out big bucks and accumulating a substantial debt to be here, and classes are their job, while professors are the bosses armed with the scourges of exams. At the 7th and 10th grade classes, I started talking about spiders, hands were raised, students would spontaneously offer wild accounts of their spider experiences, they’d ask question after question, it would sometimes get a bit raucous. Their enthusiasm was wonderful.

Now how to get the college students that fired up…I think I’ll have to kill all the exams. Abolishing tuition would help, too. I’ll get right on that for next year.

By the way, I also got to peruse their textbooks, briefly. There’s been a change there: they weren’t using Miller & Levine anymore! They’d switch to something called Inspire Biology, which looked fine, but different: lots of short, choppy segments with exercises to make the students think, less of a narrative, more for short attention spans. That isn’t bad, I could see how you could use textbooks like that to customize how you teach.

They did still use the familiar Miller & Levine lab manual and praised it highly.

For those who don’t know, Miller & Levine’s Biology was, for many years, the ubiquitous text I’d see in every high school student’s backpack. It was kind of like Campbell Biology at the college level. I’m seeing a lot more textbook diversity in the last decade or two as publishers seem to have realized that owning the rights to a popular textbook is a cash cow. For them, not the authors.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    I am glad the tiny ones turned out to be enthusiastic.

    A question about US higher education: is the difference between college and high school that the latter is paid for by the state/munipicial authorities?

    And where does the University level education come in? It is quite confusing for us furriners. I know the information is hidden somewhere on internet, but “hidden” is the operative word.
    (and a billion is a thousand million instead of a million million, as in proper European continental maths. Don’t get me started on the lorry/pavement stuff.)

  2. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    @birgerjohansson – the table in this wikipedia article should clarify things a bit in comparison to some other countries. (Although that table does not appear at all comprehensive.)

    In general in the US “high school” covers ages 14-18 (UK fourth through sixth forms), and is in most cases publicly funded by a municipality or other local government (i.e., not by a state or the federal government). Students at these schools are not charged tuition.

    Private high schools exist, often funded by religious institutions; and do charge tuition.

    High school graduates are considered minimally equipped to enter the adult job market.

    Further education is in “colleges” of which there are a bewildering variety, some funded by States, while many are privately endowed. Notable examples in my area: the University of California, funded by the taxpayers of the State of California, exists alongside Stanford University, privately endowed; Santa Clara University, funded by the Catholic Church; and two-year institutions (“community colleges”) such as Foothill College, again funded by a different arm of the California State government, and the College of San Mateo, funded by the County (shire, parish?) of San Mateo. Regardless of funding source, all of these charge tuition.

    What’s notably absent is government funding of college education. A patchwork of all sorts of scholarships and grants are available but no coherent system of funding exists for education past age 18.

  3. birgerjohansson says

    Just An Organic Regular Expression @ 2
    I am beginning to understand the differences.
    Also, I think California subsidised university costs, but a governor with a name rhyming to “Megan” put an end to it. Because something something private enterprise.

  4. cjcolucci says

    I represent academic institutions and occasionally find myself on-site browsing the bookstore. The modern textbook in many subjects is an absolutely gorgeous example of the book-maker’s art, and it is priced accordingly.
    How much of this, however, is necessary? I see no reason that an introductory math or physics or economics text can’t be a simple paperback with black-and-white graphs and illustrations. (Maybe chemistry or biology need color, but I don’t know.) Barnes and Noble used to have a series of paperbacks covering many 101-level college courses, probably for self-education..It seems to me that there would be a large market for such low-priced texts, especially at colleges attended by less well-off students. Authors could make up for the low price on volume.
    I suppose some economists would say that if there were a market for such books, they would exist.

  5. rietpluim says

    The educational system kills children’s natural curiosity. From the education in my own youth, through my training as an arts teacher, to the education of my own children, I am sorry to say that little has changed.

  6. seachange says

    It’s even weirder than JOARE has said.

    It is a quirk of California that the University of California (UC) is in our state’s constitution as a fourth branch of government. Although who actually gets to be a Regent? Pretty dependent on people in other government branches already. This system does more research and has post-graduate (after six years of college) degrees. You’d think because this is by-law of the UC that the CSU won’t issue PhD’s but of course they do

    Then, of course, we also have a California State University (CSU). Their Trustees (not regents apparently) are mostly appointed by the governor. They let more people in, they’re cheaper to attend, and they take a smaller portion of the total education money of the state. They also issue more four-year post high school degrees.

    Why do we have two systems? I dunno.

  7. magistramarla says

    I’m so glad that the high school students were enthusiastic for you, PZ.
    When I was teaching, it was a chore to keep their attention. Several would be sleeping after spending the night either gaming or working to help their parents support their family.
    Several would be texting. Others would be talking to their friends.
    It was definitely not an easy job!