While I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz I took a full year of organic chemistry from Dr. Daniel Palleros. He was one of the best teachers that I ever had, primarily because of his dedication to teaching his students. Dedication is an oft-misused term that I believe rings true in this case because of his countless hours preparing clear and succinct lectures and annotating practice exams to help us learn the fundamentals of organic chemistry. He made organic chemistry accessible to me, a student without a clear focus at the time.
A moment that I vividly remember from Dr. Palleros's class was when he was handing back the second exam of the second quarter. One of the questions on the exam had asked us to give a single reagent that would turn a compound into another. I had forgotten this single reagent. Determined not to lose any more points than I had to, I came up with a five reagent pathway that ended up producing the same compound. Citing this answer, Dr. Palleros encouraged me to become a chemistry major because he believed that chemistry was more about creativity than brute memorization. The question was marked correct and given a smiley face---high praise indeed. Despite having not aced the test, I felt like I really understood the material. This moment helped me decide to pursue further chemistry classes and eventually wetlab work. Even though I eventually switched to programming work, I likely would not have gotten to where I am today without his encouragement.
I recently found that Dr. Palleros retired in the Fall of 2014, after I had graduated. I found a teaching statement he had made in 2008 which was deleted along with all of his other UCSC pages. Among other things, he talks about an issue that I think is very important; how to cope with failure. Despite having not seen him for many years, he still touched me through this statement. I rescued the page from Google's cache, am rehosting it here so that others may benefit from his writing. I have bolded a few sentences that resonated with me.
Teaching Statement (2007-08)
Lecturer in Chemistry
Ron Ruby Teaching Excellence Award in Physical & Biological Sciences
I am about to walk into the organic chemistry teaching laboratories when a sudden feeling of uneasiness takes hold of me. It is my first day as a Second-Class Teaching Assistant (literal translation), very much despite the title the highest honor conferred by the University of Buenos Aires to undergraduates with teaching aspirations, and I am overcome by a bout of self-doubt. Will the students like me? Will I meet their expectations? Will I live up to the challenges of this my first paid teaching job at the university? Back then, without knowing the answers, I pledged I would.
On this weekend right before the spring quarter is to begin, I am 21 again: On my way to class and just about to be afflicted by another bout of self-questioning. Coming Tuesday, I will start teaching a new course, Chemistry 108C, and despite the fact that in the last few months I have been working intensely putting the course together, or perhaps because of it, I cannot help but feel anxious. Thirty-three years later almost to the date since the beginning of my teaching career, the self-doubt questions of yesterday have been replaced by others brewed by experience or imposed by these uncertain times: Am I providing my students with the best possible education? Am I doing enough to prepare them for a world that is fast changing in front of our very eyes?
A year ago, I was approached by the chemistry faculty to consider the development of a new course, Chemistry 108C, a third quarter of organic chemistry aimed at health sciences and premed students. The idea behind this course is to provide students with a longer organic chemistry curriculum and, in the process, increase their chances of being accepted into medical school. I didn’t accept their invitation immediately but I finally did. Having to build a new course from the ground up has been very exciting and challenging at the same time, especially because there was insufficient material to be drawn from the regular textbook and I had to decide what to include and what to leave aside. Making these choices made me rethink my role as a teacher in my students’ lives. Only time will tell if my decisions have been wise but in the process of developing this course I reminded myself of a little truth that in our time and age seems to be forgotten: Regardless of the subject at hand, a real teacher must take the students outside their comfort zone.
I have always thought that because of its very nature, organic chemistry did just that, challenging students outside their safety area, pushing them to think critically, forcing them to concentrate on the analysis rather than the results. On this weekend, before the spring quarter is to begin, I question that belief. Last fall quarter I gave my first-ever all-multiple-choice test to my laboratory students. In preparation for the test I provided them with seventy-five multiple-choice questions illustrating some of the most important concepts of the course. I also wrote detailed annotated answers showing not only the right choice for each question (there were five possible options) but also the logic behind it. I told the students that some of the questions would be similar to those in the practice, a few might be even identical, but I stressed that most of the questions would be different, and thus I urged them not to memorize the answers but rather concentrate on the reasoning and methodology, like I had done in class and in the annotated answers. The exam came and to my great surprise, the questions that were identical to those in the practice, except perhaps for the options order, were overwhelmingly correct, but those identical also to the ones in the practice but for which the options have been reformulated were disappointingly wrong. The majority of students had just memorized the answers without paying much attention to the reasoning behind them, and thus couldn’t solve the questions when just a few parameters had been changed.
We teachers often think that students do not do well in school because of a lack of effort and preparation. This unique all-multiple-choice test proved me otherwise. It confirmed something that we teachers suspect but I, personally, hadn’t had the chance to see revealed by hard numbers until then. Students did poorly not necessarily because of a lack of effort but rather because of a lack of good study habits. It must have taken my students a long time to memorize the correct answers, time that they could have more wisely spent trying to understand the logic behind the questions. Had they done that, they could have answered all the questions correctly. They preferred instead a different and most difficult way: brute memorization. Why?
I do not have the answer to this question but it occurs to me that in the long and arduous process of educating our youth our system seems to overemphasize the notion that only the right answer counts and those who don’t have it are just plain losers. Little attention is paid to the process of searching for the right answer, searching for the truth. As a result, our students are afraid of trying because they are afraid of failing. To compensate for this winner-takes-all course of instruction we have showered them with phony trophies and the reassurance that they are all winners no matter the situation. But we cannot fool them and they know it.
If our society is to do well in this world where outsourcing, downsizing and free trade dominate the global economy, it will not be because of its fear of failure, it will be despite of it. If we expect our students to excel, we should start educating them in the principles of failure as much as in the principles of success. After all, the only winners are the losers that get up after the fall.
A fine line separates challenging the students, taking them outside their comfort zone, and turning them off. But lately, the line has been moving closer and closer to a safer area, perhaps in an unconscious effort from our part not to alienate our students. Example I: No course seems to be complete these days without review sessions before the midterms and final exam. Students demand them, most teacher oblige; me included. A few years ago, reviews were not expected by the students, and they were only occasionally offered before a particularly difficult exam. Today reviews have become the CliffsNotes of college. Students who often skip lectures always attend reviews. They have become accustomed to this predigested, ready to use product. Example II: No science book seems to be complete without a solutions manual. Solutions manuals could be great tools, and I wish they were around when I was in college, but most of our students do not know how to use them. Rather than checking the answers after giving the assigned problems their very best shot, they read the problems and their solutions almost simultaneously, and in doing so they deprive themselves of one of the most important exercises: the exercise of trying and failing until success is reached. We teachers are in part to blame for this state of affairs. We give them the resources and take it for granted that they will know how to use them. Regrettably, many of our students don’t.
At the beginning of this Spring quarter, my sixty-fourth teaching at UCSC, I wonder if I will be doing enough for my students. Will I be taking them outside their comfort zone? Will I be preparing them to face the challenges of tomorrow? Once again, I do not know the answers, but I am ready to pledge that I will try my best.
I am honored by this nomination and very grateful for the fact that I had to write these reflections. It offered me the opportunity, on this very special weekend, to analyze what being a good teacher means to me. I am also including a revised version of the essay, On Becoming a Teacher, that I wrote on the occasion of a previous nomination and which describes my teaching philosophy.