A few years ago, I was sitting in the office of my colleague and friend David Van Winkle, who was in charge of assigning our physics department’s graduate teaching assistants to courses. The studio physics courses that David and I teach are particularly demanding for the teaching assistants, and not all of the teaching assistants have the personality to succeed in the studio learning environments. So it is customary for the professors teaching studio physics to get together several weeks before a semester begins, pick out graduate students who seem well-suited to teaching studio and then begin the process of recruiting them.
As David and I went through the teaching assistantship candidates, graduate student Danielle Simmons walked in, looked at David, and asked to be assigned to teach a studio physics section. The year before, I had taught a studio physics course with Danielle, a graduate of Orlando’s Edgewater High School and UNC-Chapel Hill before coming to FSU to work on a Ph.D. in experimental condensed matter physics. It had gone remarkably well, so I turned to David and said while Danielle watched, “If you assign Danielle to my class I will kiss your feet.” Danielle approved (of the teaching assignment, not the feet-kissing) and so David placed Danielle in my class (and declined the feet-kissing).
During her time with me, Danielle was way more than my ace TA – she was my classroom partner. She managed just the right balance of accessibility and firmness in responding to student questions and requests. She discerned patterns of student difficulties and came up with strategies for dealing with them on the fly in class.
Danielle was a mentor to the other graduate TA’s and the undergraduate Learning Assistants (LA’s) who served in my classes with her. She remembered issues that came up during laboratory exercises from the previous year and adjusted lab instructions and scoring rubrics to eliminate obstacles to learning during our weekly TA/LA training meetings.
Danielle often functioned as my handler. She frequently made very insightful suggestions about how to run the class better. I am sure that I turned a few down – I just can’t remember any. She was so well plugged into student concerns and moods – which are critical to maintaining a positive learning environment in a studio-style classroom – that I often allowed her impression of a student to supersede my own.
All good things must come to an end. Danielle will be defending her dissertation this fall and (last I heard) taking a job in the private sector. I will not have her guidance and camaraderie in the classroom again.
You might wonder if a physicist who navigated so well in a classroom full of 18- and 19-year-olds had considered the possibility of moving down a few grade levels and teaching in a high school. Danielle gave that possibility some thought. Last year, when several of our physics students had dinner with the Chair of the Bay County School Board, Danielle was there. When a delegation of leaders from Danielle’s home district – Orange County Public Schools – came to the FSU Physics Department this past spring and convinced a few students to start teaching careers in Central Florida, Danielle was there to listen. But in the end she was unconvinced. Danielle told me once that she might have chosen teaching over pursuing a Ph.D. after she graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with her bachelor’s degree, but she didn’t get the right pitch. As she approached the completion of her Ph.D. – and the six-figure salary that is surely waiting for her – it was just too late for a change in career direction.
I’m sure that the TA’s with whom I work this fall will be excellent. But it’s difficult to imagine any TA having the impact on students – and on me – that Danielle did.