Maybe Rutherford High School physics and math teacher Rachel Morris has a different recollection of what happened on the first morning of the Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp for rising 9th graders at FSU’s Panama City Campus on Monday, but this is what I remember:
We passed out the radiation monitors, calibrated radiation sources (designed for the classroom – don’t panic) and calibrated absorber sets to the camp’s students, who were in groups of three. Then I asked Rachel, “Should we give them some guidance?” And she responded, “No, let’s see what they come up with on their own.”
I had been a huge fan of Rachel’s for a few years, but I was, um, skeptical.
We may have given the students a few nudges, but pretty soon and pretty much on their own they were plotting measurements of radiation intensity on distance from a source and making graphs that reproduced the inverse-square dependence that those of us who have finished Algebra 2 (at earliest a 9th grade course in Bay County schools) recognize. And seeing that lead stops gamma-rays better than plastic. And that thicker lead stops gamma-rays better than thinner lead. And assembling their results for presentation to the class.
The students we had this week were remarkably strong – in part because there has to be a bit of self-selection in registration for a camp titled “Nuclear Medicine and Science”. But still, I had been warned not to expect too much. Instead, I expected way too little – our students did remarkable work.
And all this time, I did not see our camp’s Head Wizard, Rachel Morris, wave a magic wand once.
What I saw her do was this: As soon as the 9 am Monday morning start to the camp arrived, she engaged the students in conversation about what they knew about atoms and nuclei and radiation. She asked questions probing the students’ beliefs about nuclear science that I wouldn’t have thought of – ever. By 10 am, the students were eager to get their hands on our strange nuclear stuff and try it out. And they weren’t intimidated because they knew they were welcomed – even treasured – by the high school teacher at the front of the room.
While this was going on, I sat in the back of the room and marveled.
That experience repeated itself over and over again during the course of the one-week camp.
If I’m remembering correctly, I first met Rachel in December 2015, when I asked her and a colleague what I could do to help them. Rachel asked for help building her understanding of electricity and magnetism, and we spent many Wednesday evenings during the following two summers doing exactly that with two Bay High School colleagues. We took breaks during those six-hour sessions by eating dinner at either Moe’s or Taziki’s.
During the school years, I visited Rachel’s Rutherford High School physics classes a few times and got glimpses of the relationships she builds with her students. But they were only glimpses.
This week, I’ve been immersed in the full Mrs. Morris experience. My few brief visits to Rachel’s high school physics classroom didn’t even come close to what I’ve witnessed this week. It’s tempting to call what I saw this week supernatural, but what was really on display was Rachel’s incredible skill at building relationships of deep trust with her students.
Such relationships are as emotionally risky for the teacher as they are for the students. I can tell you that when one of Rachel’s committed students falls short on something like an AP or IB exam that the student isn’t the only one who is heartbroken – Rachel feels it deeply as well.
When a school is doing its job well, it’s like Hogwarts: All kinds of things are happening in there that a Muggle like me can’t explain (because I can’t do those things) and which I can therefore only categorize as magic.
It’s at times like this that I am most keenly aware of my limitations as a writer. Rachel deserves so much better than the words I’ve typed here. But I hope her colleagues at Rutherford and in Bay District know how special Rachel is. She is not alone in her school and district in being outstanding, but it’s teachers like Rachel who give us hope for our next generation.