Interviewed May 7, 1990
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Click here for audio in .mp3 format
Concord-Carlisle Educators Oral History sponsored by Concord-Carlisle Regional High School. Tom Dillon has taught in the Physics Department at Concord-Carlisle High School for 37 years of his 39-year educational career.
When I was a student at Tufts University and during my undergraduate years, I found
that I could augment my income by tutoring my fellow students. I recognized that
despite the $2.00 per hour that I was getting, I also got a big kick out of what I was
doing. This idea of sharing my knowledge of science and math with my friends I enjoyed
immensely, and this made me decide to go into teaching as a career.
I began teaching in a small town on the South Shore, Swansea, just outside of Fall River. I taught there for two years - math and science. I was earning $2,200 a year. At that time Jack Donovan, the principal of Concord High School, and Radcliffe Morrell, the Superintendent, who himself was an ex-math teacher, came down to observe me teaching my physics and math classes based on an application that I had sent to Concord. I guess they liked what they saw, and they invited me to come to Concord and teach physics and math in the fall of 1953 at a grand salary of $3,000. In those days that $800 increase was tremendous.
I lived in Arlington, and of course that was one of the reasons I applied to Concord; it was geographically close. At the same time I had no interest in working in the so called "inner city" schools, say Somerville or Boston, but rather the outlying communities where I felt the townspeople would be more professional and would therefore hopefully raise more professionally-oriented students, and I have proven to be right. I came to Concord for those two reasons: the tremendous increase in salary and the fact that the town itself was professional in nature and therefore could guarantee me good students in general.
In the early and middle 1950s we had Bedford and Lincoln students join us in Concord even though it was still called Concord High School; it wasn't regional then. Not many kids, I would say probably a couple dozen kids from both Bedford and Lincoln out of the maybe 400 kids in the school as a whole, and then it wasn't until 1960, of course, that we became a region with Carlisle.
We had 36 on the faculty, a principal, a vice principal, and a secretary up in the front office. We had four people in the science department, Joe Regan who taught biology, Joe O'Brien taught chemistry, I had the physics and some math, and Gerty Dyer taught earth science and some biology. Now we have a faculty at the school of over a hundred with eleven in science. These eleven I might add are all full time science whereas in the early '50s we would be mixed with math. The student population now is about 1200 as opposed to 400 then. We had an 1800 population in 1967 which I think was our maximum year with a staff of 120.
When I first began teaching, I would describe those students as passive. They would come willing to learn but playing the role of "I'm here, teach me." They didn't get too involved with the questioning; they were very responsible, they did their assignments, they were very well behaved, at least the kids that I had in physics and math. It was easy working then because it was not much of a challenge. You simply regurgitated what you learned yourself as a college or high school student and just relayed it to the kids. It wasn't until the '60s when things began to change. In particular, the history of the country at that time. I think of the flower generation, Kent State, and the early years of the Vietnam War when students in general both college and high school began to question authority for the first time. This was an awareness that we were not prepared for, and this is all positive I might add, I'm not objecting to what went on. Now we find that the media has made the kids a lot more knowledgeable. It's a source of information that we hadn't had for us in the past meaning that the papers and TV now tell the kids a lot more than we ever told them in the classroom, and as a consequence, in the last 20 or so years we find the kids are much more involved and question a lot more, in a positive way. When I say question, I don't mean question authority, but they question what you're doing, why you're doing it, what you're saying, and this is very, very interesting. This is what makes the job challenging, the fact that almost every day something different comes out of the classroom. Many people think that a teacher does the same thing over and over again which is so far from the truth. Some people might but I don't know of anybody who does. The kids today dictate the kind of curriculum that we offer.
When I began, you might say the approach was more dictatorial, that's how we were brought up. Oh, the kids questioned but not to the extent that they do today. A corresponding term for today's approach would be more "active," not passive, on the student's part; the teacher is more of a guide than a director. There was a time when I was the "sage on the stage," and now I'm more of a guide to a learning process. Of course, they still need the authority on the facts; we still as teachers present factual information, but once that's on the table, then we kick it around in a lot more open way than we did in the past. Of course, again, the media is a great help to us in this regard especially in science because in the last quarter century so many different things have been happening, for example, the early days of the space program. Not just in the physical but in all branches of science, we can't help but have the kids get something outside of what their teacher tells them. This they bring to school, and if it fits in our curriculum, we go through it, and that's what makes it so different from the earlier days.
Ideally we like to think that the kids do more laboratory work now than in the past and in a sense that is only partially true. The actual time spent in the lab is probably the same; it's the nature of what they do though in the lab that makes it different. In the earlier days they went in the lab to confirm an already known fact whereas in the present lab, meaning the last 10 or 20 years, they go to a lab trying to discover the fact or the law of nature that's being measured. So it's more of a discovery as opposed to a confirmation experiment.
In physics the media events that have prompted discussion are with the space program. I remember quite vividly at the time when this school was built in 1960 the rage in teaching was television; now it's computers of course, but in the early '60s it was TV. As a consequence, every classroom in the high school had its own TV built right in. That was very good for us in physics because this coincided with the space program with Sputnik in 1957, and our own program began in the early '60s, and you can perhaps recall those of you who were around in those days - practically every other month a satellite was being launched; it was a big headline event. Now it's just an every day occurrence; nobody even bothers to listen; it's not a special broadcast as it was in those days. I can recall on many occasions when the NASA headquarters was in New Jersey, as opposed to Houston now, the announcer at Cape Canaveral, now Cape Kennedy, would announce "the satellite has just taken off; it is now over Africa at a certain altitude; we will let you know as soon as we get word from New Jersey when that thing will pass back over Cape Canaveral". That was the clue of course to my physics class to get busy with the equations and try to figure out ahead of time at what time that satellite would return. And the fun we would get from watching the television and making our own calculation of this kind of data and have the announcer say within one or two minutes the time that we as a class had already figured out. So it was a classic example where the media definitely does affect what we do in the classroom. But today a space shuttle is like nothing; unfortunately most kids today don't appreciate what is going on.
The influence of Sputnik in 1957 on my teaching of science came from Dr. Bruce Olds who was then chairmen of the school committee in Concord in 1958. 1 was a "freshman" teacher, meaning with only a few years experience maybe a half a dozen behind me, and he called my attention to a group of physicists who met at MIT to form a curriculum writing team to redo all of high school physics. The little article read: "anyone interested contact so and so at MIT." He called this to my attention because I had missed it myself; it was just a small article on a back page somewhere. So thanks to Bruce's involvement, I then joined the MIT writing team in 1959, and for the next 25 years I worked very closely with that group generating all kinds of materials for both American high school students and foreign high school students. I was one of over 100 involved in this process. It was called the Physical Science Study Committee comprising many, many high school teachers like myself plus many, many college professors including Nobel prize winners whose job was to revamp the physics curriculum for high schools. The reason I went to great lengths to explain this is that this involvement on my part over the years with the committee allowed me to generate my own textbook independent of this group plus the fact it gave me an opportunity to do a lot of training, teaching teachers how to teach this new curriculum.
These associations in my personal career have had a tremendous effect, I like to feel, on my classroom work here in Concord. Primarily because, clearly I would bring back practically every day new ideas from my colleagues back at MIT, new ways of presenting materials, new curriculum changes, I'd have my own kids in Concord make changes by editing the material that we would bring. I've had several students who have found errors in the materials written by these MIT people and ourselves. This makes me feel very proud that my own kids as well as other students around the country could get this closely involved.
Concord was identified as one of eight pilot schools in the country who were chosen to try these new curricula, and we started in 1960 reporting back to the MIT group the things we found wrong, the things we liked, and editing was done over a process of several years. This particular curriculum is in its sixth edition, still being carried on, not by the original group but by leftovers from the original group. This has had a tremendous effect on what I do in my own classroom. The text is called the Physicial Science Study Curriculum Physics course published by D.C. Heath, first edition 1960, most recent edition, 1986.
Again my associations with this group have brought my name to the attention to others in the field, and I was approached by Harcourt, Brace and World then, now called Harcourt, Brace, Jovanivich to write for them a high school physics textbook vis-a-vis the PSSC program. Other publishers were concerned that the PSSC approach was so drastic that they would be losing out on textbook sales because of this new curriculum, so they tried to get others who knew the curriculum to do some writing for them to "spread the wealth," so to speak, among the students who would be taking physics. So I co-authored a three-edition textbook for Harcourt, Brace which is still being published. We use the third edition right now in one of the classes here at Concord. This being a direct result of my involvement with Bruce Olds' suggestion to contact the MIT people.
What the PSSC approach has done is taken out of physics what we used to call the traditional favorites, Galileo's telescope, Archimedes' principle, these traditional favorites. The old book used to be just a collection of facts. You could take an old book and shuffle the chapters and deal them at random and still teach a course that no kid would know anything was being done differently. Whereas the new look, now I'm talking 1960, is one of a continuum; it is a story line. Physics is a series of ideas built up on concepts, and you can't shuffle the chapters around. There are a few places where a given topic can precede another, but in general the story line that's involved in PSSC, and to teach it properly you have to know that story line, to show the kids how the concepts of physics really are tied together, how one logically follows from the next. The main difference is one of a continuum story line of concepts rather than isolated collection of facts.
With the PSSC there were so many of us working on it that I didn't have an obligation to try out the problems within the book on my own students, but with my own textbook, there are hundreds of problems as you would imagine in any physics book. My co-authors and myself worked out the problems in detail ourselves, but there was always that chance of making errors so I had all the examples in the first edition given to two students here at Concord, Bruce Holtje and Peggy Frerking. They were two of my advanced physics students, and they had the job of working out all the problems in the textbook on their own. A lot of hours put in to check our answers, and they found some mistakes. Their compensation was nothing more than their name was listed under the credits in the textbook; no money involved. They enjoyed doing it.
I've taught physics 100% for the past several years, and I've taught math for an equal number of times because physics without math is practically meaningless so math goes hand in hand with physics. I've seen teachers burn out teaching certain curricula, and I won't identify the curricula, but luckily for us in physics in spite of the fact that a lot of it is circa 1600 - mainly Galileo and Newton, there have been so many changes in our area in physics today that there is no time for burn out. But more importantly the kids are getting younger and younger every year I notice mainly because I'm getting older and older, and yet in spite of that they still know how to keep me on my toes. They still know how to make it interesting for me to walk into class. Burnout was never a concern with me. People ask me why I'm retiring because I'm only 62 or 63, and I had no answer for that. I still look forward to coming to school each day. I have no answer except that "it's time," whatever that means.
The unfortunate situation where some teachers have to teach all age groups and all levels of ability and all levels of attitude, I think brings on burn out much quicker. But in my case, I'm all physics and just by definition the "better" kid takes physics, meaning in terms of ability - if you don't have a math background, you couldn't do well in physics. So already I start with a good crop of kids, kids that have a good math background, kids who are academically oriented perhaps, more importantly kids that come from a town that has a lot of professionals and therefore you expect the kids to be a little better student than the average. I use the term "gene pool". The "gene pool" in this town feeds my courses very well, and that makes it a challenge, and that makes burnout all the less significant.
Besides Bruce Olds, who I already mentioned, I can name a half dozen others over the years who have had a specific involvement with us in physics, but more importantly when I mention a professional town, a lot of our school committee people over the years have themselves been science professionals which is, of course, good for us who are teaching science. But in general, I have found over the years that the school committee has been extremely cooperative in funding programs that a group like the science department would suggest. They have been very willing to spend the money to try these new things and I think the record will show that they have made wise decisions. I can't recall any time in my career where they, meaning the school committee or administration, have said "no, you can't do that." But rather, they have given us funds, but most important, autonomy, to do your own thing in the classroom. Of course they obviously watch you, and if you make serious errors, you will hear about it, but in general you're given complete autonomy to do your own thing. They know of you, they know your history, they know what you're capable of, and they must get feedback from the kids and the parents on what you're doing; I'm speaking now of teachers in general not just myself. This feeling of school committee willingness to give us freedom to do our own thing - now I shouldn't say our own thing implying we're all doing something just to satisfy ourselves - we're doing our own thing in the sense that from working with our colleagues around the country in all areas, not just in science, but in English, social studies, we like to bring the best back to Concord. That's why many of us at the school feel that without question Concord is the best school in the state both academically and not to mention the obvious salary advantages here compared to other towns.
There has been high enrollment in physics classes in Concord, and there are many reasons for that I like to feel. One is the curriculum itself. I like to feel the word gets around and the kids hear about the course offering and sign up for it, and secondly I think again is the professionalism of the town that I've just mentioned. At one time we had more physics sections in Concord than any other town in the area. At the moment, without checking the records recently, I'll simply say that if not the highest, among the highest total number of kids out of the population that are taking physics. We have 10 sections of physics this year; we had 16 at one time where most schools our size might have three or four. Most schools offer two levels of physics and we offer four levels of physics, the standard college track for the non-science major but who could be doing all A work in English or social studies but is a non-science major; then the college person who has no math or science as an interest; our honors system; and an advanced honors course for the real bright kids who will hopefully do more work in physics in college.
When the students asked me to speak at their graduation this year, I told the kids that I certainly would be honored to give them a little message at graduation, but I would do my own thing. They said, "we wouldn't want it otherwise, that's why we're asking you because you're known for doing your own thing." So I don't know what's going to happen at graduation, but I certainly will preserve my dignity as well as that of the school, but at the same time I will not be delivering a conventional graduation address.