Despite shivering with mono-chills in summer heat and feeling desperate for water and a bed, I wouldn’t leave high school graduation until I found my favorite teacher.
What makes a great teacher “great?" Why, fever-chilled and sore-throated, would I not leave my graduation until I saw Dr. Fillipova?
As a junior, when I walked into her physics class I had two immediate reactions—this woman was smart, PhD educated, and she was about her business. She talked in a heavy Russian accent and, when she asked a question, she would say, “What mean this?” But make no mistake, in her class she was no foreigner—she was queen. We weren’t foreigners, either—we were part of her royal court, raised to lofty imaginary status by the real high-level knowledge we were learning.
My school was economically divided to an extreme, but in her class we were all privileged, all learning from a well-educated, hard-nosed, and passionate teacher.
When we studied gravity, I found it difficult to connect to what we were learning. Why should I care about Einstein? When Dr. Filipova reviewed a homework assignment I did poorly, she asked what was wrong. I told her figuring out gravity and the value of time for inconsequential problems didn’t mean anything to me. She asked me to read Alan Lightman’s book Einstein’s Dreams. The novel, which is composed of majestic vignettes, explores the human condition and the meaning of time. She knew I loved reading, that a powerful story could connect me to any subject and augment my learning.
For refraction, a subject I struggled with, she told us to look into a national photo competition: The American Association of Physics Teachers High School Physics Photo Contest. She believed I could learn refraction through something I loved—photography—and I was ordered out of the class to find examples of refraction in nature. When I won that contest with my photo “Physics with Nemo,” and did well on our refraction test, it was not simply because of me; it was because of the insightful woman behind the front desk.
The greatest high school teachers know their subject inside-out, are tough, but are interested in finding out about their students’ lives and use students’ interests and personal strengths to teach them what they otherwise find difficult to comprehend or what they’re disinclined to learn.
Dr. Fillapova was one of those great teachers. That’s why I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye and why I can’t come back home without stopping in to say hello.