Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Get the right reaction: How this chemistry teacher can help change your life

Since chemistry teacher Murray Park employs many varied methods to get his job done, contributor Christine Hennebury suggests his insights might help us approach our work with open minds.
O'Donel High School teacher Murray Park is known for his unique approach to chemistry instruction. (Christine Hennebury)

Murray Park divides his days between the classroom and the lab at O'Donel High School, bringing chemistry and confidence to his teenage students. 

Park is known for his unique approach to chemistry instruction, using humour and analogy to illustrate complicated and abstract concepts.

He's always seeking new ways to help his students understand his subject, using everything from The Map Song from Dora the Explorer — to a Barbie turntable to ensure that students grasp the things they need to know.

Since Park employs so many varied methods to get his job done, he's got a lot of insight into how we might approach our work with open minds. 

Take a look at some of the skills Park uses that just might come in handy in your life:

1) Try an analogy

Even though his subject matter is a far cry from the songs and games found in a primary classroom, Park keeps his classroom fun. The walls are covered in colourful posters and whimsical items, and he likes to shake things up by using fun analogies to help his students understand complicated ideas.

"As a teacher, teaching a really abstract subject such as chemistry, I feel that the best way to talk about chemistry is to not talk about chemistry," said Park. "Find some other angle that the students are already familiar with and make the synaptic jump to chemistry."

That's why his students might find themselves singing along to Dora the Explorer songs to help them remember key concepts — or they might hear the saga of Park's old Saturn that's worth far more as parts than as a working vehicle.

He makes them comfortable with humour, or, with an interesting analogy, gets them thinking. Park finds that students' comprehension naturally grows from there.

How you can use this:

Just as Park suggests, use your experience in an area of your life to help make a 'synaptic jump' in another area. You just have to be willing to explore ideas and look for similarities. 

Take the thing you're struggling with and let yourself go on tangents. Brainstorm what similarities there are between what it is that you're struggling with, and other things that you've mastered. Perhaps your understanding in those other areas will give you tools to grasp the new concept.

Do you love to sing? Try using a song to help remember concepts for work. Or use the structure of a song to make a plan for something else you're working on.

If you find you're having trouble following instructions in a game, try comparing it to a recipe that you like to make. 

Maybe an interpersonal challenge puts you in mind of the way characters relate on a TV show, or the way your tropical fish behave. 

2) Plan your workflow 

Park likes to keep things light in the classroom, but when he takes his students to the lab he makes safety the priority.

With 32 students trying to accomplish the same project on the same timeline, Park has to become 'mission control' and carefully plans the scope of the lab work and the layout of the materials. 

"When I design a lab, I have to think about how I can do this lab safely," said Park.

"What resources do I have available? What reactions do I choose? How does it fit into the curriculum? Will it be cool? Then I have to get into traffic flow. Where can I put the gear so everyone won't get bottlenecked? What do I need to make sure that I tell them?"

After the plans are in place, Park does a dry run himself and then visualizes his students moving through the project. The practice and the visualization help him tweak the planned workflow and ensure that everything will go smoothly.

How you can use this:

What kinds of activities do you do regularly? What kinds of issues do you encounter on a regular basis? Would planning out your traffic flow (or envisioning how the work might proceed) help you to identify potential problems? 

No matter what you're working on, taking some time to think about the physical space, the movement that takes place there, and the time frame of the planned activities can help you to make good decisions that will make things easier in the long run.

3) Focus on the Big Picture

In the midst of curriculum outcomes and testing, it would be easy for any teacher to get caught up in the specifics of grading or obsess about the details of a particular lesson. Park, however, says that while he does create his lessons to meet the curriculum, he knows that his real purpose is to engage students in the process of learning. 

"When you see them doing the hands-on stuff, enjoying the learning, that's what this is all about," Park said.

"The lab is all business on my end. But, on their end, it's play. They are working like an actual Chemist in a lab. They aren't watching their instructor demonstrate a titration, they are doing it." 

Keeping that focus on the big picture, on the underlying purpose, makes teaching all the more rewarding for Park. 

"You can see them believe that they can learn Chemistry, it has become something attainable to them. And that's just so cool."

How you can use this:

In any role you play, personally or professionally, you manage a lot of details. Over time, those details can start to feel like an end in themselves.

If you can find ways to remind yourself of the greater purpose of the tasks at hand, you'll likely find the project more rewarding as a whole. 

Even something mundane like peeling carrots for dinner can be less irksome, if you focus on how you feel about that dinner, or on how important it is to you to sit down with your family for a meal.

4) Keep Perspective

Keeping perspective is one of the non-chemistry lessons that Park includes in his teaching.

When Park finds his students getting overwhelmed by the scope of his subject matter, he reminds them that they don't have to learn the entire subject in order to pass his class — they need to only learn the aspects he's covering.

And, if they feel a bit intimidated by how he can stand at the board and just start writing away while explaining a given topic, he reminds them of the practice he's put in over the years.

"I tell them that after doing the same thing three times a week for 20 years, my students are getting my greatest hits, the methods I've got figured out," said Park.

"They didn't see the number of times back 16, 17 years ago that I turned around to the class and said, 'We'll try this again tomorrow.'  I'm still learning new ways to explain concepts though, even after all this time, I'm still adapting."

Those reminders to keep perspective help Park's students to focus on the task at hand, and to be comfortable with the work involved in developing expertise. 

How you can use this:

With so much information coming at us all the time — it's easy to lose perspective and become overwhelmed.

Try taking a step back from a given situation and assess how much you can reasonably expect to accomplish, or how much you really need to take on at this point.

If you can pay attention to the times when you feel like you're falling short in comparison to someone else, finding some perspective can be really valuable. Often you'll find that you're comparing your early attempts to someone else's polished and practiced end result.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Christine Hennebury is a writer and creative coach in St. John's.