On October 25th, 2013, I was honored as the University of Notre Dame Alumni Association National Teacher of the Year. This was my way of saying thanks to everyone who helped me reach this milestone:
One of my first memories of Notre Dame was visiting my sister for Sophomore Sibs weekend. My sister is four years older than me, so we were both sophomores, her at ND, me in high school. While visiting, we went to Mass in my sister’s dorm. The overall message that the priest talked about in his homily was that we are all called to do something by God. Moreover, the Holy Spirit will act through friends and strangers to let you know what you’re called to do. If you’ll give me just a few moments, I’d like to tell you how the Holy Spirit has interceded to guide me through my life.
During a visit my junior year, my sister was taking my brother and I to a party in Grace Hall. What I remember most was on the walk to the dorm, we could hear music playing in various dorms nearby. All of a sudden, one of the parties started playing my favorite song growing up, Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection.” To me, that was the sign that ND is where I need to go to college.
Fast forward to the summer between my sophomore and junior years at ND. While working at a pizzeria in my home town, a repairman came and talked to me about how great it is to be a teacher. He went on and on about how we need good, intelligent teachers to shape the next generation of citizens. I honestly didn’t think much of it at the time; merely that this crazy stranger wouldn’t shut up about teaching for the 45 minutes he was working on the broken fridge.
During my junior year, during a class called Transport Phenomena, a two semester course on how fluids move through pipes, the class hit a sticking point. The professor, in his Italian accent, was going on and on about several simultaneous equations that describe a particular situation. Without going into the gory details, this final point was that the graph of all of the equations had a minimum in it. He proudly stated, “That is what engineers live for!” I honestly didn’t see the greatness of this, and this was the moment I started to think maybe engineering wasn’t for me.
Amazingly enough, as I was walking in my dorm later that day, a flier for the Alliance for Catholic Education popped up. I remembered my sister talking about ACE and started thinking about looking into it. I also remembered that crazy repairman I and thought maybe I should think about teaching.
Amazingly enough, one of my roommates got a new girlfriend. As we started getting to know her, she told us that her cousin was the director of the ACE program and that he was always asking her to bring friends over to his house to try to convince them to apply. After doing just that a few weeks later, I was excited to apply. I’m grateful to say that I was accepted, and soon learned that I would be heading to Jacksonville FL and teaching chemistry at Bishop Kenny High School. Throughout my experience in the ACE program, I encountered the best teachers I ever had. They still inspire me to this day.
During my first year at BK, the volleyball coaches, one of whom was my housemate, asked for some help with the volleyball team. I was already helping with the soccer team, but after some arm twisting, I was convinced to help that team too. A few years later, a few of the volleyball team moms found out I was single, and took it upon themselves to find me a significant other. For the most part I humored them, and just went about my life. At the end of that season, one of those moms was very adamant that she knew “the one.”
It turns out, she was right. Stephanie and I hit it off right away, and 10 months later I was lucky enough to be engaged, and a year after that, I was married to the most amazing woman I’ve ever met. That same year I was to be married, my principal asked me if I would be interested in taking over the physics program at BK. Part of my fear of teaching physics, which I’ve never told anyone, was that I would be teaching the same subject as my favorite ACE teacher, and I wasn’t sure if I could live up to his standards. However, after talking to my department chair about it, I accepted.
During our discussion, she recommended I look into a new lab based curriculum developed at MIT. Since I was the only physics teacher, I only had to convince my admin to adopted her recommendation. Not an impossible process, just a necessary step BK has to ensure our students receive a good education.
A year or so later, a few students asked me about adding an AP physics class. While discussing the possibility with one of the academic deans, she recommended I look into what other teachers do for their AP classes. In my searches, I stumbled on a few blogs talking about Modeling Instruction.
At about the same time, we had a workshop day where teachers shared some of their best practices. One of those mini-workshops was on how that teacher uses twitter to find lesson plan ideas. With his help, and a little searching, I found a great group of physics teachers that blew me away with what they were doing in their classes. For the first time, I had other physics teachers to bounce ideas off of and even have weekly meetings online. Many were also singing the praises of Modeling, so I decided to look into going to a workshop.
While at the workshop, not only was I fully convinced of the power of teaching through Modeling, I also had a fellow participant share a news story about what would become one if my favorite books, “The Last Lecture” about Randy Pauch celebrating his life as he was dying of cancer. Those three weeks proved to be a very transformational time for me.
When I returned to school the next year, I set about trying to convince my admin to switch to that way of teaching my classes. Just about the time I received their ok, my wife and I found out we were going to be parents. As we were to begin preplanning that next year, Dillon, you overachieving son of mine, decided to come early. So instead of me starting the year as planned, I had a sub with no experience teaching physics, trying to introduce my students to this new way of learning. After returning to the classroom, I set about trying to recover from that crazy start while balancing the joys of fatherhood.
For the most part, that brings us to this award I’m being honored with tonight. I think it’s important for you to know all these steps throughout my life to share how I think the Holy Spirit has guided me to this amazing award. To me, humility isn’t hiding your accomplishments, but rather celebrating them as gifts God has given you. I can’t begin to thank all the people that have helped me get to this point, but what I can say is this: Dillon, when you’re old enough to read this letter, I can only hope that you realize that God has a plan for you too. Have the courage to be open to the amazing people that enter your life, so they, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can help guide you along your path. Most importantly, take time to enjoy the steps along the way, as I’m sure God has a plan for you to experience your own amazing ride.