What Physics Taught a Recovering Engineer About Teaching

I have not found a “unified theory of student success,” but I still have faith in the process.
Thursday, February 21, 2013

This post marks National Engineer’s Week. Luqman Abdur-Rahman is a 2008 Metro Atlanta Corps Member and 2008 Amgen Fellow.

Five years ago, I was about to graduate from Georgia Tech with my Master’s in Mechanical Engineering. I had plenty of job offers with a bountiful financial outlook. But I still was not sold.  

My Teach for America recruiter offered a new challenge and perspective. Of course, I viewed it through an engineer’s lens:

  • What is the data given?:  Educational inequity exists. (Numbers don’t lie.  It is what it is.  Remove the emotion.)
  • What is the unknown?:  Could we actually “fix” this problem? What could our country be?  
  • What equations or models do I have at my disposal?:  Teachers and researchers have identified what works.  I have read tons of books on promising models and seen examples of schools that defy the stereotypes. Plus, I have gathered my own anecdotal evidence of student brilliance in the toughest of circumstances.  
  • How do I simplify my task to achieve the goal?:  Institute.  Five weeks of training and I will know how to become an “effective” teacher.
  • How do I solve this problem, given the process I chose?:  Just get out there and do it. How can I not help when others did it for me?


A black and white pen chart explaining a process for solving physics problems.


Photo provided by Luqman Abdur-Rahman.

And so I did it.  I signed up to teach kids in my hometown. It didn’t take long for me to realize what many naïve engineers realize when they hit the workforce in the real world: I was not ready for this.

First, numbers don’t lie, but they sure can be misleading.  Students may earn the test scores to passbut  are they being set up for lifelong success?   

Secondly, emotion is a necessity.   My student is not a statistic.  He is a human being with a soul.  His struggle is mine and I have to love him for this to work.  

Thirdly, “it is what it is” isn’t good enough.  The most troublesome students are many times the smartest. Every child can learn, and when they fail, it’s because we’ve failed them.

Most importantly, I learned that real-world problems are never solved like the problems in my physics books:

  • My classroom is not a perfect system.  I cannot control the flow rate.  Students leave and join at the worst times, making it extremely difficult to manage efficiently.
  • Outside influences and entities do influence my results.  Parents, peers, administrators, and even physical environments “act upon” my students.  I have to do my best to “push and pull” them in the little time I have.
  • Friction between my students and I is never negligible.  How they view me is a direct result of how I model and reciprocate the respect we all deserve.   
  • Sometimes energy is not conserved.  Just as in engineering school where my GPA had no bearing on my success, the vast potential in my students does not always become kinetic and propel them to a better life.  Life is not always fair.

Instead, my success and my students’ success will be determined by our resilience.  It rests in my refusal to give up on them, and their refusal to give up on themselves.  

At engineering school I wasn’t the smartest.  But I would not be outworked. In my TFA experience, the same rings true.  My students don’t learn because I have it all figured out.  They learn because when I fall short, I notice and come back with a new strategy. 

I have not found a “unified theory of student success,” but I still have faith in the process.   When my assumptions or methods prove faulty, I erase the board and start over the next day.  I do what any great engineer does.  

I keep working.  Harder.  Smarter.  Stronger.  


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