Dynamic duo science teachers to retire
Century High School chemistry teacher Chuck Handlon and Kellogg Middle School earth science teacher Roger Larsen know their lives are about to change.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell them that.
For 40 years, the two have taught not only the concepts of science but its values, that failure can be as integral to learning as success. For the past 20 years, the two have been key links in the Kellogg-to-Century science education pipeline. When they retire from Rochester Public Schools this summer, they will have taught for a combined 83 years.
They have, shall we say, a certain perspective.
Their careers have spanned a technological revolution that reshaped and transformed their classrooms. Slide rules would be replaced by hand-held devices a million times more powerful than the computers NASA used in its moon launches in the 1960s.
Waves of educational reform would sweep through classrooms, one after the other. Test-taking would become rampant. State and federal laws would diminish teachers' autonomy, as lesson plans for some teachers became forced marches through the curriculum.
Teaching remained fun
Yet, to hear Handlon and Larsen tell it, the political intrusions and increasing top-down approaches to education never stopped them from being the teachers they wanted to be. It never hindered their ability to teach. Teaching never stopped being fun.
"It's the kids," Larsen said during a sit-down with the two teachers. "Middle school kids can love you one day and hate you the next. And the next day, they love you. It's just fresh. It's fun to see the light bulb go off."
From the perspective of 40 years, both noted trends that have made teaching a more challenging profession, from schools' over-reliance on tests and assessments to the saturation bombing of computers and technology in the schools to meddlesome politicians.
"Technology has changed," Handlon said. "When we first started out, we had time and ability to assimilate it. It's growing exponentially now. And I feel sorry for the new teachers that are trying to keep up with the latest whatever it is. All these websites and software. Pick one thing, and try to really use it."
Handlon was Century's first chemistry teacher when the school opened in 1997, joining a core group of teachers whose mandate was to create a school and a culture that emphasized academics. His tie-dyed lab coat, joined to an energetically extroverted Mr. Wizard personality, screamed: "Chemistry is colorful." A willingness to say what was on his mind often found him in front of Rochester School Board meetings, fighting for more stringent science requirements.
"I'm walking out, figuring I haven't left anything unsaid," Handlon said.
Larsen ran the Rochester Regional Science Fair for nearly 20 years, building it into a glitzy affair in which Rochester students competed against the best and brightest high school students in the world. He lassoed powerhouse A-list scientists and speakers to the science extravaganza. To a folksy Montana-style charm, Larsen joined a sky-high wonder at what student scientists could accomplish. They responded with cutting-edge experiments (one student invented a mechanism to click a mouse with the blink of his eye).
Nor did he seek to exempt himself from science's real-life applications.
In the 1980s, Larsen applied to be a participant in the NASA Teacher in Space Project. Christa McAuliffe eventually would be selected. Larsen and his students were watching the flight from his classroom when the space capsule exploded, killing all seven crew members.
Later, Larsen talked to astronaut John Glenn, the first man to orbit the Earth, and asked whether the program would ever be started up again.
"He said, 'Don't worry about it, Roger. Before you die, we'll be sending up senior citizens. You get your name on the list,'" Larsen recalled.
Both grew up in the era of Sputnik, the beach ball-sized satellite launched by the Soviet Union that became to U.S. educators and politicians the equivalent of a thrown gauntlet. Science became the rage. In Handlon's elementary school, TVs were wheeled into classrooms to watch every space launch and landing, he said. The Mercury astronauts became "our heroes," he said. Everybody owned a telescope.
Failure is part of learning
"Our elementary teachers, at least in the school I was at, conspicuously pushed science," Handlon said. "We were allowed to experiment, no matter what it was. Play around with things."
Those experiences taught Handlon how failure was an inescapable part of learning, a core concept in science, in the scientific method. But over the years, he saw that attitude erode, replaced by a mindset that has less tolerance for failure. Today's classroom culture sees less use for failure, does not create as much allowance for it in the name of making sure no student is left behind.
"There's pressures on teachers to not rock the boat, to have everybody learn. No child's going to fail," Handlon said. "I mean, in science, you have to have failure. We don't make progress without failure."
Larsen said kids today are no different than when he started teaching 43 years ago. They are still loving. Still kind. But the biggest difference today is in the home and the expectations. When Larsen was a student and he did something wrong at school, the first question from his father would be, "What did I do wrong?" Today, it is "What did the teacher do wrong?"
"In teaching now, it's more about making everybody happy," Larsen said. "Parents happy. Kids happy. Administrators happy. Everybody's got to be happy. And sometimes, learning isn't about always being happy. The best things you learn about sometimes are when you're not happy."
Larsen called his approaching retirement a "very emotional time." He's been getting up and going to school for 43 years. "I've eaten lunch in 30 minutes for 43 years." And if you tack on his 16 years as a student, "I've been going to school for 60 years," he said.
"What am I going to be doing in two months? I'm not going to have any place to go. I got to figure out my whole life again," Larsen said. "But the thing is the connection with kids. You know, I remember teachers retiring. They'd go and they leave, and you never really see them much any more unless you go to Hardee's for lunch. But you don't see them a lot. Where do they go?"
Larsen doesn't plan to remain idle. The impulse to teach remains strong. He says he's considering pursuing teaching opportunities at the college level. Larsen taught at Rochester Community and Technical College two years ago but stopped when it conflicted with his day job. But it's one of a number of options he's weighing.
"I kind of have a a desire to go to the hospital and rock babies," Larsen said.
The teaching impulse hasn't waned in Handlon either. He said he plans to have a hand in teaching the next generation of teachers as an adjunct professor at Winona State University. He will be teaching STEM (science, technology engineering, math) methods to elementary education majors.
"I just enjoy it so much," Handlon said. "I know that I'm always going to be a teacher."