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Attitude in the Classroom

began my teaching career long ago, in 1964. I became successful beyond my wildest dreams, attracting more than a thousand students each semester to an elective course, Physics 10, at City College of San Francisco (CCSF). I attribute much my success to attitude. This meant doing the best I could in the classroom, supplemented by getting my grades in on time and accepting campus-wide responsibilities.

Smiles galore

My positive attitude toward students produced something remarkable in my first task at CCSF. I assisted the school photographer as he was taking pictures of incoming students. This was a routine part of the registration process. As each student was being photographed, I said, “Smile, you’re at Silly College.” This elicited the biggest smiles! Later, the registrar announced that the new group seemed the happiest in college history.

city college of SF


A happy teacher

I was a happy guy, for I had my own desk in an office shared with another teacher, as well as a parking spot in the faculty parking lot, all lights and heating bills were paid, all the chalk I needed, a mimeograph machine for student handouts and tests, and, most importantly, the freedom to teach as I wished. I had found my personal heaven. I remember leaning back in my office chair, putting my feet on my desk, and telling myself that all the hardships I had previously endured had paid off. I had made it big time. No more working with solvent fumes in silkscreen factories, no more painting signs in bad weather or enduring uncertainty about earning a living. I made the transition from an hourly wage to a quite adequate $7,000 annual salary. I had graduated from the working class. I had much more than a job; I had a profession—and a worthy one.

Relative attitudes

I was thrilled with my success in becoming a community college physics teacher. My feelings of achievement couldn’t have been higher. I felt weird about a colleague’s attitude, however. He considered himself as a failure because he became only a community college teacher. A highly accomplished friend in Hawaii was disgruntled because he didn’t do what a pal of his did—which was to invent the cardiac pacemaker. He saw himself as only a university professor. What a difference attitude can make. Some friends have said that I view the world through rose-colored glasses. For the most part, I agree. It accounts for my upbeat attitude.

"Hewitt in his office—finally!"
"Hewitt in his office—finally!"


General attitudes

My positive attitude in the classroom was one shared by my children. After my son Paul finished his enlistment in the U.S. Navy, he took a temporary job in a hospital. His main task was cleaning and disinfecting rooms after the patients had left. He took pride in his work—cleaning the area of dirt, germs, and unwanted substances. Some of his coworkers applauded him, but others thought he was being silly paying so much attention to a task that earned the same wage whether performed carefully or carelessly. My son appreciated being recognized for his dedication to a job well done. He told me that he felt a bit sorry for the lazier ones who didn’t value the dignity that comes with excelling at a task. Having a good attitude is healthful, both physically and mentally.

I witnessed both good and poor attitudes when taking taxi rides to and from a meeting of physics colleagues in Chicago. It was refreshing to be with the first driver. He was a happy guy in no rush on the busy streets. He hummed as he drove, and he told me that he enjoyed his job. The second, a younger driver, was uptight—annoyed by traffic lights and impatient with other drivers. He told me he disliked his job. Uh-oh. Unless this younger driver could somehow adopt the easygoing attitude of the older driver, he’d likely not enjoy good health in coming years. How fortunate for those who take pride in their work. And so it is with teaching. Success in the classroom is greatly affected by our attitude toward our profession and especially toward our students.

Teaching for the money?

I was glad to be invited to a CCSF faculty party to welcome new colleagues. It involved a bit of drinking, which may explain the outburst of an experienced teacher—that we should all be honest and admit that we’re teaching for the money. After noticing my expression of disagreement, he muttered that he was speaking, anyway, for most of the teachers. He certainly wasn’t speaking for me or for my colleagues in the physics department. We all had a passion for teaching that was quite independent of our salaries. Our reward was the satisfaction that came with motivating student learning—lifting our students educationally. Achieving our best at teaching was rewarding enough.

‘Hewitt’s upbeat-attitude son Paul.’
‘Hewitt’s upbeat-attitude son Paul.’


Teaching content versus teaching students

Teaching, however, is not for everybody. Some who focus only on teaching content find the task tiring. Repeating the same lessons over and over can become boring. Not so, though, for my friend and colleague Dave Wall, physics teacher and magician. When asked if the trick of pulling coins out of little kids’ ears was getting old for him, Dave replied not at all, because he had a new kid each time he did the trick. Likewise, teaching Newton’s laws over and over isn’t tiresome if the focus is on the new students in our classes each and every semester. Although concepts being taught were learned by teachers long ago, a good teacher relishes sharing that knowledge—semester after semester. Many teachers who lack this attitude for teaching soon burn out and quit the profession.

Students smarter than me

An incident in one of my classes is worth mentioning. When I posed a particular question to my class, one of the students gave an especially insightful answer. I complimented him. He responded by asking why my answer wasn’t as good as his. My reply was that he was likely smarter than I. The class was shocked. Then I explained that in most every college classroom, some students are more intelligent than the teacher—which included me. I added that I am supposed to be the most knowledgeable person in the room—not necessarily the brightest one. It’s true. The most intelligent person in a room may or may not be the teacher. We should take care that underestimating the smarts of our students may be overestimating our own. Can we be ok with that?

We learn best from teachers


Slow learners

I’m personally familiar with the upside of being a slow learner. A teacher who learns at a slower pace may better identify with struggling students and may have the patience needed to teach those students. My physics colleagues at CCSF all admitted to me that in their student years, each had flunked a physics course. How uplifting! Those who experienced failing in their student days and who subsequently succeeded may have an advantage in teaching others. Patience is important. I think we’re all acquainted with brilliant minds that find great difficulty in explaining concepts to the satisfaction of less than brilliant pupils. But then are also bright super teachers who were quick learners and can speak at the right level for all students. Whatever the smarts of a teacher, all can develop skills in communicating and explaining over time—provided they maintain the desire to excel in teaching students of all abilities. Teaching is an art, and like any art, it can improve with experience.


This article is adapted from my memoir, Just Another Old Man Talking—The Awesome Life of a Physics Teacher, in process and available soon. Stay tuned!

On the Web

All 34 video lessons of Conceptual Physics Alive! are now free to all (except for commercial entities), on Conceptual.Academy. Help yourself! Complementary student tutorials are on, and

Paul G. Hewitt ( is the author of Conceptual Physics, 13th edition; Conceptual Physical Science, 6th edition, coauthored with his daughter Leslie Hewitt and nephew John Suchocki; and Conceptual Integrated Science, 3rd edition, with coauthors Suzanne Lyons, John Suchocki, and Jennifer Yeh. All are published by Pearson Education.

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