Dynamo takes top physics title

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
What makes an award-winning science teacher? Douglas Blane asks Tom Balanowski, Teacher of Physics 2006

Scottish teachers are not often spotted at black tie dos at the Savoy, but Tom Balanowski was at the Institute of Physics annual awards ceremony by special invitation.

"It was lovely, but a bit daunting," says the principal teacher of physics at Linlithgow Academy in West Lothian . "The guests were all wearing medals. I asked one man what his was for. He played it down but it turned out he was a knight of the British Empire."

Each year the Institute of Physics celebrates the achievements of leading physicists from around the world. Past winners include Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Fred Hoyle and Stephen Hawking. It also honours outstanding physics teachers from around the UK. In recent years Scotland has been well represented, with Rhona Goss of Monifieth High (who is quoted on page 5) gaining the Teacher of Physics 2005 award. This year just two of these awards were presented, one to Mr Balanowski, the other to Andrew Davies of Oakham School in Rutland.

"I got a certificate, some money and a nice piece of crystal," says Mr Balanowski. The institute gave him the award for being an outstanding teacher who promotes the joy and value of physics teaching, possesses energy and enthusiasm and motivates pupils of all abilities.

"It's all about relevance, I think," says Mr Balanowski.

"I didn't enjoy physics when I was at school. But the subject has changed.

It's now more about applications and topics related to real life and less about recipes and highly academic physics.

"A lot of kids can relate to medical physics or electronics, even space and black holes. It's not hard to hook kids with what they have seen on television."

Doing physics can be a real conversation stopper, says Mr Balanowski. "But I want to get away from the idea that the subject is hard and most people can't understand it.

"At a certain level you have to get into the maths. But there's so much you can do to widen the appeal of physics."

Workshops that get parents interested through experiments is one effective approach, says Mr Balanowski. "It helps spread the seed. We had 100 parents at our last workshop."

Keeping abreast of new approaches to teaching and technology is vital to retaining pupils' interest. "You're always reviewing things, trying to move forward. If you see kids yawning, you're doing something wrong."

Teaching physics to academic pupils is very satisfying, says Mr Balanowski.

"But most pupils won't go on to study physics.

"Sometimes in my class, the kids will say 'Can we stop early, Sir, and have a blether?' and that's great. They'll come out with all sorts of things that they've seen and you can usually get a physics slant on them. Too often, though, teachers don't have time for that, because we're on the conveyor belt of exams, so kids lose out."

Taking part in activities outside the classroom helps to maintain high levels of enthusiasm after 33 years as a teacher, says Mr Balanowski. "As an Institute of Physics network co-ordinator, I organise meetings for teachers to share good practice."

The publicity generated by winning the award can be uncomfortable at times, admits the Teacher of Physics 2006. "But it was a boost. If I can help other people win now, I will. Lots of good teachers just get on with their jobs and don't get enough recognition.

"It is nice to be appreciated."

To contact the Physics Teacher Network, email Brian Redman bjred10@aol.com

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