Meet Mr. James, Payton’s new physics teacher

By Isabelle Guey, Contributor

Mr. James went to St. Louis University for aerospace engineering from 2001-2005.

Paw Print: Why did you decide to become a teacher?

Mr. James: That’s a good question. It wasn’t an immediate epiphany. It happened over about 20 years. My first time through college was back in 2001 to 2005, and I went to St. Louis University for aerospace engineering. And then fast forward like 10 years, hated that world, and then moved on to sales. Didn’t like that, then moved on to logistics. That worked out for a little bit. But then I met my partner, now my wife, who was a teacher at UIC in the archaeology department, getting her PhD, and she would always come home every day saying how enjoyable it was. And here’s me coming back from my work just drained and not happy and not fulfilled. And I always knew that she was so happy. Every time she came home, there were always stories about the students, stories about, “Oh, I’m planning this lesson doing this.” It seemed so rewarding. Then I started thinking about past times when I felt genuinely happy tutoring students in math and science because I had my degree in engineering and I was like, “Wait a minute.” It was kind of a self-reflective moment and maybe the only time I truly felt happy and rewarding earning money, or doing actual work, was when I was tutoring. And that got a conversation going where I ended up going back to school to get my degree in physics and get my teaching certification. I’d say the short answer is through conversations with my wife, the long answer is after years of trying things out, and not being fulfilled, I finally realized my calling, and I love science.I want to impart that passion on students.

Paw Print: So you and your wife are both teachers?

Mr. James: She left the teaching role. She still works in  academia at a university, but she’s on the staff. She works for DePaul and their college of education. So, she doesn’t teach but within the next two years, she did say she wants to start again. But she taught for 15 years. At one point, both her and I taught, but not right now.”

Paw Print: Why Payton and why physics?

Mr. James:  Walter Payton has such not only a city-wide notoriety, but worldwide, it’s one of the top high schools in the country and the world and it’s centered in what I think is the greatest city in the world. A lot of the modern education reform started out of Chicago. Back in the early days, University of Chicago had this laboratory school, run by someone named Dooley, who kind of started the progressive education movement. So being in the heart of all this is awesome as an educator.I think teaching the caliber of students here, it’s so diverse and wide range of learning needs and styles. It’s challenging and rewarding. I like the challenge and coming here lets me feel fulfilled. But also, I like going into work being challenged every day. That’s something I never really had before. So that’d be my answer to why I’m here for physics specifically. To me, physics offers a framework of interpreting the world that’s very physical and observation based, so we can model things off what we see, observe, record in graphs and data, and then we make sense of it. That’s the way my brain works. I also like how, depending on what topic you’re teaching, there’s generally an experiment that you could set up that’s very physical, and students can interact with it. I’m not saying that biology and chemistry don’t have that. They do, but their experiments are more about deep insight, you have to think of it on the molecular level. In freshmen and AP Physics we’re thinking on the macroscopic, the big level. I like how interactive it is. Also, it’s a way to just describe what’s going on around us. I like how difficult it is. The more you learn physics, the more stuff you realize you don’t know about the world. And I like that. That’s always been something about my personality. I like being challenged. I also like being challenged by students. Difficult concepts that I might not explain well the first, second, third time, based off of trial and error with students just doing experiments, eventually, we will together, come up with a solution that will work for years to come. I like that how the material is challenging- it challenges students, but it also challenges me because I might have learned one way and that resonates with me, but if I’m teaching that, or students are like, “No, I don’t like that explanation,” then it starts getting me to think, “Wait a minute, maybe the way I’m doing it is wrong. And maybe I have to figure out a better way.”

Paw Print: What’s been your favorite experience with the Payton community so far?

Mr James:  When I first walked in the building, I was meeting fellow teachers and staff..They were all so happy to see each other after a long summer withCOVID still going on. But after being remote for so long, it seemed like they were running into long, long lost friends, but not skipping a beat, like ‘how have you been’ and that’s the environment I have not seen too much at other schools. Other schools have been very, like “You’re friendly within your department, but not so much. outside your department.” Here, it seems like teachers in math talk to teachers in English and teachers in science talk to teachers in P.E. And then with students I like how there’s a diverse array of backgrounds of socioeconomic status, ethnic identities, gender identities, and seeing all of you collaborate together, starting different clubs, interacting with each other, in enrichments and seminars, and obviously in class too. I think this is a room where we could branch off into the world and hopefully change it for the better. I think Walter Payton offers a very good base to do that as l you all become future leaders in whatever field you want to go into.

Paw Print: What impact do you hope to have at Payton?

Mr. James:  I always like to think  in terms of impact. I like to break it down into  my short term goals and my long term goals. So my short-term goals, because I am a newer teacher, I just want my students to leave the classroom after my first year here, feeling fulfilled- feeling like they’ve learned something, maybe not actual physics content, that’s obviously a bonus. But especially for freshmen, I want them to leave having the tools they need to succeed, not only in the classroom but outside. That’s my ultimate goal. If they learn physics on the way, that’s cool, too. But I think learning how to be respectful of each other, how to work together, collaborate, disagree with someone’s opinions without disagreeing with them as a person is my immediate goal. My long-term goal is to hopefully change the ethnic and racial demographics of who takes high-level AP science classes here. Right now, not a lot of students of color are taking AP Physics. And to me, that’s a problem. We look at our city, it’s very diverse. Our science classrooms should be very diverse. That’s not what we’re seeing. So my long-term goal is to try and partner with students and with teachers. With all the affinity spaces we have here, various students of color, Black Student Union, the Hispanic students have one, Asian students, everyone has some sort of affinity group. We can partner together to figure out ways that work for all of us, so we’re all being represented equitably in AP. That’s my long-term goal.

Paw Print: What do you think is the best way students can use what they learn in your class?

Mr. James: To be successful in science, I think, by starting off in physics that teaches you pattern recognition and collaboration. I think the best way they can use these is to just simply show up prepared to every class in the future- chemistry, biology-and be ready to participate. Be willing to admit you’re wrong. If someone has evidence that proves whatever you’re saying is incorrect, be graceful about it. But also be willing to share your own opinion about something if you have evidence to back it up. I think that translates well outside the classroom, too. And some discussion tools in here would hopefully translate to the outside. I think that the best way to use tools  here is to learn how to be collaborative. And then for my seniors, since we’re dealing with college, trying to get college credit for physics,  the best way they can use what they learned in the classroom is to get a five on an AP exam and get their college credit, or if they want to be engineers or physicists or chemists or  something in STEM, they have a full year now of college or base material, that when they’re going into their first year of university, if they’re taking Physics I or Physics II, it’s all review. So that way it could be a nice stepping stone for them like, “Okay, I already took a year of college physics. I’m going to take it again. Let’s breathe, let’s get used to the university.” So I think if they went through the class and learned enough, it’s a nice padding that they can go into college with at least feeling comfortable in one class.

Paw Print: What would you be doing if you never became a teacher?

Mr James: Oh, that’s a good question. I think if I never became a teacher, I’d probably be a musician. I always love playing bass guitar, playing drums. I would definitely want to be in a band. I tried it in my early 20s. I tried it. It did not work. But if I never fell into teaching this way, maybe I would still be convincing myself I could do it and failing at it. So I’m glad I’m a teacher. Let’s put it that way.

Paw Print: That’s a great segue into our last question. We know you run the Metal Music Friday enrichment. Who are some of your favorite artists/bands?

Mr. James: That changes often by year. But my favorite band is always Rush. Always. They’re a band from Canada. They’re a trio. Unfortunately, the drummer died a few years ago, but they started in the late 60s. Second favorite band, it’s a progressive metal band called Dream Theater. I’ve seen them quite a few times. Tool is my third favorite band right now. This could change, but also, even though I run metal music, my music taste is very diverse. I love hip hop. One of my favorite hip-hop groups right now is Run the Jewels. Also Old-school hip hop. Rakim is, I think, the best MC ever. So if people aren’t listening to him, they should be. And I also listen to  ABBA and stuff like that. I love Motown music. So just because I run Metal Music Friday doesn’t mean I only listen to metal.

Paw Print: Any final thoughts?

Mr. James: I’m just genuinely really excited to be at Payton. From the about four weeks here so far, I’m getting the sense students are, we all are, figuring this out together. Being away from a classroom for a year and a half and trying to get back into it is fun and rewarding when it works. And when it doesn’t, I have the personality, and I hope students do too, of not taking everything personally. If something doesn’t work, we’ll try it again the next day, and we’ll do it better. And if that doesn’t work out, We’ll try it again in a different way. And hopefully, we’ll figure this out together because  it’s been a year and a half that we haven’t been in here. And I think some of us are slowly getting accustomed to it. But  it takes time. So  my takeaway is we’ll all succeed. We just have to give each other space to do it. 

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