- Tim Stephenson talks about how he continues to leverage his passions for science and space.
- Think about what you’re teaching and why you teach and write it down.
- Whether it’s changing the world, sharing resources, helping someone, or contributing to lives that are happy and meaningful, making an impact is what defines success.
Above & Beyond: Making an Impact
Hello again, reader, and welcome back to the Better News blog series!
This is Brad Hughes, school principal and Chief Encouragement Officer from Ontario, Canada.
I’m excited you’re here as we get ready to launch Episode 29 of The Good News, Brad News Podcast, with my guest, Tim Stephenson—a husband and father, high school teacher, author, blogger, podcaster, and TEDx presenter from Langley, British Columbia, Canada.
Tim has made a career out of teaching science, notably through an astronomy course that he created. He made a commitment early on to interact with his students and curriculum in uniquely connective ways, with a stance of curiosity, excitement, and determination to uncover students’ potential.
Tim has thrived on being an educator that brings something just a little bit different to his students and school community. Over the years, Tim’s students have learned to expect the unexpected. He was thrilled when a group of his students nominated him for the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence, an award he received in 2018.
Tim is also the creator of the Science 360 podcast on the Teach Better Podcast Network and the author of Beyond the Classroom—a book that is both a long-form manifesto of Tim’s purpose as a teacher, and a love letter to the promise and potential of a life in education.
I spoke with Tim about how he continues to leverage his passions for science and space for some very down-to-earth reasons. Here are some highlights of our conversation.
Tell me about your journey to becoming the author of Beyond the Classroom.
Way back in the ‘90s, my mom sent me these incredible self-help cassette tapes that I listened to in the car. The speaker was Jim Rohn and he had such an influence on me professionally. A lot of his philosophy is, “Work harder on yourself than you do on your job,” and I just took all of those lessons to heart. In those days I sat down to write—not because I was an experienced teacher, but I felt like I had something to say. Everything about the way that I teach was developed in that writing process.
I ended up with a large manuscript that then sat in obscurity on my hard drive. During the last couple of years, I felt compelled to pull it off the shelf and update it. My original intention was to rewrite a few of the paragraphs, but it turned out that there was just far more. I guess that’s what happens when you have a career of almost 30 years of teaching…you learn a couple of things!
I would encourage everybody to not only think about what you’re teaching and why you teach, but write it down. There’s clarity that comes from the writing process.Think about what you're teaching and why you teach, and then write it down. There's clarity that comes from the writing process. Click To Tweet
Has your ‘why’ of teaching shifted since you wrote that original manifesto?
I think it has shifted, as things will naturally do over the years, but I don’t think it’s shifted radically. I think it’s evolved and it’s become stronger and fitter.
I’ve always approached teaching with this thought in mind: whatever the students are expecting, make it completely different. I want to give kids something that will blow those expectations out of the water. At the beginning of each course, I commit to them that this is going to be different.
I think back to my first years of substitute teaching, and the opportunities I had to listen to students telling me that what they were receiving isn’t what they really wanted, and maybe even needed. I decided then how I’d run my career when I got a classroom: it would not be about what I want, but what they want.I decided that when I got a classroom, it would not be about what I want, but what students want. Click To Tweet
It seems to me that you use the classroom as a launchpad to elevate kids towards greater and greater things.
I do encourage kids to seek out their passions and pursue what they’re good at, and to utilize those talents to the best of their ability in my science class. If there’s an assignment that they can best express their understanding through art, I encourage them to draw me their understanding. If they like to entertain, then make me an audio recording or a video. Do you want to come up in front of the classroom and teach? I’m going to give you the stage.
I’m passionate about what I do in the classroom. Maybe that’s my personality, but maybe it’s because I’ve discovered and keep returning to things I really find interesting. I can see that passion in the students when they’re encouraged to pursue the things that excite them and that they’re talented at. I tell students, “When you find that thing, really go hard after it.”I tell students, “When you find that thing that truly excites you, go hard after it.” Click To Tweet
You’ve written that the most important thing you can do as an educator is to bring a message of hope to young people—to paint for them a picture of their futures. How do you reveal these possibilities?
The number one thing kids need is a sense of connection and I’m very intentional about that. I want what I do for these kids to be memorable. But that starts with just feeling good in the classroom and being accepted and appreciated for who and where they are in life.
If there are students that are disengaged, missing classes, arriving late or leaving early—those are the people that I’ll intentionally go up to and say, “You know, I’m happy that you’re here. I’d like it if you’d be here more often, but I’m glad that you’re here right now.” And I think as soon as they start to feel that sense of worth, they start to reflect or listen a little bit more deeply.
I know that right now they’re only 14 or 15 years old, so I’m always looking at them in the future, not judging them for what they are presently. Relieving that tension and shifting to acceptance make a big difference in the culture of the classroom.I’m always looking at them in the future, not judging them for what they are presently. Relieving tension & shifting to acceptance make a big difference in classroom culture. Click To Tweet
Why design a high school astronomy course, and how can astronomy help us answer some of the big questions that impact us right here on Earth?
If you look at all the sciences, space is the one that makes the news. Most often it’s probably the one that people spend most of their time with. My entire curriculum comes out to shine in all its glory every night. The stars conjure up all kinds of questions about how far and how many and how big and how old and how long, and the sort of philosophical questions that encourage introspection.
The stars are the birthplace of all the elements of the periodic table in chemistry. Perhaps there are planets that harbor life? Well, that’s a study of astrobiology. And of course physics is a natural fit, so all of the sciences are really birthed out of astronomy.
Kids love space. And they rush to class to learn. So I teach it, and it makes my job easier.My entire curriculum comes out to shine in all its glory every night. Click To Tweet
And through astronomy, you’re also leading students and communities back to big questions about sustainability, stewardship, and protecting the planet?
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969, ground control was staffed by a group of engineers and technicians whose average age was 28. In the twelve years after the launch of Sputnik, those high school kids got the education they needed to eventually put two men on the moon.
I’m also a senior chemistry teacher, but I don’t spend all of my time working on textbook-style questions. I do spend my time on atmospheric chemistry, like the chemistry of combustion and energy and electrochemistry. I spend a lot of time on ocean acidification. You know, five out of every 10 breaths you take is oxygen that’s come out of the ocean. I think we should know about the chemistry of the ocean.
I want to see this planet perpetuate into the next generation and beyond. And we’re going to need young people to be educated in the science of the chemistry of the planet—chemistry that is going to have some lasting impact. I highlight the issues that are going on, and provide students with opportunities to explore solutions, stay involved, and make a difference.I wonder why we’re not looking at our current global climate challenge as an education issue. Click To Tweet [scroll down to keep reading]
What’s your wildest dream for your students today?
In my book I talk about the ‘butterfly effect’—how the flap of a butterfly wing may result in a hurricane somewhere around the world. My wildest dream is that hurricanes are being started because of the work of students who have passed through my classroom. And I think that’s starting to happen! I love the opportunity through social media to be in contact with students who have moved on years after graduation. They tell me they’re doing things they find meaningful, and they enjoy the opportunity to share what they’ve learned over the years.
Isn’t that the goal of teaching—to know you’re doing something that has an impact? Whether it’s changing the world, or sharing resources, helping someone, or contributing to lives that are happy and meaningful—that’s success.My wildest dream is that hurricanes are being started because of the work of students who have passed through my classroom. Click To Tweet
Be sure to check out my full conversation with Tim Stephenson, coming soon in Episode 29 of The Good News, Brad News Podcast!
Connect with Tim!
About Brad Hughes
Brad is an elementary school principal in Ontario, Canada with over 25 years’ experience in education. He is currently at Forest Hill Public School in the Waterloo Region District School Board. Before school leadership, Brad taught for 16 years in classrooms from Kindergarten to eighth grade, most recently teaching middle school Visual Arts, French and Special Education.
Brad is a certified Self-Reg School Champion and has an ongoing commitment to reframing the joys and challenges of school life through a Self-Reg lens. He’s passionate about improving kids’ lives by loving and supporting the adults that serve them.
Brad is a Training & Development Specialist with the Teach Better Team, a Teach Better blogger, an Admin Mastermind facilitator, and the host of The Good News, Brad News Podcast on the Teach Better Podcast Network. You can also catch Brad with Rae Hughart Friday mornings at 7 ET/6 CT on the Teach Better Daily Drop In morning show.