We all know someone who has had a passion for his or her chosen career dating back to middle or high school. That’s Patrick Hemmingsen, the science department chair and AP and IB chemistry teacher at Raymore-Peculiar High School. He loved biology as a student, and his AP biology teacher in high school encouraged him to become a teacher. But chemistry? Patrick hated it in high school, loathed it in college. So why does he teach it?
“A chemistry position came open during a time of layoffs and cutbacks, and I took it,” Patrick said. “I didn’t want to be fired.”
Now he loves the subject, but he admits that teaching more accelerated students can be a challenge when their curiosity expands beyond his understanding.
“They like to play ‘Stump the Teacher,’” Patrick said. “When I’m teaching something, they’ll say, ‘But what about this – did you think about that?’ I’ll go to Google and project the information on the screen so we all learn it together.”
Patrick said those sorts of challenges from students help keep him motivated. The students also learn that they can research information on their own. Teaching IB chemistry also helps him help his students see the relevance of science in a broader arena. Students learn why science is important to the world, how different countries might see science in different ways, and how those viewpoints can have ramifications in the U.S.
“I don’t want to be replaced by the Internet,” Patrick said, “but I want students to be able to find answers on their own because someday they’ll have to do it on their own.”
Patrick is in his 10th year in the Raymore-Peculiar district. In 2016, he was named District Teacher of the Year and then Missouri Central Region Teacher of the Year. He said those awards are a big deal to him.
“I keep the plaque by my desk,” he said. “The other candidates were accomplished, veteran teachers, so to be recognized in my district, let alone the region, let me know that all the long nights, working weekends and summer conferences were worth it.”
Patrick said his students were over the moon when he won the awards, but they still like to poke fun.
“They’ll say, ‘You’re the Teacher of the Year. You should know how to do this,’” he said.
Patrick’s lessons stay with his students. He said he hears from a few each year, and one student recently stopped by the school to let Patrick know that his classes had been challenging and difficult, but the student knows they helped him prepare for college and for life. Another student who began Patrick’s classes lacking confidence in his science knowledge has scored in the high 90th percentile at Rockhurst University.
Patrick said he believes we are in a new age of learning. In the past, students were limited to an instructor’s understanding of a subject and the lessons in their textbooks. Now, Patrick sees the teacher’s role as more of a facilitator, giving students guidance and the self-assurance to find information for themselves.
“People tell themselves, “I’ve never been good at (fill in the blank),” Patrick said, reflecting on his distaste for chemistry as a high school and college student. “I’m living proof that you can become good at something through dedication, inspiration and a willingness to make mistakes. I want my students to see me as imperfect. It’s how you react to setbacks that makes you a stronger person.”
Helping students strive for greater learning is a passion for Patrick, as it is for other Missouri teachers. A quote on Patrick’s email signature expresses that passion:
“Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon and tread marks on Mars.”