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Riskiest Subjects to Teach

All subjects have their unique challenges for teachers, but I submit that chemistry, physical education, shop, and driver training are in a class of their own, which puts their teachers under special stress.

The latest reminder came from New York City, where a common chemistry experiment at Beacon High School went horribly wrong ("School Experiment That Burned Boy Was Focus of Federal Warning," The New York Times, Jan. 4).  Despite a video warning by the United States Chemical Safety Board to its 60,000 subscribers about the dangers of demonstrating how different substances produce flames of different colors because of their varying properties, one 16-year-old was left in critical condition when flames melted the skin on his face and body.  Another 16-year-old escaped with first-degree burns on her torso.

This tragedy was inevitable because lab safety education is required for science teacher certification in only seven states. Although the safety board has documented at least seven similar accidents, the experiment continues unabated across the country.  It's hard to understand why in light of the potential for harm to both students and teachers.  

But I hasten to point out that chemistry labs are not the only venue for accidents or death.  Physical education is a prime example.  Trampolines, parallel bars and ropes have been the cause of past accidents.  Shop is another because of the presence of power tools.  Even driver training is not immune.

There is no way to completely eliminate the intrinsic hazards of these subjects. The best we can do is to minimize them by making safety education mandatory for teacher certification in these fields. Then schools have to follow through with frequent inspections to assure that teachers are strictly adhering to all safety precautions and that equipment is well maintained. Finally, teachers need to attend classes offering the latest updates in order to retain their certification.  

When students are injured, they are properly the immediate concern.  But the guilt that teachers carry with them for the rest of their lives is unbearable. Just as many members of the armed forces return home from battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, I think teachers also are potential victims.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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