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Physicist comes down to Earth, landing in the public school system

April, 2010

As the offspring of teachers, my childhood was a hodgepodge of family friends who were teachers.

While I have never found any evidence to support the saying “those who can’t do, teach” among the teachers in my life, it is a pleasure to encounter someone who nullifies that, such as Richard Simon of Beurling Academy.

Simon was contemplating retirement when he received a call two years ago from the board of directors of Montreal’s Hebrew Academy. They’d lost their physics, math and chemistry teacher the day before school started.

“They were in a bit of a panic,” Simon recalled. “They called me up and said: ‘You could do it, right?’ ”

It was a one-year contract, but the following school year, Simon found himself teaching math and science at Beurling Academy in Verdun.

Simon grew up in the Bronx, N.Y. He attended Columbia and New York University, earning a PhD in physics, which he later taught at NYU. As a graduate student he developed a Kalman filter (a filter used to track enemy submarines) still in use.

He worked for NASA, the Space Flight Center and Houston Mission Control, helping build the first lunar module.

The think tank Rand Corporation, which was seeking PhDs to develop mathematical algorithms for the U.S. Navy, found a prime candidate in Simon, who would go on to become an expert in electronic warfare and radar.

At Unisys corporation, he headed such projects as the Trudeau-era Canadian Patrol Frigate Program, that oversaw the construction of 12 warships for the Canadian Forces, the largest military program in the history of Canada.

“Going into teaching was a late-life thing. I was sort of in between things when the teaching opportunity arose. I was always tutoring friends’ kids in physics and chemistry, kids at McGill, kids at Dawson, kids in high school, and then when this high school thing happened, I remember my daughter’s reaction: ‘You? You’re gonna become a high school teacher? After all the things you’ve done?’ ”

“I’ve done,” Beurling Academy’s Richard Simon says, “and now I teach.” Photo courtesy of the Beurling Academy

“I sat down with them and told them I believe in them and know they can do it.”

But Simon insists he’s gotten more satisfaction from teaching than he did from a lot of “those other things.”

“Those other things may have been more intellectually stimulating. The creative side of me may have come out more as I was managing people and technology and solving some very complicated programs, but when you see the lights come on in a kid’s eyes when he gets it – it doesn’t happen all the time.”

Simon spoke of the joy in seeing a kid who “was not doing that well get turned on by something I might have said in class.” After asking a question, some students decide to pursue something they wouldn’t normally take an interest in with more intellectual curiosity, he said.

“I have some kids who normally would not pass but who are passing now because I sat down with them and told them I believe in them and I know they can do it.”

Asked about the challenges of migrating into the public school system, which has a lower graduation rate, Simon said the shift in the level of academic ambition was a big change, but that he enjoys the experience and likes the kids.

“The kids like that anecdotal stuff about my life or about the experiences that I had, things I can relate to them. I was worried at first about the kids identifying with me, but I joke around with them a lot. I’m pretty relaxed. Kids call me chill. We can talk about anything and I don’t flinch. They try to take me down to a level where they think they’re going to embarrass me but it’s not going to happen. I’ve been there, I’ve done all those things.”

Simon, who also coaches the basketball team, said he enjoys teaching alongside enthusiastic, innovative new teachers more than with those who are jaded and are already calculating their pensions.

I throw it out there: Those who can’t do, teach.

“I’ve done,” he said, “and now I teach. A teacher with work experience brings another kind of richness to the teaching. Those who are not able to do are not able to teach.”

Simon offered advice to others who’ve done and might want to teach: “It certainly is a very rewarding career for seniors who want to

go back to work. There are a lot of opportunities out there for people who have a world of information and can share it.”



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