December 2018: Bree Barnett Dreyfuss
Amador Valley High School, Pleasanton, California
Bree Barnett Dreyfuss
- Member since 2009
- High School Teacher
- Pleasanton, California
I walked into AP Physics C Mechanics in high school having no idea what physics was. I signed up for the class because it was the next class I was “supposed” to take. My school offered regular or AP Physics and my counselor said I should do the latter purely based on grades. I was never asked if I was interested in studying science, she just wanted my transcript to “look good” for college. The class was difficult, in fact I got a C my first quarter, something I had apparently blocked from my memory until I recently saw an old report card. We had so little equipment in my school that my teacher once showed us a picture of an air track in a catalog and told us we might play with one in college. We didn’t have enough copies of textbooks so we used binders of photocopied pages of old Halliday & Resnick problems. Yet a lot of stuff just clicked for me in physics, I enjoyed the fact that you could follow a scenario through the equations and it could confirm your predictions. I had always planned to be a science teacher and had decided to major in chemistry until I took physics. When I decided to switch my major to physics for college applications there were mixed reactions. Extended family and friends were confused why I chose something many others thought was “so hard” and why I, being female, was even interested in physics. Not surprisingly the underlying bias that I would be unsuccessful was motivating.
I could not move away to a college dorm and could not go to my first choice school because of the cost. I was very rude to my parents for the rest of my senior year when I had to turn down my acceptance to the expensive private school, thinking as most teenagers do that my life was over. I commuted to the local California State University, Hayward (now East Bay) which ended up being a great fit for me. I earned a scholarship that paid for my last two years, got elected to student government, joined Alpha Phi Fraternity, worked on campus and developed a strong network of friends from small classes. I returned to Hayward the following year for the credential program and found a job in a local district the next.
In my first year of teaching I attended local Physics Teacher SOS (PTSOS) workshops and was accepted to the Exploratorium’s New teacher Institute. Both programs supported me with content help, allowed me to reflect on my pedagogy and learn about labs and activities my students loved. Together they taught me more about how to successfully teach physics than my credential program. I would attend workshops on Saturday and use the activities on Monday. Attending PTSOS lead to attending local AAPT section meetings for the Northern California/ Nevada section of AAPT. Becoming more involved at the local level I gained confidence to attend national AAPT meetings when they were geographically close. I earned my Masters in Teacher Leadership from St. Mary’s College of California, my first choice college that I hadn’t been able to attend. I did not seriously consider earning a Masters in Physics despite graduating Cum Laude from CSUH and having confidence in my teaching ability because I did not think I knew “enough” physics to enroll in a graduate level physics program.
After a few years I was asked to become a mentor and coach for the New Teacher Institute, helping brand new science teachers as the program helped me. I loved being a coach and helping new teachers improve their craft. Coaches and mentors often joke we learn as much from our new teachers as they learn from us and it is true! When I was first asked to teach workshops at the Exploratorium, however, I was so nervous. I did not think I had enough experience to share anything as an authority. My mentors and teacher friends encouraged me and soon I also began presenting at local section meetings, wrote blog posts for the Blog of Phyz and took a position within NCNAAPT. I became the VP of Marketing for NCNAAPT, helping communicate to members, with social media outreach, and publicizing meetings. Even as I presented locally more often I found myself comparing my years of experience to others, as if there was some magical year of teaching that meant you became an “expert” worthy of presenting. I often suffer from stereotype threat meaning that if I make a mistake, ask a dumb question or even if I take too long to answer a question I worry I have confirmed that “girls can’t do physics.”
With the support of my own mentors in time I presented at national AAPT meetings and co-authored a paper submitted to The Physics Teacher this year. Without the encouragement and not so gentle insistence of others I held in high esteem, I would still just be passively attending meetings. I believe I am a good teacher but lacked the confidence to share in front of my peers earlier in my career. And there are others like me.
Each year in my physics classes I sigh heavily when I see how few females are on my physics class rosters. Now that I teach AP Physics C myself, the gender breakdown is even worse. So I was very excited to hear about AAPT’s work with the STEP UP 4 Women program. The multi-institution backed program includes two research supported lessons and a list of everyday actions to encourage female high school students to consider majoring in physics. The lessons help students see the benefits of a degree in physics as a path to their career goals and help them see through potential bias to reinforce that they can be “good at physics.” Again I was encouraged to step outside my comfort zone and recently took on a leadership role in the STEP UP 4 Women Ambassador program, a cohort of teachers that will help propagate the lessons and resources to teachers across the country.
I absolutely love teaching physics and could not see myself doing anything else. I have been well supported by my mentors which have encouraged me to take on leadership roles and present my work. I do my best to honor their belief in me by continuing to encourage others to improve their teaching and share their ideas through professional development like AAPT national and section meetings. I am particularly aware that the new teachers I meet that are part of marginalized groups may need extra encouragement to overcome the everyday bias they face. For many, a simple “You should present this!” may be enough to propel them forward. AAPT section and national meetings are a wealth of resources but are only as great as the members that share their work. We all benefit from being exposed to a group of teachers that are diverse in gender, years of experience, cultural background, etc. We owe it to the next generation to encourage them as we were encouraged to help advance the physics education.
I would like to thank those that have been invaluable supporters in my career: Paul “Pablo” Robinson, Dean Baird, Paul Doherty, Don Rathjen, Modesto Tamez, Tory Brady, Zeke Kossover, Tammy Cooks-Endres, David Marasco and many others.