5 Questions for physics/astrophysics teacher Jon Bretan

Jon and Travis

Jon and Travis

You’ve been a teacher for seven years. What drew you to teaching?

I wanted a job with health insurance. [laughter] I had been working in Berkeley as guitar repairperson and saw openings in Marin for science teachers. I saw an opening at Novato High (my alma mater) for a physics teacher—the teacher who had been my teacher was retiring. So I applied and got the job. After a few months of teaching I got sucked in—it felt right from the get-go. When I studied physics in college I thought I would get a PhD. After a while, being at the forefront studying a tiny slice didn’t have the allure anymore. I like the big ideas, and sharing them with high school students is the right thing for me. I am also able to keep learning. I don’t need to be an expert on something obscure. It’s more fun for me that way.

Jon demonstrates an experiment

Jon demonstrates an experiment

What are some of these big ideas, and how do you incorporate them into your classes?

This year I’m teaching advanced physics and astrophysics. In astrophysics, we started by looking at what humans saw when they first started looking at the sky, the original perspective. Thousands of years ago we looked up and saw pictures and we reviewed the story of how civilization started. I incorporate that into what we know now. With physics, we look at very simple situations but from a deeper perspective. For example, you can see things moving up and down on a spring, but what’s really happening there?  We’re looking at the world a different way. That perspective change is what I like to share.

Do you think a teacher can teach curiosity, or do kids just come with it? Is it a teacher’s job to evoke curiosity?

Everyone has curiosity, and people want to know more stuff. As a teacher, it’s very important that you and your students don’t lose it. As long as you are curious about the subject you’re teaching, it’s infectious, and will trigger the innate curiosity of anyone. We’re all curious about everything, but people like some subjects more than others. I studied physics in college because it interests me. This is what I read when I go home at night. It fascinates me. If you are very curious about something in particular, you can pull that out of someone else. I wouldn’t be a good bio teacher because I don’t have that same level of curiosity. But I can do it in astro and physics.

Jon in the classroom

Jon in the classroom

What’s the next thing that you want to learn?

What I really like doing is developing curriculum. You can do research and relearn topics in the process of doing this. It reinforces my knowledge. I like to start from scratch each year. I’m still learning a lot about how to develop my courses, but I keep everything I come across. At some point I want to share all of it. I want to play a leading role in sharing and developing curriculum.

You’ve been at MA for a year and a half . What keeps you interested?

When I was being interviewed at MA, the thing that struck me was that everyone is really encouraged to bring his or her whole self to work everyday. I say I’m going to school, not going to work—it doesn’t seem like a traditional job. I’m in a job where I’m encouraged to bring all the stuff I love about science, about running, and everything else. That’s the best part. Hopefully down the line I will be able to teach some music too.

Napoleon Dynamite

Halloween 2001 with Napoleon Dynamite: Uncle Rico, Napoleon, Deb, and Pedro


About Travis

Head of School, Marin Academy.
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