Long before he taught physics in Beachwood, Michael Lerner left home to teach abroad in post-Communist Warsaw—in the process, he learned to grapple with uncertainty.
May 19, 2016
To him, it was a logical decision. Michael Lerner was twenty-one, an adult, ready to embrace any opportunity that came to him. After getting his undergraduate degree at Yale, he decided to move to Warsaw, Poland to teach high school physics.
His mother did not want her son to go live halfway around the world. “I don’t care,” he told her. “I’m doing this. I get to make a decision.” She was not happy. Oh well.
No, he would not go back to live in Florida. This was the 90s—going home to “try to find yourself” was unheard of. Nor would he go back to school to get his teaching credentials, at least not right away. After sixteen years of being a student, Lerner was ready to do something else; he wanted to try out life as an adult.
He considered an offer to become a middle school computer room coordinator at a school in Düsseldorf, but eventually he resolved against it. He wanted to teach. He had wanted to teach since the seventh grade. And Warsaw was the only place that would let him.
His first experiences in this new chapter of his life did not live up to his expectations. Nothing about the circuitous journey from Florida to Warsaw—an indirect flight stopping in both New York and Germany—had been enjoyable. He slept poorly on the flight, so he trekked through the airport in a groggy fuzz, dried sweat sticking to his body. In his irritable state, he had to deal with the suspicious Polish customs agents who pulled him aside to look through his extra cases. Annoyed and exhausted, Lerner explained, “they are SWEATERS!”
The head of the American School of Warsaw, along with Lerner’s soon-to-be roommate David, picked him up from the airport that morning. The head of the school handed Lerner a two million zloty note, the largest Polish banknote in 1994, worth $80 at the time. They drove to an apartment block on the edge of the Warsaw, where many of the city’s expats lived. The buildings were lined up like gray, concrete dominoes, turned at angles every so often to match the contour of the curved brick road. This is where Lerner would live for the next two years.
After Lerner arrived at his building, David, who had already lived in Warsaw for a week, announced that he was going away for the weekend.
“So, I’m trying to learn Polish,” he said. “I met a girl named Eva, and I’m going to Eva’s country home. You can come with us if you want, or you can stay in the apartment by yourself for the next two days.”
Lerner was exhausted and disoriented from the long flight. He wasn’t sure if all of his luggage made it all the way to Warsaw, and he had barely gotten a chance to settle in. Still, not wanting to be alone in Poland with little knowledge of the language or culture, Lerner reluctantly agreed to go. The next few hours felt like a blur as his consciousness ebbed away. He found himself following David onto a train, barely aware of where it was taking him or what would happen when he got there.
The train transported them into the countryside at 200 kilometers per hour, foreign landscapes rushing past the window. Lerner and David somehow ended up in a crowded little cabin way out in the woods, and as Lerner sat down to try to make sense of the situation, his mind was badgered by the sounds of people conversing in halting English and the stench of a snarling dog that had no kindness to share with the foreigner.
The day after they returned, Lerner and his roommate went out for pizza and sodas. The cost was 120,000 zloty for the two of them … or about five bucks.
Lerner took out the two million zloty note that the head of the school had given him, thinking that he had to break this bill eventually. When the waitress saw the note on the table, she jumped back in shock. She didn’t know what to do with it. She left the restaurant in a frantic search for change; this restaurant was clearly not accustomed to dealing with such large bills.
Lerner soon realized that his $10,000 salary made him rich in Warsaw. Once a month, he received five crisp $100 bills of spending money from the bank. After living in Poland for some time, he decided to perform an experiment: for one month, he would try to spend as much of this $500 monthly payout as he could. Excluding clothes and electronics, which were tremendously expensive in Warsaw, he indulged in all the other pleasures in life. He ate every meal at a restaurant. He traveled by taxi instead of the public bus. He bought every book that caught his eye. Still, he couldn’t spend it all. It goes without saying that Lerner had little trouble paying off his future grad school fees.
To get to the American School of Warsaw every day, Lerner walked through the few blocks of the apartment complex and across a plaza of several restaurants, a café with delicious French fries, and a kiosk that sold Prince Polos, Lerner’s favorite Polish chocolate bars. He learned to carefully wait for the light before crossing the main road, where policemen hid behind bushes in order to catch jaywalkers.
The American School of Warsaw was in an old, concrete, two-story monastery—barely large enough to house a school. As a result, class sizes were small; Lerner taught a class with just four students, and his largest class held just thirteen. That was all his tiny classroom in the basement could sustain. He was assigned to teach four classes: Theory of Knowledge (an IB course), Remedial Geometry, Algebra 1 and tenth grade Physics.
As a half-time teacher, Lerner taught straight through the morning until 11 o’clock. The other half of the day was meant for planning his curriculum and talking with other teachers. It was exhausting work, especially for a novice teacher, and he felt the constant pressure to develop the curriculum for his four courses faster than he was teaching them.
There was one section of the high school that held a special place in Lerner’s heart: the top floor. Up the stairs, past a couple of offices, and underneath the dormers that gave the room the narrow shape and intimacy of an attic, the couch in the teacher’s lounge awaited him. After what felt like a triathlon of a morning, Lerner often came here to recover. He was supposed to be working on the next day’s lessons, which he mostly tried to do, but … sometimes he fell asleep instead, Prince Polo wrappers stuck within the cushion cracks beneath him.
Teaching Polish students in English posed an interesting challenge, as each student had a different level of fluency. One of Lerner’s eighth graders, Tadeusz, was what Lerner called “bi-illiterate.” He was a native Polish speaker who had gone to American school since kindergarten. As a result he was never formally educated in Polish, but he had never really caught onto English either. He spoke only in the present progressive tense, his vocal intonation rising at the end of each clause.
“I am going up to this girl…,” Tadeusz said to Mr. Lerner, “and she is not looking at me… and I am asking her for a dance… and she is slapping me…”
“There are other tenses!” Lerner exclaimed. “You have to know another tense. This tense is crazypants! Why is this the only tense you know?”
There is a Polish curse word, kurwa, which is tremendously versatile. Just like in English, you can use the same curse word in conjunction with various suffixes, prepositions or other words to give the curse word a different meaning or part of speech. Tadeusz was telling a story to his friend, and Lerner kept hearing Tadeusz use the word in its various forms, multiple times a sentence. Finally, Lerner was fed up and said, “Listen, I know I don’t speak Polish, I know it’s my first year here, but you can’t curse like that in my class! I know what that word is. It’s the only bad word I’ve learned so far. If you want to curse, you have to be more creative than that.”
“Ok, Mr. Lerner,” Tadeusz responded, “I am doing that…”
He resumed his story. Halfway through the first sentence, he stopped because he couldn’t think of another way to express himself without using that curse word. His friend was feeding him Polish verbs and nouns, and the kids were all laughing because, Lerner could tell, Tadeusz was trying to say something horribly nasty. He would pick one of the words and continue, but then would stop again before he reached the end of the sentence. This kid could only curse in one language and speak in one tense in another.
Lerner recently discovered Tadeusz is now a real estate agent in Warsaw.
Every time Lerner assigned his Theory of Knowledge students to write an essay, he would spend a week grading their work. He only had four students’ essays to grade. Other teachers graded eighty in the same time, but Lerner wanted to put all of his energy into giving valuable feedback to his students. Twenty-one year old Lerner believed all good teachers did this.
Sitting down at his desk in the afternoon, Lerner began by reading through an essay. He read it again, this time scrutinizing it a little more carefully. He grabbed a separate sheet of paper and proceeded to give feedback. Rather than jotting down comments directly onto the essay, Lerner numbered certain spots on the page, writing corresponding paragraphs of feedback on the separate sheet of paper. By the end of the hour, he had finished grading a single essay, and the sheet of comments extended further down the page than the student’s own work did. He patted himself on the back for his thoroughness and instinct for teaching.
“That amount of feedback does nothing for a kid, by the way, doesn’t do anything,” Lerner realized many years later.
Some of it was enjoyable for him to write, though. He will always remember coining the term “blissfully content-free.” He commented this on papers when students would write something that sounded nice, but showed no real knowledge of the topic. This, he came to recognize, is a very common high school tactic. Ignorance is bliss after all, but it won’t get you far in Lerner’s classroom.
It wasn’t difficult to find friends where he lived. Warsaw had a large English-speaking community, and as a teacher at an American school, he found himself immersed in it. Most of the teachers were fellow expats who lived in the same apartment complex as he did. Lerner became good friends with Jack, who taught history, and Liz, who taught English.
Liz was and continues to be obsessed with learning. She had learned Polish as a Slavic language and literature major at Brown. After she left Poland, “she got her Master’s degree in teaching at Harvard,” Mr. Lerner recalls, “and after being there for a couple years, she decided ‘I’m gonna go get my law degree!’ And after the law degree, ‘I’m gonna get my PhD in East Asian studies!’ Everybody was just like just stop, just stop learning things. Just get a job. She has a job now. She’s a law professor.”
Lerner and his friends would often eat at restaurants together, and over the months he developed “flawless restaurant Polish.” After ordering in Polish, the mixed group of expats would converse in English. These people were all pursuing different dreams and came from all sorts of backgrounds, but the one thing that linked them together was the experience of leaving home, an experience that had been both exhilarating and terrifying, both fulfilling and lonely, both freeing and isolating at the same time.
Lerner’s strongest memories of living overseas come from the winter break of 1994. He had just become friends with Liz and Jack and agreed to go along on a trip to Rome to usher in the New Year. Liz’s boyfriend and brother, and Jack’s brother came along as well, and they all sat through a twenty hour train ride to Rome.
An hour before midnight, Liz and her boyfriend would be found on the roof of the hotel, feuding with each other in a mix of Polish and English; Jack and his brother would be found as far away from each other as possible, after fuming over a dispute about borrowed money; Liz’s brother would be found in Lerner’s hotel room, sick as a dog, throwing up in the toilet; and Lerner would be found anxiously sitting on his bed, having no idea where his place was in all the mess.
He was alone.
Lerner decided to abandon the hotel and walk on his own to the Spanish Steps. This was a bad idea; the Steps were crowded with people screaming and shouting, drunk with beer. Some were carelessly throwing firecrackers on the Steps. He spent the last seconds before the New Year staring at the chaos.
What was he doing? Why the hell had he come to Warsaw? Why had he chosen this place, halfway across the world? There was no teacher to tell him the answers. Instead, he had become the teacher. He had wanted to experience the freedom of adulthood, but in the process, he needed to dive into the lake of uncertainty; he was forced to abandon all that he thought he knew and relearn how to live, like a child experiencing the world for the first time.
Sometimes, he was close to drowning. He was frustrated with teaching; he was lecturing his students instead of letting them think for themselves, giving too many answers instead of asking enough questions, and as a consequence, students were memorizing instead of understanding. At one point, he wanted to throw his students’ essays down the stairs—“blissfully content-free” written on every single page—and give the highest grade to whichever one fell the farthest.
As a twenty-one year old in 1994, he thought he could figure out how to be an adult on his own. He wasn’t totally wrong.
“You kind of make it up,” Mr. Lerner explains. “Nobody really knows what’s gonna happen. You fake it enough times until you actually know what you’re supposed to do.”
Twenty-one years later, Mr. Lerner now teaches AP Physics courses at Beachwood High School. His students work in groups on difficult kinematics questions involving the algebraic relationships between time, velocity, acceleration and distance. We grab the large whiteboards in the corner of the room, drawing out our ideas of what the graphs look like for each situation. We remember a previous lab in which we took various measurements of cars accelerating down ramps and begin to match our theoretical reasoning with reality. Some arguments arise over how to approach a problem, but after some discussion within the group, everyone usually reaches consensus on a solution. Meanwhile, Mr. Lerner sits back in his chair, observing his classroom full of churning minds.
There is one problem left in the packet: what is the acceleration of rocks that start from rest and travel 2x meters in t seconds? The students hesitate; this problem is difficult to visualize without concrete numbers. Some think that the final velocity must be distance over time, or 2x/t. Others see the reasoning behind their thinking, but they remember that displacement is the area under the velocity-time graph, which, after a few calculations, would make final velocity 4x/t. No one is sure his or her own thinking is one-hundred percent correct.
Mr. Lerner urges us to get back together as a group. He wants to give us a hint, to guide us to the right line of thinking, but we resist; we are determined to figure it out on our own.
That is, after all, what Mr. Lerner has taught us to do. He provides the experiences that reshape and deepen our model of the natural world, and then he casts us off, leaving us with only the tools he has armed us with so that we may develop the right solution on our own. Even though we are often confused and uncertain, the process of thinking is more important than getting to the correct answer right away.
Mr. Lerner draws two velocity-time graphs on the board, each graph representing the two ideas floating around the room, and lets us continue to think and build on each others’ ideas. It is easy to see when students become aware of their own misconceptions, which often results in an audible “ohh!” What is less visually obvious, but just as valuable, is when understanding, curiosity and pride are fostered in students’ minds from solving a conceptual problem using reasoning and experience.
Mr. Lerner writes daily blog posts, summarizing and reflecting on his class each day. In the blog, he writes:
One of the hardest things about teaching is realizing, every day, sometimes with just a few students, sometimes with all of them, you, as the teacher, didn’t do what was best for the class … I started my teaching career lecturing. The more I taught, the more I gave activities, but I still kept giving way too many hints. I wanted to teach over their thinking … I realized their thinking is the most important part. I want to change their thinking, their approach to seeing the physical world.
Lerner gained a lot from living abroad in Poland. With little guidance or familiarity, he struggled; he made mistakes; he experienced the world for the first time again; and in the end he came out a teacher, an adult and a learner.
When teaching physics, he forces us into uncomfortable situations, pushing us to rethink our intuitions of how the universe works. A baseball and a bowling ball dropped from the same height will still hit the ground at the same time. The electric and magnetic forces are really one and the same. Light has properties of both a particle and a wave. Time and space are inextricably bound together.
Then he steps back. He is prepared to let us struggle, to let us suffer through confusion; no hints, no answers, because he knows this process allows us to develop our own insights and take control of our own understanding. He knows this because he has experienced it himself. Through physics, he has taught us to become our own teachers … so that when it is our turn to face the uncertainty of the world, we are able to become our own learners.