Physics teacher Chris Spalding's scientific career began precociously: growing up in the United Kingdom, he would share facts gleaned from academic articles with any family member ready to listen. After one Ph.D. program and ten years of astrophysics research (and two heavy metal bands), a realization that he loved the act of communicating "something new about the universe" to others brought him to Commonwealth. Keep reading to get to know Mr. Spalding—a tennis player, early riser, and musician in search of drums...
Getting to Know You
Where are you from?
Watertown, just a few miles to the west of Boston.
What is bringing you joy right now?
Teaching. [I've been] revisiting a lot of the physics concepts that inspired me in high school and distilling them into a form that is most inspirational for any generation. That and my dog and my wife, but not in that order.
What is your favorite book (or a book you've re-read)?
Ancestor's Tale by English author Richard Dawkins. It's a book that takes you from the dawn of humans all the way through the evolutionary tree, meeting all sorts of species. Each time you emerge to the sort of trunk of the tree, you get told stories from where that ancestor came from. It was this huge, beautiful way to show how all of life is linked together and how much you can learn by looking at that. Even though I am a physicist, I appreciate that all science is beautiful, and that book really grips everything together well. I believe it's the only book that I've ever reread.
What are your favorite comfort foods?
Well, I'm vegan, so probably Beyond Meat sausages. I like to eat them when I'm feeling low or if it's my birthday.
What was your favorite class in high school?
It was definitely physics. High school in the U.K. is a bit different from here; we do physics every year from middle school onwards. My teacher had all these quotes of famous physicists all around the room, and I almost tried to memorize them so I could attach that inspiration to what I was learning in class.
How would you describe Commonwealth students in three words or less?
Quirky, mature, inquisitive.
Life as a Commonwealth Teacher (and Beyond)
What led you to teaching and to Commonwealth in particular?
I've always loved science. When I was ten or eleven, I would read science articles and tell them to my family. I've always loved that feeling of learning something new about the universe and then sharing it with others, and I thought that meant that I wanted to be a scientist. I went through undergrad and grad school, got a Ph.D., did scientific research for ten years straight on astrophysics, mostly. But it felt like I was spending a year to wring one morsel of new information, rather than learning information that already existed about a million times faster. It took me about ten years of not enjoying doing scientific research to realize what I really liked was sharing that science with others. So it was like a light bulb went on last year: "Oh, maybe I maybe I should do this teaching thing."
I started looking for physics teacher jobs—my wife is an MIT professor, so I was looking at Boston, and Commonwealth is clearly the best high school in Boston. I was also drawn to the advanced electives and things like that here. I felt like there was a lot of room to be creative and push students with challenging things. I like the focus at Commonwealth on challenging students.
How did you build your curriculum?
I like to try to show that all parts of physics are connected. Even though there's ten to twelve chapters of material, they're not separate things. They're all related to each other, and in fact, in some cases, you can derive one from the other. So I like to try as best as I can to show that physics isn't just a bunch of equations for different scenarios. The world works in a certain way, and through physics, we understand it enough to come up with these tools to explore it and solve problems.
I also developed a core set of things students need to do to do well in this course—those are the standard problems. And I often have optional, challenging problems that are a step ahead for people who really want to push themselves. Those are worth zero extra credit, zero points, and they won't bump your grade in any way. If you're sitting there thinking "I get this stuff, and I want something harder," you can do them.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I get in pretty early, around 6:40 a.m., because I like having two hours to collect myself. I've been an early-morning person (and an early-to-bed person) my entire life. I either prepare the lessons for the day—being a first-year teacher, I need to do a lot of that on the fly—or I will grade things for lessons to come or prepare for a meeting. Then I will teach, and the two hours or so a day that is actually spent standing in front of the classroom talking about science is my favorite part of the whole thing. And then I will go home and do a little bit more work, make dinner, and then relax with a TV show that's anywhere from reality TV to a science documentary, depending on how cerebral I'm feeling that day. But Commonwealth schedules are also all over the place, so who knows?
When not planning lessons, what do you do in your free time?
I like playing tennis; it's my favorite thing to do. I play the guitar, and all of my students at this point know that I'm really into heavy metal. In grad school in California, I played in two rock bands. The bands are long gone—COVID kind of destroyed that—and I don't have a drum kit. I was the drummer in those bands, so I would love to be drumming, but now I live in an apartment with no drum. I still play my guitar, though. Other than that, I like chilling with the dog and going on long walks in the forest.
What's your favorite science fact?
If you look at the chromosomes of humans and chimpanzees, chimpanzees have forty-eight chromosomes and humans have forty-six. And you can see the exact gene—the exact base pair—in chimpanzee chromosomes that have fused together somewhere in the history of the lineage that went to humanity. It's the biggest smoking gun that we share a common ancestor. It's obvious that there was an ancestor of forty-eight chromosomes, two of them stuck together in our lineage, and then stayed apart in the chimpanzee lineage. It's literally a fossil in our DNA of where we came from.
What does success look like in your classes?
To me, the most important mark of success is if students are enjoying physics for the sake of learning physics—if someone is reacting with "Oh, that's cool!" Success isn't whether or not they get an A on the next test. It's success when they're actually sparked by an interest in the subject, because that'll last a lifetime and spread far beyond physics.