In the community, Schools

Region honor goes to Nyssa teacher who makes science fun

While teaching chemistry to high school students, Ken Dickey was known to break into song.

He tweaked the lyrics to suit the classroom.

Take “Milkshake,” an R&B song by the singer Kelis.

Dickey changed “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard” to “My protons bring all the electrons around.”

Dickey, who recently retired after 29 years at Nyssa High School, isn’t likely to be releasing a CD soon.

But his passion about teaching in a way that reaches students has earned him designation by the Oregon Department of Education as a Regional Teacher of the Year. The state agency recently named 16 regional winners, who now are in the running for Oregon Teacher of the Year.

His former students put him in contention with their nominating comments.

“I struggled with science class and when I took physical science and chemistry classes with Mr. Dickey, I was so nervous that I wouldn’t understand the material,” the student wrote. “I didn’t realize these classes could be fun at times…I remember he rapped an Eminem song.”

Another wrote how Dickey “made chemistry and physics fun and easy to understand” in part by “making things into a song to make it memorable and we would remember. It’s been 13 years since I graduated high school and I still remember these things.”

Dickey earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1985 and then added in a master’s degree and a doctorate in philosophy.

He said he studied chemistry in college with the intention of becoming a dentist. He realized that wasn’t the career for him, switching to becoming a chemistry teacher.

“Being a dentist would have been a terrible mistake,” Dickey said. “Going into teaching was the right decision.”

He started at Nyssa High School in 1993 and six years later started teaching philosophy on the side at Boise State University, something he continued until 2020.

Dickey said he realized early on the challenges of teaching science in high school.

“It can be just a class,” he said. “Not everybody needs to be great at chemistry. You have to find ways for students to be successful when they don’t dig in much.”

He made his lessons as “fun as possible” while “making those concepts come alive for students.”

That’s where the singing comes in.

“I’m not very good at it,” he concedes, but that lack of talent helped him connect with students. “It creates a sense of vulnerability.”

But he taught more than chemistry.

He took on advising the National Honor Society in Nyssa and in 2019 started teaching at Nyssa’s migrant summer school. 

“I care very deeply about students who have been sort of forgotten, maybe the ones who have less of a chance,” Dickey.

Students remembered that in their nominating remarks.

A 2008 graduate of Nyssa High School described going on to earn two degrees at Oregon State University.

Dickey “supported me and other students of color in completing our college applications to universities, universities that for many of us seemed unattainable,” the student wrote.

Another student had no money for college but “Mr. Dickey helped get my Oregon State application fee waived and helped me to apply to a summer program where I would receive a scholarship,” the student wrote. “I did great in school, getting good grades and loved to learn but no one in my family had been to college and Mr. Dickey helped guide me there.”

The student wrote about graduating and working as an environmental researcher.

In an interview, though, Dickey wants to talk about what today’s teachers face and the need for more support in the classroom. He has been mentoring teachers.

“There is a lot of loss, a lot of hopeless among teachers today,” he said, that leaves teachers questioning whether they are getting anywhere.

“The factor with the greatest impact on student learning is having a dedicated, knowledgeable and caring teacher,” Dickey wrote in an essay for the state competition. “Teachers today face pressures never heard of before that together threaten the sustainability of our profession.”

He detailed those stresses.

“There is simply no adequate preparation for the day-to-day grind, the unrelenting nature of the cycle: prep, teach, review, assess and start again,” he said.

Giving teachers a chance to gather away from school and share their experiences is crucial, Dickey said. He sees encouraging signs in regional educator networks established around Oregon.

“Teachers have to believe they can make a difference,” Dickey said in one essay. “But this belief is under increasing threat, and as a result the teaching profession suffers.”

He saw that during the pandemic, when school was shut down and learning was switched to remote and online. 

“Students and teachers alike knew the school’s policy that no students would lose credit due to the pandemic issues, and many used that as a license to disconnect,” Dickey wrote.

He tried to serve as a role model to do better, grasping technology and revising his teaching to the new formats.

“I had the very strong sense that this was a time to double down on our commitment to teaching and learning, not a time to take it easy,” Dickey said.

He did what he could to keep students learning.

“I called students who had not attended my Zoom sessions, I created paper packets of materials for students to work on and even used a drop box outside of school for college student work and take-home exams,” he wrote.

Dickey is troubled how politics is nosing into education. Across the country, schools are embroiled in debates over banning books, of treatment of transgender students, and the content of lessons.

“There’s no room for politics in the classroom,” Dickey said. “It’s gotta just not be there. We can’t be dealing with those issues. We don’t have the energy and the time to deal with political issues.”

Dickey retired from Nyssa in July and moved to Corvallis to be closer to family and to continuing participating in an after-school program managed by Oregon State University for disadvantaged students. The program is SMILE – Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences.

“Mr. Dickey has a significant impact on many of us, and his practices as an educator have helped us pursue our goals,” one student wrote.

Another wrote, “He opened doors for us that we didn’t know were there and this nomination is one way I feel I can give back for all he has done for students.”

Contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected].

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