What do PET Scans and Heroes Have To Do with Teaching?

In education circles these days there’s a lot of talk a lot about the importance of mentors. While mentors are important for anyone starting out in a job or career and as positive role models for kids, they are not the same as heroes. Kids also need heroes to inspire them to do things greater than they think possible.

Grownups need heroes, too, to remind us that some people manage to transcend their difficult circumstances and still do something amazing for the greater good of humanity. This past Thursday I read an obituary in the New York Times about someone who is a new hero to me: Louis Sokoloff, pioneer of the PET Scan, who died at the age of 83.

I am intrigued by Dr. Sokoloff and his invention because last summer, after some confusion about my diagnosis, a PET Scan revealed that I indeed had cancer. The PET Scan is considered the gold standard for cancer diagnosis. I was given radiation and chemo treatments and, in early January, I had to undergo a second PET Scan to see if my treatments succeeded in eliminating the cancer. Miraculously, they did. About about two weeks ago a third PET Scan confirmed that I am still cancer free. So is it any wonder I am intrigued by the invention of the PET Scan? And now I am even more so since reading about Dr. Sokoloff’s life and death.

There are some important lessons to learn from his life. His parents were Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms in Europe. As a teenager, he was too poor to afford the trolley fare “to a more academically prestigious high school.” He explained that his interest in biology was stimulated by his older brother’s aquarium in a piece he wrote for a collection entitled The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography. He eventually won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and was guided by the advice of a wise grandfather who advised him not to seek material success which he could easily lose, but to aim, instead, for a keen mind; something no one could take from him.

What does the life of Louis Sokoloff and the PET Scan have to do with teaching? As teachers, we all need to be on the lookout for the Louis Sokoloffs in our classrooms. Sometimes we know who they are…the ones who read constantly and independently, who ask good questions, who have that extra level of insight and whose family might be struggling financially. Often they are considered the “nerdy” kids because they can be somewhat socially awkward. They need individualized attention because they have special talents that need to be encouraged. I never would have gone to college had a guidance counselor not insisted on it to my parents. Without proper mentoring it took me nearly 30 years to find a field of work I was good at…teaching English to immigrants…and for which I won two teaching awards.

A former close friend of mine who taught in Canada always kept an aquarium in her elementary-level classroom which she brought home and refurbished every summer. But who has the time or energy to do that nowadays with all the additional demands of the Common Core Curriculum and testing? So many of the “extras” that appeal to children, like an aquarium or a class pet or even a display of rocks and shells to stimulate curiousity are now gone, replaced by digital experiences that do not allow for the ways in which kids learn so much: By touching, feeling, smelling, tasting, and dreaming.

In my day we learned about Madame Curie, Louis Pasteur, Jonas Salk, John Glenn and so many others who started out being stimulated by an idea which fascinated and challenged them. They were our heroes. Today we have provided our students with virtual resources for unlimited research. But have we provided them with the classroom environment and discussions that dreams are made from? Have they been given opportunities to meet any everyday heroes who have made a difference in people’s lives? A firefighter, a surgeon, a soldier, a family that might have participated in building a home for a poor family through Habitat for Humanity? They know all about entertainment figures, but who are their heroes?

Many of the teachers I know are too exhausted from keeping track of data required by state mandates and worrying about the effect that poor testing results may have on their careers to spend even more of their personal time providing the conditions for hands-on classroom experiences. It takes a lot of time and effort to create a learning environment. This is not an excuse for lazy teachers: it is a cold hard fact that doesn’t seem to be registering with those who are currently making the decisions about educating children.

I love this very old-fashioned, black and white photo of three very talented people who look very nerdy yet are responsible for some of the greatest discoveries in scientific history. Dr. Barbara McClintock, who used to shop in my local supermarket, was a Nobel Prize winner who did much of her genetic research in cornfields at a local nature conservancy. Dr. Michael DeBakey, whose work led to the first heart-lung machine making open-heart surgery possible and Dr. Louis Sokoloff, who did research on using the PET Scan for brain research and diagnosing cancer, don’t look like Superman or Batman, but they are real heroes. Teachers need to feel they have the time to teach their students about them without being penalized for deviating from the curriculum. One of my most satisfying and effective series of lessons in my final year of teaching a group of fifth grade ESL students was about Malala, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban but who continues to fight for education for girls throughout the world and is the youngest Nobel Prize laureate.

If I were still teaching, this photo would hang in my room along with photos of other heroes who inspire big dreams. And my students would probably still continue to do poorly on the state tests because they have not yet learned enough English. (I am a former English-as-a-Second Language teacher.) And I would continue to be evaluated as a Developing teacher as I was in my two final years of teaching. But at least my students would know a hero when they saw one and their curiousity about the world would be supported and encouraged in the hopes their own dreams might someday come alive.


20 thoughts on “What do PET Scans and Heroes Have To Do with Teaching?”

    1. You are certainly right about that. I had many cancer survivors around me giving me hope in my greatest time of need. We all know that teachers can do the same for their most vulnerable students. Thank you.


  1. What a powerful post with thoughtful questions: “Today we have provided our students with virtual resources for unlimited research. But have we provided them with the classroom environment and discussions that dreams are made from?” I’ll be thinking about this as I begin prepping my classroom for the upcoming year. Congratulations on being cancer-free!!!


    1. If I managed to make you think about tangible objects, then I feel I’ve succeeded with the intent of this post. I already know you are reflective, and now you have something additional to reflect upon (as if you needed that).


  2. I can’t tell you how much this post means to me – you’ve written so beautifully about what it really means to want to learn, and the conditions necessary for true learning. This photograph is going on my classroom wall. Thank you. PS Some letters are missing from the last word, which, I think, is “true”?


    1. Thank you so much! I have had several very supportive responses to this post which makes me think that teachers are very concerned about what messages are being sent from their classrooms. Thanks for the tip about the incomplete word at the end of the post. The word is “alive.”


    1. I am not a habitual obit reader, but occasionally one catches my eye. And you are right, there is so much to read between the lines about a person’s life. And finally, yes I was inspired by this one because someone cared enough to dedicate his life to creating and improving upon this procedure which is so vital to cancer patients. Thank you.


    1. I wonder if you are right…ha! I think you might be right as teachers realize more and more that it never should have been pushed out in the first place! I might try to “share” this idea with some political types at your suggestion….


  3. This post is perfect timing for me as I start this school year. We have decided to have our gifted enrichment program for 6th graders revolve around heroes. We want to participate in the Unsung Hero project by the Milken Foundation. I am anxious for this to start. Planning is exciting, but when we get the kids, the real journey begins.


    1. Sounds like we’re thinking along the same lines. Some have suggested having the kids come up with their own definition of what makes a hero as a way of starting this unit. Sounds like a good idea to me because it would stimulate so much interaction and debate. Let me know how it goes.


  4. Congratulations on being cancer free! Thank you for this inspiring post… it caused me to slow down and really think about my focus. As I get ready for a new year the lessons from these quiet heroes need to find a way into my classroom.


  5. Thank you very much. I am glad my post influenced you to slow down and really think about what we focus on in our classrooms. We’ve almost thrown out the baby with the bathwater! I’d be curious to find out just how you are going to incorporate this idea into your classroom.


  6. You are exactly right. Ever since I worked in day care in my twenties, I have thought it far more important to teach social skills, common values, responsibility, and curiosity than to stamp children into being another brick in the wall.
    We often forget that our ancestors in this country supported public education primarily to teach good citizenship in a democracy, with just enough reading and basic math thrown in to make that possible. Learning about common heroes was more important than long division. Only when schools were hijacked by plutocratic industrialists unwilling to support an apprentice system on their own dime did this fade, a trend only aggravated in recent years.
    As you note, the current test system and goals are all wrong. Anyone can become a responsible citizen. But only the talented few can be trained into narrowing specializations. I could never be a star athlete, no matter how many tests were thrown my way. Our current politics are only one symptom of an education system gone badly awry.


  7. Thanks as always for your erudite thoughts. It comforts me to know that others remember an era that may not have been so politically correct, but which cultivated the exceptional.


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