Saturday, March 3, 2007

Teacher fired for making students think

A career in scientific research took Fred Hassman from job to job across the United States and made him a comfortable living.

Along the way, he earned two patents, contributed to numerous scholarly journals and built a resume covering six pages.

The University of Arizona graduate worked mostly in the pharmaceutical industry. He met his wife, a biochemist, while both were employed by Merrell Dow Research Institute in Indianapolis.

Hassman later worked for seven years as a scientist with Glaxo in North Carolina's Research Triangle and then worked for several Southern California companies.

But the 46-year-old eventually decided on a new career path.

He uprooted his family from San Diego - a place of impeccable weather and a famous zoo ("We had season passes," he says) but also enormous costs of living - to Warrick County, where his wife had been raised. Hassman said he decided to leave research, take a pay cut and go into teaching because he wanted to make a difference.

He said he tries to bring an innovative approach to the classroom, challenging students to think and to discover.

But only two years into his second career as a full-time chemistry teacher at Bosse High School, Hassman is dusting off his resume yet again.

The action listed on Monday night's School Board agenda said "resignation." Hassman said it was tantamount to a pink slip.

Hassman still is not sure why it happened.

"It doesn't add up," Hassman said Wednesday evening at a Newburgh coffee shop. "I really don't understand it."

School Board members, school corporation administrators and Bosse Principal Bob Adams all have declined to comment on Hassman's situation, noting it is a personnel matter.

Don Travis, president of the Evansville Teachers Association, also declined comment other than to say "contractually and legally the process was followed" in Hassman's resignation.

Bosse students, meanwhile, have been vocal in supporting the chemistry teacher, who will get to finish out the current school year.

Those students are describing Hassman as an outside-the-box thinker who motivates them to learn.

Three students addressed the School Board on Monday night. Others posted comments on the Courier & Press' Web site (

Hassman said he's passionate about science. The son of an Air Force veteran, he grew up in Arizona, Germany and elsewhere curious about the world around him and wanting to know more about how it worked.

He earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry, with a biology minor, from the University of Arizona and stayed for a while as a research assistant before being hired by Merrell Dow.

Hassman has credit toward a master's degree, but he said he's never been able to finish because "every time I got involved in it, I moved again."

From the time he left Tucson, Ariz., in 1985 until be moved to the Evansville area about three years ago, Hassman held both full-time and consulting jobs with nine different research companies in four states.

"One company I worked for got sold four different times," Hassman said. "I had four business cards with the same address. But that's the way it is in the industry."

According to Hassman's resume, his list of research accomplishments include solid phase and solution phase peptide synthesis, improving purification procedures of DNA and RNA and amino acid analysis.

He was motivated to go into teaching, though, because he was increasingly unimpressed by job applicants at companies where he worked.

"The last few years, I've been interviewing people, and I've seen a large decline in the quality of people coming out of our educational system," including Ph.Ds," Hassman said.

Once Hassman, his wife and two sons settled into their Warrick County home, he enrolled in a yearlong University of Southern Indiana program that helps private-industry professionals transition to teaching.

Hassman finished the program, worked briefly as a long-term substitute and student teacher before starting full time at Bosse in August 2005.

"I don't think we're teaching students to think, analyze, solve concepts," Hassman said. "Basically what we do in education is show them how to pass a test and then move on to the next chapter."

He described his style as hands-on, but not to an extreme. He encourages students to "take ownership" of their lab projects. In recent days, Hassman said he's been working with advanced chemistry students on designing a method to dissolve a compound into water.

Hassman said his job evaluation after one year at Bosse was positive, but in recent days, some school administrators had started observing his classes.

He declined to discuss the turn of events that led to his forced resignation, other than to call it "a difference of opinion," although he still isn't sure why some school officials didn't support him.

He did allow that "maybe I came on as too arrogant, wanted to make too many changes," but he stressed that he enjoys teaching at Bosse.