IOP President’s Physics Teacher Tells Us About Her Life

American politician Brad Henry once said that “a good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instill a love of learning.” An inspiring teacher has the ability to change a student’s life and be seen as a very influential role model. For our president, Professor Dame Julia Higgins, her physics teacher, Nancy Edwards, was the person who Julia credits for igniting her interest in the subject and leading her to pursue a physics-based career.  In October, I went to meet Nancy with Julia to learn more about her life, and her passion for teaching physics.

Born in 1927 in Swansea, Nancy grew up in Cardiff and whilst at school developed a love for maths and physics. But at that time boys were normally taught physics and girls were taught biology.

Nancy told me: “the school I went to in Cardiff was co-educational so at that school the top two mathematicians in the girls’ group were put in with the boys to do physics.”

Nancy duly claimed one of the top maths scores in her group, and went to study physics in the boys’ class, where she immediately developed an enthusiasm for the subject. Nancy initially wanted to study maths at University, but was unable to do so because she didn’t have the qualification to do it “because I had no-one to teach me that level of maths during the war.” So she decided to do a physics degree instead and completed her studies in Oxford.

After university, Nancy’s ambition was to teach. After six years teaching Physics and Maths she married. She told me: “in those days married women were not supposed to work much.” Even in the fifties, in some schools, a marriage bar restricted their employment so women who worked and then got married were told they had to resign. Had she only been able to teach maths, getting a post would have been difficult because “maths had to be taught every day, and that meant you had to work every day.”

However, Nancy found getting a post teaching physics was much easier. She was offered a teaching role at the Ursuline Convent Grammar School in Wimbledon, London.  Normally the school would not have employed her whilst she was married, and she only got this job because physics teachers were scarce.

Nancy was the only physics teacher at the school, and one of her pupils was Julia Higgins, who cites Nancy as one of the key reasons why she developed such an interest in physics. “The lessons were exciting because Nancy could make me understand physics which was a new subject to me,” Julia told me. “I knew immediately it was what I liked doing – I enjoyed learning physics because you’re asking questions and getting answers about the world around you.”

Nancy continued teaching until 1990 and her pupils were mostly girls. She reckons she must have successfully entered more than 400 A level students. Some are now doctors but others went on to science degrees and some of those followed her by teaching physics.  Nancy is disappointed at the current shortage of physics teachers, and believes it’s because “they haven’t got the teachers to inspire them.”

Julia added: “It’s a vicious circle; if you haven’t got a good teacher then you don’t choose physics, and so it goes on.”

At 90-years-old, Nancy regularly keeps up to date with some of her former pupils’ careers, including that of Julia and Julia’s sister Frances, who went on to teach maths at the same school.

I asked Nancy what advice she would give to someone wanting to teach physics or to go into a physics-based career. She told me: “You must enjoy it, have an enquiring mind and want to know how the world works, and to teach it well you must be able to show your enthusiasm. If you’ve got that then go for it.

“I’m proud to have sent some physicists and mathematicians on their way.”

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