Issaquah teacher wins new physics award

November 2, 2010

By Laura Geggel

Issaquah High School students are not the only ones who hold physics teacher Tom Haff in their high esteem. The Washington chapter of the American Association of Physics Teachers awarded Haff with an Outstanding High School Teacher Award Oct. 9 at its state meeting.

This is the first time the chapter has given the award, and it will now be called the Tom Haff award, in honor of its first recipient.

Issaquah High School physics teacher Tom Haff holds the first Outstanding High School Teacher Award given by the American Association of Physics Teachers. Issaquah School District Executive Director of Secondary Education Patrick Murphy (left) and Associate Superintendent Ron Thiele (right) honored Haff in his classroom. By Sara Niegowski

“I was really overwhelmed by it,” Haff said. “It’s nice to be able to be recognized by your colleagues.”

Haff, a native New Yorker, has studied physics since his undergraduate years at the University of Washington. In his 35 years as an educator, he worked at Bishop Blanchet High School and Everett High School before he came to Issaquah High School in 1996.

Even as a teacher, Haff continues to take classes at universities. In 1988, he did the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship at Princeton University and in 1990-91, he spent the school year in Japan, representing Washington for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Haff and his family have strengthened their ties with Japan, hosting about 130 Japanese exchange students over the years. He recently returned to Japan to work on a neutrino detector, a device that studies particles that travel close to the speed of light but may not have mass, he said.

His students and colleagues had nothing but praise for the Issaquah Eagle physicist.

Senior Jamie Lutz recalled how he brought in two steaks, dropping one on the other and asking students to determine how much force the steak exerted on the other. Then, the class watched a professional wrestling video, so they could relate force to a common event.

Junior Max Tickman said students clap at the end of some of his more illuminating lectures.

“He ends it in a way that we’re just totally stunned by some amazing revelation that he has revealed to us,” Tickman said. “At the end of every lecture, he says. ‘Thanks for coming in today.’”

Seattle Pacific University physics professor Stamatis Vokos commended Haff for his dedication to both students and studying cutting-edge research on his own time.

This past summer, Haff asked Vokos to help an Issaquah High School graduate find a summer internship at SPU, showing that he cared for students even after they left high school.

In another instance, Haff sent students’ work to Vokos, so the high school students would understand how a college physics professor would assess their work.

“He is an advocate for his students in more ways than one,” Vokos said.

Green River Community College physics instructor Keith Clay, one of the executive officers who selected Haff for the award, called him “a fabulous guy and a brilliant teacher” who always thanked his mentors and shared his work with other physics teachers.

Issaquah High School Principal Paula Phelps called him a “true gem.”

“You never know what you may find when you enter his classroom,” she said. “He doesn’t just teach, he knows how to tell the story.”

Haff, now a grandfather, said teaching physics was his life’s calling.

“I really like solving problems and trying to find out how the universe is put together,” he said. “I’ve had a wonderful career, and it’s about the kids.”

Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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2 Responses to “Issaquah teacher wins new physics award”

  1. Wayne 'Clifford' Holland on November 4th, 2010 4:52 am

    He was a teacher way before he was a physics teacher; growing up with Mr. Haff (or better know to me as just “Tommy”) he is no different today as he was way back then. There are few above my Mom and Dad that have contributed to my personal success then he. Mr. Haff, thank you more than you will ever know and I think you may have even taught me a thing or two about physics too. You are truly deserving of this honor!


  2. Lynn Holland on November 4th, 2010 5:53 am

    Tom Haff is an exceptional human being. He’s intelligent, motivational, caring, and no doubt an inspirational teacher. Congratulations, Tom!

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