2020-2021 was a long school year for teachers and their students. I only worked with ten young people three days a week teaching various levels of mathematics and I was exhausted by the end of May. Teaching remotely was a whole new experience for all of us and while it seemed to work well for some, it just did not jibe for others. I found myself worrying about my kids and wondering if they were actually learning as well as I hoped they were. It’s a teacher’s lot in life to get emotionally involved with students and feel a deep sense of responsibility for their well being. The work of teaching never really ends, even with retirement. I can attest to that.
It seems like yesterday when I met my first group of students at St. Christopher’s Catholic School. The job was nothing like I had expected to do since my major had focused on English linguistics and literature. The principal of the school, Lesley McAvoy Baptiste, needed a mathematics teacher and when she reviewed my transcript she noted that I had taken almost as many math courses as those in the English department. She urged me to accept a position as the one and only middle school mathematics teacher in the small Catholic school.
Since there just happened to be a glut of teachers in the Houston area that year due to economic disruptions I was willing to try anything just to have the assurance of finally launching my career. I felt confident enough with my mathematical abilities to take a chance so I accepted the offer and set about planning for the six different courses that I would teach. I was determined to set my students on fire and provide them with a foundation in mathematics that would serve them wherever their lives eventually took them. I was also admittedly a bit afraid that I might not be as good at my work as I wanted to be but I plowed ahead with abandon.
My students for that year were all quite sweet and well behaved. In that regard I was quite lucky because I did not have to worry too much about classroom management. I was a bit older than most rookie teachers since I had parceled out my college attendance in small spurts owing to having two children and feeling responsible for the care of my mother whose bipolar disorder often demanded my attention. By the time I stood in the front of a classroom for the first time I was already thirty years old so I was able to pretend that I was a veteran teacher with years of experience.
I worked hard to perfect my lessons and to find the best ways to convey mathematical knowledge. I quickly learned that most of my students had passions for history or science or even English but very few were excited about mathematics. In fact a larger number of them had developed phobias about numbers over the years and I often heard comments from students about their innate lack of mathematical abilities. I realized that I had to build their confidence before I would be successful teaching them algorithms and theorems. I tried to make mathematics relevant and concrete for them, something that I would get better and better at doing over time.
That first year was not without challenges. We had hardly begun the fall semester when a hurricane blew through Houston and damage from the storm kept the school shuttered for over a week. Later in the year the eighth grade history teacher would suddenly leave and all of the schedules had to be rearranged to accommodate the situation. I ended up with two groups of students in my classroom at the same time. One sat in the back of the room working on assignments while I taught the other. In a lovely twist of fate my regular eighth grade math students were soon participating in the Algebra I class and asking to get copies of the books so that they too might do the homework and take the tests.
I really loved my students and would think of them forevermore even though I had not thought of how to keep in touch with them. I have little idea where they are or what happened to them but I suspect that they are doing rather well because they were quite wonderful. Happily I’m still friends with my principal on Facebook so I get to see glimpses of her life now and again. We also seem to share the same philosophies of life which does not surprise me at all.
My students from that first year got an eager version of my teaching but not the one that kept improving with each passing year. I learned more about people and the threads that bind us together as I became more confident and relaxed in my work. I also realized that being humane and understanding toward my students was the most powerful tool for conveying knowledge. I learned how to meet them where they were and then uplift them to a place where they might feel courageous enough to try things that had once frightened them. I hope I also made them feel loved.
As I read the many stories of teachers and their students I think of my first year of doing the work that has brought me so much joy. In the memory of my mind I see my first classroom filled with eager faces and I feel the dreams that beat in every heart. I hope that somehow they all know how much I cared and maybe even sense that I have never forgotten them or any of the thousands of others who followed them. My kids will always be my kids and my love for them is unconditional and forever.