Anyone Can Do It!

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In all of my years of teaching mathematics the refrain that heard most often was, “I’m no good at math.” My job became to convince my students that anybody has the ability to learn the algorithms and fundamentals of math given a willingness to invest time and effort.

We all know someone who has a natural ability with all things mathematical. In my own case it wasn’t me. It was my brother. I had to go home from school each evening with my math book and my notes and work through problems until a light bulb lit up inside my brain. Sometimes that took just a few minutes and other times it took a couple of hours, but in the end I mastered one concept after another.

Most of my students have insisted that it is impossible to study for a math test. They are accustomed to memorizing facts for their liberal arts classes and they tell me that one will never know what problems will be on the quiz. Therefore they assume that working sample problems is fruitless, but I insist that it really helps. Just as doing reps in the various sports generally brings about improvement in muscle memory, so too does practicing mathematical ideas help imprint problem solving methods on the mind.

It took me several years before I understood the value of homework in math. I used to grudgingly do the problems as quickly as possible and I was unwilling to ask questions about things that I did not comprehend lest I be regarded as being not so bright. I was literally in college before I understood the value of asking my professors for help. I not only became more enlightened, but I also became known by them which was a big plus in my large university. I encourage anyone who is struggling with anything, particularly mathematics, to take full advantage of tutoring opportunities with teachers. It is one of the keys to mastering skills that may at first seem far too difficult.

I like to think that my own struggles with mathematics in my early years led me to being a better and more understanding teacher. I know how it feels to read a word problem and draw a complete blank. I recall tearful sessions with my mother after school when I would insist that I was never going to be good at solving problems. She taught me how to first work with the words, taking them apart enough to discover what I was being asked, and then applying the knowledge that I had learned. With pictures, highlighters and diagrams I now find that I am able to tackle any challenge, but it wasn’t so until I followed my mom’s advice.

I have a granddaughter who used to think of herself as being a bit slow on the uptake when it came to math. It bothered her that her brother never seems to have a problem to immediately understand even the most difficult concepts. She and I talked for a long while about my own struggles when I was her age, and she took my advice regarding the value of hard work in mastering her math lessons. Last year she was anxious about the end of course Algebra I exam that she would have to take. She spent hours studying definitions, processes and different types of problems. Whenever she came up with an incorrect answer she found out why and then worked dozens more until she was consistently getting the correct answers. In the end she received one of the highest scores in her class, but more importantly she learned that it is not only possible to study mathematics, but preferable indeed.

Confidence is usually the element that is missing whenever a student who is bright in every other way does poorly in math. At some point in time he/she has become convinced that it is useless to even try. Such students truly believe that they are missing some gene that would allow them to do better. They take tests feeling defeated before they have even lifted their pencils. It’s up to their parents and teachers to help them to find the good feelings that they need to do well with mathematics, and to show them how to work hard to get there. That means eschewing a temptation to tell the young ones that they come by their dread of mathematics naturally because difficulty with math runs in the family. There is little worse than instilling such fear.

We have to be certain not to create self fulfilling prophecies in our young. It is possible to master mathematics slowly but surely and often with a great deal of work. It is no different than practicing a butterfly stroke or learning a new techniques for drawing. It takes patience and determination in some cases, but it can be done. I have watched hundreds of my students become adept in a subject that had previously been terrifying for them. My job was not to trick them, but to show them the way.

The best mathematics teachers that I have known all rejoice when someone who has struggled finds the light. There is no better feeling. If I were able to accomplish one thing in my lifetime it would be to replace comments like “This is too hard. I can’t do it. I’ve always been terrible in math.” with ideas that speak to the value of practice, asking questions and being positive. One day I hope to hear more of “I don’t get it now, but I know I will. I know that anyone can do it.”   

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I Found My Purpose

42678886_10217646777023389_6852434799655649280_nI recently had dinner with a group of former students and a teaching colleague. It was incredibly rewarding to see how well the young ladies who were once my pupils have done. One of them, Jennifer, is a teacher who recently earned an advanced degree in educational leadership. Another, Christine, works in the development department of the KIPP Charter Schools and she was recently rewarded with a promotion. The third, Joana, is working on a post graduate degree in Social Work. All three are articulate, hard working and filled with compassion. They have literally become more like peers than pupils. Our gathering was like a reunion of old friends and it was quite exciting to hear their stories of life and work.

While its tempting to take some credit for how well they have turned out, I know that they are fully responsible for their amazing accomplishments that came only with extraordinary dedication and much sacrifice. Talking with them tells me that they continue to work toward exciting goals and that they have fully become exemplary adults of whom I am so very proud.

I also learned at this meeting that my friend, Ann, is still working to educate high school students. She’s a phenomenal educator whose expertise has helped to launch the careers of a host of exceptional people. It’s reassuring to know that someone like her is still out there making a difference in people’s lives. That’s perhaps the most important aspect of being an educator and she is among the best.

There are times when I forget the real rewards of being a teacher. We rarely get paid as much as we should, and our retirement programs are far from being sufficient. I would have done far better financially if I’d had a pathway in business or even if I’d worked for the federal government which offers some of the best pension plans that there are. If I’d held office in Congress for even one term I’d be set for life. With all that said, when I talk with the individuals that I once taught and realize how remarkable they are, I know in my heart that I was actually blessed by being a teacher. There are very few professions that provide such satisfaction.

The frustrations of teachers are legend, but in the cacophony of complaining we sometimes forget to boast of the wonders of being an educator. Much like being a parent we can get caught up in the day to day routines and problems that sometime blind us from seeing the pure joys. It takes a bit of stepping back to gain the perspective that reveals our sense of purpose and meaning.

I know that I did not reach every heart and mind that I attempted to touch. There are probably even those who disliked me for one reason or another. As with anything I have fans and I have detractors, but on the whole I believe that I made some kind of difference in making this world of ours a bit better place to be. The value of that is priceless to me, and I would not be willing to give up even one day of my many years as a teacher for monetary profit.

Each kind of job and each person has value for our society. We really do need everyone and to rank the importance of work would be silly, but an argument might be made that teachers make it possible for the remarkable diversity of skills and talents that bring progress and innovation into our lives. We build the foundations from which all else springs. It is a breathtaking responsibility to consider.

I worry that we are somehow diminishing the importance of teaching these days. All too often I hear people arguing that they would never encourage a bright young individual to participate in such a terrible profession. I hear parents shudder when one of their children expresses an interest in being an educator. They worry that talents will be wasted in a job that lacks respect and a salary commensurate with intellect. They attempt to steer their sons and daughters into more prosperous and promising professions.

It saddens me that I so often find myself defending the occupation to which I devoted so much of my life. I am questioned as to why I didn’t pursue more stimulating and lucrative fields. I sense that some see my choice as a kind of failure to use my talents to their fullest.

Then I go out to dinner with a colleague and three phenomenal young women whom I once taught and I remember again how glorious it felt to go to work each and every day. I know in my heart that mine was a true vocation and that those of us lucky enough to find our true reason for  existence have something that no amount of money or even regard will ever buy. I am and always will be a teacher. I bear that designation proudly and without regret. 

A Wallet, A Thief, A Story

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Many years ago I was working at a school in southeast Houston that served a community populated by a number of gangs. Many of my students were known members of such groups, but for the most part they confined their onerous activities to after school hours when they were off campus. Nonetheless there was often an air of tension between the members of the various affiliations, and the faculty was well aware that we needed to be watchful lest some sort of violence erupt.

For whatever reason the real toughs actually like me. I used a bit of reverse psychology with them by referring to them with salutations like “Mr. Soto.” I told them that they were my prep school students and that we would treat one another with polite regard. I remember one day when the young men all showed up wearing dress shirts and ties because they wanted to look like boys from an exclusive school. I suppose the key to my success was that I valued them as much as I did the young men that I had taught in a private school that really was a renowned college preparatory institution.

On one occasion I was going to travel to Austin for a conference right after the school day ended. My suitcase was in my classroom and I had visited an ATM machine that morning to get money for the trip. Just before the group’s departure after the students had left for the day a fellow teacher called me to her classroom for some advice. I was only gone from my own room for a few minutes, but when I returned I decided to go to the faculty lounge to purchase some snacks for the drive. When I reached into my purse for some change, I realized that my wallet was missing. Since my handbag had been locked in a cabinet all day long save for the short time that I left my classroom unattended I knew that it must have been taken very quickly.

It was sickening to think that one of the students had probably stolen my wallet. Aside from the inconvenience of having no money and no credit cards when I was on my way out of town, it saddened me to think that perhaps one of my pupils had done this. The whole time that I was at the conference I thought only of who might have been audacious or desperate enough to steal from me. When I returned I was determined to find the thief.

The school was like a small community so both teachers and students were buzzing about potential candidates. The talk in the hallways had begun to focus on one particular young girl who had previously been caught taking small items here and there. Before long the sound of her accusers had risen to a loud roar. So many claimed to have seen her lurking near my room that the principal even called her to his office and invited me to attend the questioning.

The young lady protested her innocence, very quietly at first and then more and more indignantly as it became apparent to her that the principal believed that she was guilty. She insisted that she had been outside waiting to board the bus that would take her to her apartment project several miles down the road, and that she would not have had a way home if she had lingered inside long enough to sneak into my classroom. She was adamant that while she may have lied and even engaged in thievery in the past, this time she was innocent.

The principal dismissed the student and asked me what I wanted to do. He was willing to punish her because so many had indicated that they thought that the girl was guilty. I decided to err on the side of finding proof beyond a reasonable doubt and asked the principal to let the student go free. He felt that I was making a mistake, but he agreed to back off pending the emergence of more evidence.

The furor over the presumption of the young lady’s guilt grew so loud that I had to talk with each of my classes. I told my students that I was not willing to convict the girl based only on her prior reputation and hearsay. In truth nobody had actually seen her inside my classroom rummaging through my things, nor was anyone able to say with certainty that they had even seen her nearby. All of the stories had been peppered with words like “I’m pretty sure” or “I think I saw her.”

Before long everyone forgot about the incident. I eventually left the school, and my only regret about the whole thing was that it had been so inconvenient to get new identification. Also the wallet had been custom made in Estes Park, Colorado and it was one of my favorite possessions.

Maybe six or seven years later I received a call from the City of South Houston informing me that one of the workers had found my wallet inside the drainage system. When I retrieved it the leather was damp and moldy from sitting in years of runoff and sewage, but every item including my driver’s license and my credit cards were still inside. There were even photos of my children that were spotted with mildew. Only the money was gone.

I asked where exactly the wallet was found. I was told that it was in a drain about ten blocks away. When I told them the story of the theft, the city officials conjectured that one of the kids who lived in the neighborhood must have taken it and then ditched the evidence after pocketing the money. I agreed with that assessment but also swelled with a sense of righteousness when I thought of the young girl who had been accused of being the thief. At that moment I had the proof that she could not have been the one, because she would have been on a bus heading many miles away in a very different direction from the place where the wallet was dumped. She had been telling the truth and the other theories had been only emotional innuendo.

I’ve often remembered that incident even when serving on juries and I have tried to have the same kind of detachment in my search for the truth on those occasions. Each of us deserves the benefit of doubt, otherwise our fates will be determined by thoughts and beliefs rather than facts. I figure that if I am wrong in being that way, the final reckoning will set things right.

The Benefit of Learning

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An investment in knowledge pays the best interest. —-Benjamin Franklin

I’ve always believed that education is the most powerful way to combat poverty. I used to tell my students that knowledge is power, and that it is a great gift to each of us that the first twelve years of it is free from the government. Sometimes they pushed back on my enthusiasm interpreting mandatory attendance at school as an onerous thing. Many spoke eagerly of reaching the age at which they would be able to drop out and get on with living the way they so desired. I usually confronted them with arguments designed to convince them that learning is a great privilege that is often denied by authoritarian governments.

In my own lifetime I have heard of grievous examples of governments that persecuted and even executed teachers, leaving entire generations of children without even the most basic educations. This was done, of course, to eradicate thinking and the ability to discover truths. Dictators want to be in charge of the dispensing of information so that it benefits their causes. Sometimes when I explained such things I would challenge my students to never ever allow anyone to take away their rights to schooling. When I put it that way, many of them suddenly became far more eager to partake in the lessons that I and my fellow teachers presented to them.

Unfortunately there always seemed to be a few who were not the least bit interested in pursuing knowledge under any circumstances. Instead they wanted to get out of the need to attend school as soon as possible. They had big plans that did not include what they considered to be a waste of their time. Some also had to deal with poverty. Their parents wanted them to get to work as soon as possible. Extended schooling did not appear to be an option for them. Sadly by following this pathway they generally only managed to keep the grinding cycle of economic disadvantage continuing for one more generation.

I truly enjoyed being part of the KIPP Charter schools because above all were the ideas that there could be no excuses for not taking full advantage of all educational opportunities, and each day at school was focused on hard work. Our promise as teachers was that we would support our students in their journey to and eventually through college. The attitude that we all believed was that together we would be to provide our KIPPsters the necessary tools and attitudes for living better lives.

I have happily witnessed extraordinary results among so many of my former students. I have watched them earning multiple degrees and landing extraordinary jobs. I see photos of them standing in front of the beautiful homes that they have purchased and vicariously enjoyed their travels all over the world. Most of them have broken the crushing routines of grinding poverty that had sometimes stalked their families. Not only are their own lives more prosperous, but they have also been able to help their parents, It is so gratifying to see them using the skills, knowledge, and values that they learned first from all of us who are known as Big KIPPsters and later from their professors at universities and their mentors at work.

I recently became involved in a situation that brought home the sadness that I have always felt when I see young folks eschewing the marvelous opportunities that education provides. I was helping a very sweet woman move from one place to another. As we worked side by side for days I realized how bright she was, but also how her lack of resources had made her life so incredibly difficult. She had no savings, but rather had to rely on one paycheck to another just to provide the most basic standard of living. This meant that she was unable to scrape together enough money for the kind of deposits and down payments that are so often required in today’s real estate market. Unfortunately nobody in her family was able to help her either. In fact, she was quite distraught that so help was forthcoming from either her brothers or her adult children. She was on her own, and realizing that she had no way out my husband and I helped her.

Once we gave her the funds to secure a place to rent she realized that she was also alone in having to move her belongings and those of her elderly mother who lived with her. My husband and I spent a very long nine hours loading furniture and other items into and out of a moving van that we rented for her. While we worked side by side she reflected on her life and admitted that if she had been more attuned to becoming better educated, then perhaps her children might also have been inspired to stay in school and even earn degrees. Everyone’s lives might have been better in the long run instead of being so difficult.

I felt quite saddened by the woman’s situation because I know that her circumstances are repeated many times over in our country. Not all schools take the time or expend the effort to help young people and their parents understand the true value of education. They do not provide the unwavering support that is necessary to help those with few resources to navigate the treacherous waters of being admitted to college and then being able to earn a diploma. It takes money and relationships with people who care to help our poorest citizens to better themselves. 

The key to so many of the social problems faced by our society is to teach our young the importance of a lifetime of learning. Knowledge earns interest indeed. The more we all invest in it, the less we will have to spend on welfare programs in the future. Our bipartisan goal should be to insure that the greatest possible numbers of today’s children embrace and appreciate the value of schooling. When they learn, they earn, and we all benefit.

Show Them How Tough You Are

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One of my educator friends posted an article about a more and more prevalent kind of enabler known as a Lawnmower Parent. In general this is not just one who constantly watches over children, but also goes out of the way to pave the way for them, make things smoother sailing. In the example presented in the article a father calls a teacher out of the classroom to ask her to deliver a water bottle to his child. The teacher is stunned that the father has gone to such lengths to accommodate the student, and proceeds to provide additional examples of a worrisome trend that she sees all too often.

About the same time that I read about Lawnmower Parents I listened to the moving eulogy of Meghan McCain for her father John. There was much to talk about in her words, but one of the ideas that really struck me was her description of an incident in which she was fearful and ready to give up. Her dad encouraged her by urging her to “Show them how tough you are.”

In my own childhood, my mom often reiterated stories of hard times when she was just a girl when her father insisted that she hold her head high and ignore the taunts of those who attempted to deter her from feeling confident. He even held weekly family meetings in which he insisted that each of his children had much of which to be proud even though they were often viewed as different, poor, immigrants. He wanted no excuses, no bad behavior, and to his credit they all turned out to be exceptionally hard working and honest adults who passed down the notion of self reliance to their children and grandchildren.

Luckily I have seen very little Lawnmower Parent behavior in my own dealings with the education of students. I suppose that there have always been well meaning adults who over pampered their kids, but on the whole it has not really been a trend in my circles. I was once offered a bribe from a wealthy father if I would change his son’s final average in mathematics. Of course I adamantly declined the offer and then explained to the man why I believed that aiding his son in that manner was an horrific idea. By the end of the conversation the parent had realized that softening the blow of a subpar performance by his son would be the worst possible way of dealing with the disappointment. I had made it very clear that the student would learn far more from the experience if the full responsibility were placed at his feet rather than those of the adults. It was time to demonstrate that life is about hard work and self reflection, changing bad habits rather than covering them up.

All of us have been faced with situations that nearly broke our spirits. There will also be moments that are so difficult to face that our inclinations will be to run away. Still there are situations in which the only honorable thing to do is to show the world how tough we are. We have to work through the pain, the sorrow, the humiliation and keep moving forward.

The people that I most admire are imperfect beings, many of whom failed horribly at something. Rather than giving up or relying on someone else to fight for them, they picked themselves up and kept trying again and again until they ultimately succeeded. They overcame great problems at great prices. They were unwilling to be defeated. They showed all of us who were rooting for them just how tough they were.

I was quite excited about a post from a young woman who had attended one of the schools where I worked. She had become pregnant in her senior year and it seemed that she would not be able to fulfill her dreams with her new responsibility of raising a child. She remained undaunted and worked sometimes to the point of exhaustion while she held down a job, took care of her child, and studied at one of the local universities. She literally took one step at a time day by day, and ultimately earned a college degree. Knowing that her earning capacity would be improved with an advanced degree she continued her regimen of working, mothering and learning until she had also earned a Masters degree. She found a wonderful job, married the father of her child, and before long bought a beautiful custom built home. She showed us how tough she was, and we all celebrated her as an inspiration, a model of determination and grit.

I also know about certain instances when parents are compelled to stand up for their children. They are not being overly protective in such situations, but rather making certain that justice prevails. I have seen many occasions in which teachers were unmoving, even rude when students requested consideration for extenuating circumstances. They were so hard nosed that parents had to intervene. I’ve had such encounters with unfair teaching practices with my own two daughters. I felt compelled to speak out, particularly after my children had been ignored.

As educators we certainly hope that parents will not constantly make excuses for their youngsters, but at the same time we have to ask ourselves if we are somehow being unreasonable. Sometimes our hard and fast rules simply do not work for specific situations. We must be willing to demonstrate flexibility and a willingness to listen to our students’ pleas. When we don’t, it should not be too surprising if parents intervene.

Teaching is quite demanding, but so is being a student. Kids today seem to have virtually every hour of every day filled with tasks they must perform. We ask much of them, and sometimes forget that we are not the only ones piling assignments on them. We would do well to hear what they have to say before exhorting them to “deal with it.” We all reach a point after which we simply can do no more.

I’ve had to be tough throughout my life, but there have indeed been times when I knew that I was about to break. I often allowed myself the luxury of a bit of self pity, a mental health holiday, a pile of unfinished duties. It was how I built up the strength that I needed to keep moving forward, and because I understood how easily such a state of mind can appear I tried to be understanding with my students, my teachers, and the parents. Perhaps instead of pointing fingers at one another with insulting labels we just need to take the time to find out what is really going on. It is then that we will begin helping our young to learn how to show how tough they are.