Meet a Real Teacher: Sameer Shah

I’m thrilled that Sam Shah is the first math teacher to be featured on this site. Sam teaches at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, NY and writes the math teaching blog, Continuous Everywhere Differentiable Nowhere, which was nominated for two Edublog awards.

Type of School: independent K-12 school

Years taught: This is my 6th year teaching.

Number of students this year: 49




You were a straight-A math student at MIT and received an M.A. in History of Science at UCLA. What led you to teaching at the secondary level? 

I used to play “school” when I was young, and make tests for my parents and sister to take. Like, really hard tests. But I wasn’t good at school: I used to get Cs in junior high. It wasn’t until eighth grade that I finally saw school as something I could do, and junior high is when I started falling in love with mathematics.

Then, in high school, I had a triumvirate of three amazing teachers: a math teacher, a history teacher, and most significantly, an English teacher who started broadening my horizons. And because I respected them so much, I knew teaching high school was what I wanted to do with my life.

While I was taking math classes in college, I also took some history of science classes to fulfill the general requirements for a degree. And I fell in love with that subject — head over heels. And so I decided to check out academia and see what it was all about, thinking maybe I wanted to teach at the college level. But no, even though I loved learning, I hated academia and my favorite times in grad school were planning and leading my discussion sections with undergrads. But teaching is not what academia rewards. So I decided that wasn’t the life I wanted, I left, and here I am!

What excites you about math, and how do you get students excited about it? What’s your favorite topic to teach?

There is this inherent beauty and connectedness to math. It’s creative, because there are often many ways to get from question to solution. For me, it’s conceptual depth, or deep understanding, that keeps me invigorated.

Even though it’s “just” high school math, every year I have these random insights that will totally upend how I look at a topic. For example, just recently, I had a moment where I said: “Wait, what is an instantaneous rate of change?” when I was planning a calculus lesson, and then: bam! New lesson plans, investigating just that idea.

Not all my students love math. But one piece of feedback I get is that just being enthusiastic about what we’re doing is super helpful to get them interested. I try to show them what I find stunning/unexpected/interesting/weird, and hope that they get a little taste of what I see. But I should say that I tend to teach fairly traditionally – without many projects or applications.

My favorite topic to teach is anything that involves students coming to a deep conceptual understanding rather than a surface-y, robotic understanding. It could be inflection points and the shape of a curve in calculus, or completing the square in Algebra II. Those lessons that I have which get at the ideas — those are what I really go gaga for.

How do you handle stereotypes in your classroom, such as ‘Asians must be good at math,’ and ‘Girls are bad at math’?

I wish I could say I have a good answer to this.  I realized I used to judge students based on their handwriting a little bit (!)… And if I taught siblings, I would often expect them to be alike. As I’ve matured as a teacher, though, I have learned to take each student as an individual, and we start our relationship from scratch at the beginning of the year.

That said, I have noticed that many girls in my non-advanced classes tend to suffer from what I call “learned helplessness.” This is when a student hits the first moment of frustration, and her method of dealing with it is to raise her hand and ask for help.*

To combat this, I ask students to ask each other for help first. Then I’ll come over and ask a random group member what the problem is. I also won’t allow students to say, “I don’t know.” I have them say something they do know, and try to pinpoint exactly what their blocking point is.

*The opposite of this is with boys who tend to not ask any questions. They hope all will work out via divine intervention or something. I don’t have good strategies for this, other than encouraging question asking and students to be proactive.

Last August, 140 teachers signed up for your Math Blogging Initiation. They wrote once a week for four weeks based on prompts you created. How did it go? Why did you start the project, and what have you learned from it? 

I started the initiation because I had created a “Welcome to the mathtwitterblogosphere” website to help people get involved with our community, and I wanted to capitalize on that momentum.

The feedback we got was overwhelmingly positive! Although it was a lot more work than I imagined since so many people signed up, I had a ton of help from a great crew of bloggers.

What I learned was that there are a lot of people out there reading blogs, but not writing! I used to think of the math teacher blogosphere as this really tiny sparkling star with a set number of people on it, but it turns out there is this whole glowing penumbra of people around the star. Okay, that might not make so much sense. Sorry. You get the idea, right?

If you could change one aspect of your job, what would it be?

Freedom. I would like to really have complete control over my classroom, my pacing, my grading, everything. In order to grow, I need to take risks, fail here and there, and just be trusted to do what I know I can do well.

What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?

I think most people think teaching is an 8-3:30 job. I mean, when I was in high school, even though I was surrounded by teachers all day, I assumed teachers just (a) taught classes, (b) graded papers, (c) photocopied worksheets, and (d) prepared for class by coming up with a few example problems and do a lot of winging it. But that’s nothing like what teaching is.

I start at 7:30 and go until 7 or 8pm every day (if not longer). And I work on weekends. And over breaks. It’s just a lot of work, and is physically and emotionally draining, but most people don’t see that. And that’s hard to get across to people. The fact that we’re dealing with kids, and not “classes,” is also hard to get across to people. That’s why my friend Tina and I have created A Day In The Life.

What teacher made the most impact on you and why? What would you tell him/her now?

There have been too many (including the few I listed above). I want to tell them all: thank you. As teachers, our students constantly leave us, and we never really know if we changed their worldview a little bit…or if all we did came and went and nothing but dust remains. That endemic uncertainty to our profession, that sucks.

I would tell my teachers they inspired me to become a teacher because I love learning, and I value knowledge. Those are things they inculcated in me, and I want to do for others what they did for me.

What advice do you have for aspiring or beginning teachers?

I’ve written An Open Letter to New Teachers. Here’s an excerpt:

Dear person about to enter the classroom as a fulltimeteacher,

I love you. Okay, fine, not quite true — maybe respect, like, or lurve is more appropriate — but you have a passion for something and you’re following it. I don’t know if that passion is for the subject you teach, or for working with kids, or the deeply interesting intellectual puzzle of how to get someone to understand something, or for (in the booming Wizard of Oz voice) the Betterment of All Mankind. Regardless, this thing that brings you to the classroom is wonderful, because it puts you in the same ranks as those wonderful teachers that loom large in your past who inspired you and who helped you recognize that what they do has some worth. (Unfortunately, it also means you’ll probably have a bank account similar to those teachers. Sigh. Yeah, that will continue to suck, newteacher.)

This is It (Extended Version)

All the frenzied grading for first quarter is finally done, and I’m in weekend detox mode:

OK — now I will take out the overflowing trash; now I will clear the sink and do the laundry.

And, for something more fun, but no less cathartic for me: sharing a day in my life as an English teacher.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

7:12 a.m.: Leave the house.

7:47: Arrive at school. Happy it’s Tuesday, the day I get first period off!

7:52 – 8:43: Review directions for next week’s parent conferences, and spend way too long grading two essays.

8:48 – 9:32: Class #1 today is ninth grade; I administer a quiz on the Prologue of Romeo and Juliet (two students are absent, to my dismay); they sign up for parent conferences. After the quiz, I institute a seating chart for the first time; they’re a great class, but have been way too chatty lately.

We go over questions from last night’s reading, and then get to the good stuff: acting out the scene where Romeo spills his guts to his cousin Benvolio about his unrequited love for Rosaline. They giggle as we discuss what chastity means, and a usually reserved student takes her role as the woebegone Romeo quite seriously. I’m impressed!

9:32 – 9:45: Gather up laptop, zapper, and 27 Oedipus books on a cart to wheel to the next class. Write the day’s agenda and HW on the board. Oops — I forgot the wireless doesn’t work in this art room. Now I won’t be able to check their Odyssey books in or Oedipus books out.

9:50 – 10:30: Class #2, tenth grade — out with the epic hero, in with the tragic hero. Getting the books to and from the students is a production anyway, because they need to remove copious amounts of Post-its from their Odysseys. But I’m glad they’ve been annotating their reading! They sign up for parent conferences in the meantime.

We stage the first scene, and get our female Oedipus to stand on a table to address the citizens of Thebes. A funny kid races to lie down at the foot of the table, i.e. the palace steps. They get the story’s first moment of dramatic irony!

10:35 – 11:14: Since my schedule is different every day, I nearly forgot I had a third class in a row to teach. Another 9th grade class. They get a slightly longer quiz on the Prologue to “make up” for word traveling from the first class. Again, someone is absent. Make-up quizzes are annoying and possibly useless.

This class also does a nice job with acting out the scene. Our Romeo is a lanky boy this time, and he drags his feet dutifully to convey his mopey mood. We also have time to talk about oxymorons, and how they help us think about the play as a whole.

A student hands in an essay that’s two weeks overdue. I hope I don’t lose it.

11:20 – 11:36: Wheel the cart of books and laptop to a nearby classroom that does have a wireless connection, and check books into the system. Return books to the book room, and load up with enough books for this afternoon’s class. Time consuming.

11:42 – 11:50: Back to the office to take care of housekeeping: attendance for this morning’s classes; check e-mail; fix a mistake I made on

11:52 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.: Grade and enter 47 Prologue quizzes over lunch. I love the instant gratification of grading multiple choice.

12:33 p.m.: First bathroom break of the day.

12:38 – 1:18: How did it take me so long to grade 1.5 essays before class?

1:22 – 2:02: Class #4, another 10th grade group; this time, I can get on the wireless to check their books in and out.

A gift: Someone has left a model of a skeleton in the room. The kids can’t resist touching it and puppeteering it; we must use it in our class performance!

Five girls and one boy lie on the carpeted floor to play “suppliants” — citizens of Thebes pleading with Oedipus to rid the city of a plague. The skeleton is also given a suppliant pose, and helps us show this plague is BAD.

2:05 -2:16: Return books, and load the cart with new ones.

2:20 – 6:00: This part is murky to me; I spent no more than ten minutes talking to the people in my department, but somehow, 3.5 hours passed as I graded five essays; edited a study guide for tomorrow’s 10th grade classes; and made sub plans for tomorrow.

As usual, preparing sub plans took a lot longer than it should; I was foiled twice by a broken elevator (it’s hard to cart stacks of books down stairs); two more trips to the book room; and two of two copy machines out of service.

6:33 – 8:4o: Dinner and decompression, i.e. watching the first half of This is It. My knowledge of and respect for Michael Jackson grows exponentially.

8:41 – 10:42: more grading

10:43 p.m. – 12:24 a.m.: talking to my fiance/working on this post!

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read)?

A day in my life as an English teacher includes lots of rewarding interactions with students…

…but it also involves grading essays in school, at night, and/or on the weekend. This week’s share of three sets was more than usual because of the ending of the marking period, but even one set a week will easily take five hours to finish:

What does a day in your life as teacher look like?

Blogging: 1; Grading: 0

I’ve got 75 essays staring me in the face; they need grades and comments by Thursday. The end of the first quarter looms.

And yet, I can’t pass up the opportunity to write for A Day in the Life — created by fellow bloggers (and math teachers) Sam Shah* and Tina C..

I’ve tried to show what it’s like to teach on this blog, but have not yet captured the fine details of a full day.

Challenge accepted!

What does a day of teaching look like for you?

*Interview with Sam forthcoming!