Happy Birthday to Eleanor Roosevelt, Boss Lady and Badass Teacher!

Eleanor Roosevelt was an awesome woman. Though she was born into wealth and privilege, she fought tirelessly for the rights of everyday people. She also encouraged women to become “political bosses” – yes – “women bosses who [could] talk as equals” and “play the [political] game as men do.”

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In fact, “the Lady” wielded much more political and personal power than history has given her credit for. According to Blanche Wiesen Cook (author of the twovolume ER biography I’m reading), ER essentially ran a parallel administration during FDR’s twelve-year presidency. Whenever she disagreed with his administration’s treatment of women, the poor, African Americans and other marginalized groups — which was quite often —  she would openly oppose her husband in public speeches, newspaper articles and other efforts to effect the changes she wanted.

As much as ER loved the political game, she was just as passionate about education. She had loved being a student, and loved being a teacher of history, literature and public affairs at the Todhunter School for Girls in New York City.

In honor of what would have been her 129th birthday today, here are 5 things that made Eleanor Roosevelt an excellent educator:

1. She championed women’s education in word and deed.

In a 1930 essay for Redbook, and in many other publications thereafter, ER encouraged women to educate themselves in order to gain real political power. They had to “take the pains to study history, economics, political methods [and] get out among human beings.”

And she was confident in the social change that would come as a result: “In my youth I knew women who hid their college degrees as if they were one of the seven deadly sins. But all that is passing, and so will pass many other prejudices that have their origin in the ancient tradition that women are a by-product of creation.”

ER put her beliefs into practice when she bought the Todhunter School for Girls at 66 East 80th Street in 1927. There, she served as vice principal, teacher and participated in all aspects of school life – including writing for school magazines and newsletters, raising money and seeking prospective students.

Todhunter School

2. She was a tough teacher who wanted her students to be informed, critical and active citizens.

ER held her students accountable for their work, and felt disappointed when they performed poorly. She believed that “the girls will have to take certain hurdles in life and that hurdles in school are an important preparation.” ER assigned research projects to promote critical thinking, wrote exams to assess her students’ political literacy (sample question: “Do you know of any way in which the Government protects women and children?”), and organized school trips to courthouses and tenements so her girls (who all came from privileged backgrounds as well) could learn about and be inspired to improve their communities.

She believed that good teaching began with students’ own interests, and that lifelong learning was imperative, saying often: “Education only ends with death.”

3. She loved her job, worked hard at it, and it paid off.

ER described teaching as the “one thing that belongs to me” and also said, “I like it better than anything else I do.”

On her commutes to and from New York’s Grand Central Station, she would grade papers, and read “voraciously” to prepare for the week’s lessons and lectures.

Blanche Wiesen Cook calls ER’s success as a teacher “rapid” and “intense.” Student Patricia Vaill said, “I never forgot a damn thing she ever taught me.”

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ER (in dark coat) with Todhunter students and principal Marion Dickerman (third from left)

4. As much as she could, ER remained a dedicated teacher despite FDR’s growing political career.

Throughout FDR’s two terms as governor of New York, from 1929 to 1932, ER made weekly train trips from Albany to Todhunter rather than give up her teaching duties. At the time, this refusal to give up her work was rather unusual for a political wife – and unusual, actually, for any wife of a financially secure husband.

ER juggled teaching, family and business engagements. After teaching all morning, she would attend political events in the evening. On Wednesdays, she returned to Albany and to her roles as First Lady of New York and mother to five children.

Only when FDR was elected President in 1933 did ER finally, reluctantly, leave her teaching career.

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5. She never forgot the teacher who inspired her.

ER modeled her teaching on Marie Souvestre, a radical, feminist educator and founder of Allenswood, the school Eleanor attended from ages 15 to 18.

Roosevelt admired Souvestre’s brilliant mind, formidable presence and commitment to creativity and intellectual rigor. ER recalled being “expected to do a good deal of independent reading and research” and working hard on her papers though she had seen Souvestre “take a girl’s paper and tear it in half in her disgust and anger at poor or shoddy work.”

Allenswood was where the adolescent Eleanor began to express her opinions, feel confident in her abilities and take on leadership roles. “For the first time in all my life all my fears left me,” she said.

ER's Allenswood school portrait

ER at 15

Souvestre and Roosevelt became lifelong friends.

After Souvestre’s death in 1905, ER kept her beloved teacher’s picture on her desk, and carried her teacher’s letters with her always.

souvestre

Marie Souvestre, also a badass teacher

Today also happens to be the International Day of the Girl. What a perfect pairing of women’s education advocates!

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15 Ways to Be Kind to Yourself on the First Days of School

Whether you’ve been back for a few weeks, or just a day or two — you did it!

You made it out of bed at an ungodly hour, rocked a fresh first-day outfit, and presented your Teacher Self to a new crop of kids.

You’re taking attendance, writing those first parent e-mails, planning lessons, doing lunch duty, attending meetings, assigning first homeworks, and collecting first homeworks.

Maybe you’re teaching a brand-new course this year, or taking on a new responsibility as coach or advisor, too.

Through all of this, you’re delivering instruction to multiple groups of differently abled, very distractible kids.

So, please remember — it’s OK if…

1. You don’t know most of your students’ names yet.

2. It takes you a full five minutes to remember old students’ names when they say hello in the hallway.

namesticker

It’ll come to me…

3. Your desk is already a mess of papers.

This week's grading

100% authentic piles of grading

4. You didn’t have time to make that perfect bulletin board / seating chart / welcome letter like you’d planned to do.

marvelous-multiplication-bulletin-board

I’ve never made a bulletin board this pretty. Ever.

5. You already had to change a lesson because the copier was jammed or occupied.

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Sad sight for sore eyes

6. You already had to change a lesson because the computer / projector / DVD player / TV / internet didn’t work.

test colors TV

“Hey, who here is good at TV stuff?”

7. You forgot to turn off your phone during class.

8. You forgot to go to the bathroom, even when you had a minute.

Imagine going to the bathroom when you need to...

Should’ve gone during prep!

9.  Your perfect “first days” lesson was not the raging success you’d envisioned.

10. You haven’t had time to catch up properly with your colleagues because of all the work that needs to be done.

11. You’re already grading or playing on your phone during the first full faculty meeting. (Do as I say, not as I do…)

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Official story: teachers don’t have friends or use Facebook.

12. Your second-day outfit was not as polished as your first-day outfit. (Soon, you’ll be proud to have made it to school with matching socks!)

13.  You didn’t have time to make lunch and/or dinner.

School Food - Chicken Nuggets

School lunch it is…

14. You didn’t have time to make that doctor’s appointment.

15. You’re already falling asleep on the couch when you get home!

It's OK to be dog-tired!

It’s OK to be dog-tired!

Remember, teachers do heroic things, but you’re still human!

Rinse and repeat if you’re a first-year teacher.

Also: what would you add to this list?

Let’s Hear it for the Heroines

The past week has been an education in the civil rights movement for me.

As I was researching my post on teacher/activist Septima Clark, I began reading about the March on Washington, too. For all of her work towards equality and jobs for African Americans; for all of the inspiration she offered speakers at the March like John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr., I thought: Surely Septima must have been invited to speak, too!

But I couldn’t find any record of that happening, and discovered that women’s voices were not well represented at the March overall.  Here’s what I learned from The Root , Teaching Tolerance, and Democracy Now:

– There was a “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom,” but Septima Clark was not among those honored.

– Medgar Evers’s widow, Myrlie Evers, was scheduled as the speaker for the tribute to women, but got stuck in traffic and didn’t get to speak at all  had a prior speaking engagement in Boston.

Daisy Bates was tapped to speak in Evers’s place . Her remarks were about a minute long, and she was the only woman to address the crowd during the official program.

– There were two separate marches: the men walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the women — including Daisy Bates and Rosa Parks — walked down Independence Avenue.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Septima Clark, and all the unsung heroines of the civil rights movement, deserve better. (Where’s Clark’s comic book??)

As a small celebration of Clark, I made two education-themed “posters” of her. Please share and enjoy!

septimaClarkrichlyalive

septimastudyinquire

10 Reasons Septima Clark was a Badass Teacher

Septima Clark was an educator and activist who made enormous contributions to the civil rights movement. Here’s why she deserves just as much fame as Dr. King (and why he thought so, too):

1. She rose from humble beginnings — and the legacy of slavery — to start teaching at age 18.

Septima Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1898. Her father was born into slavery and didn’t learn to read and write until he was an adult. Her mother was a washerwoman though she was educated as a child in Haiti.

Clark was the second of eight children. Because she couldn’t afford to attend college, she got her teacher’s license after graduating high school in 1916. It was the start of a 40-year career as a public school teacher.

2. She was deeply committed to professional development.

After her husband died in 1925, Clark moved to Columbia, South Carolina, and sent her son to North Carolina to live with his grandparents. Though it was a painful separation, it allowed her to keep teaching and pursue a college degree.

In the summers, she studied at Columbia University in New York, and at Atlanta University. She earned a bachelor’s from Benedict College in 1942, and a master’s from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in 1945.

3. She never let racism dampen her commitment to teaching and social justice.

In 1916, when she realized she couldn’t work in Charleston because black teachers weren’t allowed to teach there, Clark left the city and began teaching in John’s Island, South Carolina.

When a 1956 state law demanded that she give up membership in the NAACP or lose her job, she moved to Tennessee, where she became the director of education at Highlander Folk School and remained an active member of the NAACP.

4. She fought tirelessly for the fair treatment of black teachers in her home state.

Clark campaigned for a law allowing black teachers to work in Charleston’s public schools, which was passed in 1920.

She also worked with Thurgood Marshall on legislation that gave black teachers equal pay in Columbia, South Carolina.

5. Clark helped thousands combat racism through education.

With a loan from the Highlander Folk School, Clark helped found the first Citizenship School on John’s Island in 1957. In addition to providing social justice training to civil rights activists, Citizenship Schools taught literacy as a means to civic freedom for poor blacks who had never received schooling. They learned practical skills, like how to fill out driver’s license forms, read the newspaper, and open a bank account.

Clark with a student in Wilcox County, Alabama thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com

Clark with a student in Wilcox County, Alabama
http://thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com/tag/septima-clark/

By 1970, there were Citizenship Schools all over the South — nearly 10,000 teachers and 200 schools in all.

6. She paved the way for the (recently gutted) Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Through the workshops she led at Highlander, and the curriculum she designed for Citizenship Schools, Clark helped thousands learn to sign their own names and read the Constitution so they could pass literacy tests designed to exclude blacks from voting. She also taught them to read and understand the voting laws in their state.

Clark at one of her Citizenship Schools in South Carolina. http://www.crmvet.org/images/imgeyes.htm

Clark (center) at one of her Citizenship Schools in South Carolina.
http://www.crmvet.org/images/imgeyes.htm

7. Threats of violence and jail time couldn’t stop her.

Though she experienced troubling incidents — including being physically threatened by the KKK in Natchez, Mississippi in 1965, and getting arrested for teaching integrated classes in 1959 — Clark pressed on.

“None of those things discouraged me,” she said.

8. Her teaching inspired Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Four months after attending one of Clark’s workshops at Highlander, Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white man — and sparked the Montgomery bus boycott. Parks said of Clark, “I wanted to have the courage to accomplish the kinds of things that she had been doing for years.”

Clark (left) with Rosa Parks at the Highlander Folk School in 1955, right before the Montgomery bus boycott. http://www.crmvet.org/images/imgeyes.htm

Clark (left) with Rosa Parks at the Highlander Folk School in 1955, right before the Montgomery bus boycott.
http://www.crmvet.org/images/imgeyes.htm

John Lewis, another famed civil rights leader and current Georgia Congressman, was also profoundly influenced by Clark’s teaching at Highlander.

In his memoir Walking with the Wind, he writes, “What I loved about Clark was her down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach, and the fact that the people she aimed at were…the same ones I could identify with, having grown up poor and barefoot and black.”

When Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he had Clark join him at the ceremony because he felt she deserved just as much credit for her work.

Clark has remained a relatively unsung hero of the movement. Lewis admits: “Her name might be generally unknown today, but she was a powerful influence on many of us during that formative time.”

9. She was an outspoken feminist.

Clark criticized the men she worked with who dismissed her and other women’s contributions to civil rights, calling their sexism “one of the weaknesses of the movement.”

In 1958, she spoke to the National Organization of Women about black and white women’s shared struggle against male domination.

She even encouraged the use of birth control in a time when the matter wasn’t openly discussed. Clark realized that too many black women and children suffered from having large families without adequate resources.

10. After retiring in 1970, Clark continued to fight inequality and serve her community.

In 1976, she won the back pay and pension that was denied to her when she was fired from her South Carolina teaching job in 1956 for being a member of the NAACP.

Clark in her later years laureltobyedison.com

Clark in her later years
http://www.laurietobyedison.com

She served on the Charleston County school board from 1975 – 1978, when she was nearly 80 years old.

Big thanks to Zinn Education Project for this post idea. Check out their page on Clark’s book Freedom’s Teacher, and their teaching materials on the civil rights movement!

Sources

Interviews with Jaquelyn Hall (1, 2)
King Center
AKA Authors
U of South Carolina — Aiken
Safero
StateUniversity

Great Teachers in History: Freidl Dicker-Brandeis

Never heard of Freidl Dicker-Brandeis? Neither had I, until my first visit to Prague last month.

Friedl-1936

While visiting the city’s Jewish Museum, I learned about this woman’s amazing impact on the children in the Terezin ghetto (also known as Theresienstadt), located about 50 miles north of Prague.

Dicker-Brandeis was deported to Terezin in 1942. She organized daily art lessons for over 600 children during her two years there. Like many art teachers, she helped her students learn the basics of line, color, and shape, and encouraged them to express their feelings in their work.

But her classes were held in secret, and materials were severely limited. In preparation for teaching at Terezin, she had stuffed her allotted suitcase with mostly art supplies.

Along with her unshakeable belief in the necessity of art, what makes Dicker-Brandeis remarkable is the emotional support she provided to children experiencing unspeakable trauma.

These children had been torn from their homes and forcibly separated from their parents, who would be sent to concentration camps like Auschwitz to die.

Freidl herself was sent to Auschwitz in 1944, along with 60 of her students.

Helga Kinsky, one of her few surviving students, said of her teacher:

“[She] transported us to a different world…. She painted flowers in windows, a view out of a window. She had a totally different approach…. She didn’t make us draw Terezin.”

Eva Dorian, another student who survived, said, “I believe that what she wanted from us was not directly linked to drawing, but rather to the expression of different feelings, to the liberation from our fears…these were not normal lessons, but lessons in emancipated meditation” (Quotes from Yad Vashem).

Before her deportation to Auschwitz in 1944, Freidl buried about 4,500 drawings in two suitcases. The drawings were discovered ten years later. Here are some of them.

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terezin photo 3

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For more on Dicker-Brandeis and her students:

I Never Saw Another Butterfly

Through a Narrow Window

And, I’d like to make Great Badass Teachers in History an ongoing feature, with your help.

Who else should be remembered for teaching “lessons in emancipated meditation”? Which educators deserve wider recognition by history?

What a Great English Teacher Makes

Got my first thank-you letter submission of the summer, and boy, is it a tough act to follow.

It’s basically every English teacher’s dream for her students: that they become passionate, prolific readers; sincere, reflective writers; and critical thinkers about themselves and the world.

I couldn’t help but think of Taylor Mali’s famous, “What Teachers Make” in titling this post.

I’m also reminded of “The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” from this past Sunday’s New York Times. English professor Verlyn Klinkenborg writes,

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.

No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.

Thank you to my old colleague Lauren for sharing this letter, and for being the amazing teacher who passed on a “rare and precious inheritance” to this student!

msmthankyoucard

msmthankyou2

Mrs. Malanka,

Thank you so much for everything that you had done for me this year! 🙂 Even though, initially, I felt as though I was never going to improve my abilities in English class, through your instructions and encouragements,  I was able to transform my past inclinations — to be shy and silent at all times, to cherish books of my savor only, to accept all opinions as truth, and to adamantly write as I had done in the past. Now, I feel a lot more comfortable to share my own stance, and to sort out some other stances that contradicts mine. Nowadays, I am in love with reading! (which is very new for me. As a child, reading used to [be] my least favorite)

I have started my summer reading and will be reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, as you had advised the students who enjoyed Mark Twain’s satirical style of writing that made the readers chuckle every few paragraphs or so. In addition, unlike I have been used to, I learned to ponder as I read, and pay attention to the profound meanings that the authors hoped to portray. And since I had discovered this exhilarating exercise, I fell in love with all kinds of books! 🙂

Additionally, from you, I have learned to try my best to read news articles as frequently as possible to expand my horizon. So far, it has been an fortifying experience. I truly believed that if I were not in your class, taking an AP course, I would never have (or really late) encountered the beauty in reading and writing. I became more used to editing many times and cutting out parts that were [not] important in a coherent essay. Although I still have a long way to go as a writer, I believe you have launched me into the world of reading and writing that I have been avoiding my entire life. So I thank you for this exposure to a fascinating way to look, not only at novels, but also at nature, appreciating the harmony that is embedded everywhere amongst the readers, people, nature, and novels. Thank you so much also for writing my recommendation! 🙂 You’re a great teacher, and this year (English) was honestly the best experience that I have ever had regarding a humanity class!!! 🙂 Oh, and I hope you don’t find the pen* too troublesome; I thought you would enjoy collecting another set of pens! 🙂

Plus, I can definitely see you writing a great novel with such a pen! 🙂

Have a great summer, and I will keep in touch! Thank you!

*The student also gave her a cool feather pen along with the card.

Summer send-off for those who teach

Happy Friday and happy summer! Celebrate the occasion with me by sending your thank-you letters to teachers.

Let’s give those teachers who still have a few days of school left (I’m looking at you, New York metro area) a boost, too.

Maybe you received a handwritten note from a student on the last day of school that made you smile and tear up a bit. Maybe this letter reaffirmed why you’ve worked so hard this year.

Maybe you’re the student who wrote that note by hand to express your gratitude for how much you’ve discovered this year because of that one teacher.

For inspiration, here are the letters I shared last year:

Sweet ‘Refreshment’

‘A little praise’ goes a long way

The College Board can’t touch this.

Outstanding special effects

Grab this jet pack.

And, to get the ball rolling, here’s a letter I saved from a few years back. Though it’s not handwritten, I still appreciate its sincerity, and the way this quiet student spoke to me through writing. Having been a quiet student myself, I can understand how not speaking does not necessarily mean students are not engaged or thinking.

thankyouIS (1)

Everything he needs to know, he learned in 4T.

It’s been more than two months since my last post! To help make up for that gap, here’s a story so good, I think it’s movie material…

Almost 40 years later, Jeff Kelly Lowenstein still remembers the feeling of community in “4T,” Paul Tamburello’s fourth grade class at Pierce School in Brookline, Massachusetts. “He knew all of us, and had high expectations for us,” Jeff says. “He was really good about letting us know that he saw what we were doing, whether it was doing well or misbehaving.”

Jeff (right) learns to use chopsticks in 4T.
photo credit: Paul Tamburello

Though he graduated from 4T in 1974, Jeff kept coming back to visit his old teacher, even throughout high school and college.  During these visits, Jeff recalls, “He would always say, ‘What do you remember from 4T?’ Then he would use that information to think about how to approach the class.” This commitment to continual improvement inspired Jeff, who began working at Pierce – first as a recess aide, and then, after graduation from Stanford, as an apprentice teacher to Tamburello for two years, beginning in 1987.

Jeff as Mr. Tamburello's apprentice teacher Photo courtesy of Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

Jeff as Mr. Tamburello’s apprentice teacher
Photo courtesy of Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

On the experience of having Jeff back in his classroom as an aspiring teacher, Paul Tamburello writes:

I was used to training student teachers but none with whom I had this kind of history. I hesitated. Was my work good enough, rigorous enough, to keep him engaged? I knew Jeff held me in high regard, maybe even considered me a role model. It’s a long fall from a pedestal to the solid, hard earth. Finally, I took the advice I gave my students. Don’t be afraid to try, maybe even fail.

(…)

There were days I shook my head and grinned in wonder. Jeff’s initiative was taking our relationship into rich uncharted territory. This was giving the term “student teacher” a whole new dimension. It would give us things to talk about for years to come.

By our second year of co-teaching, it was, “Jeff and I expect you to…” or “Mr. Tamburello and I expect you to…” as we ran the classroom. Jeff may be the only kid in America who got a post-graduate degree in fourth grade. It was the richest experience of my 34-year career.

In 1992, Jeff finally had his own classroom: he began teaching Social Studies and English at Brown Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts — only five miles away from Pierce School. Mr. Tamburello continued to guide his student of now 18 years:

“I would emulate a lot of the things I learned from his classroom, including his sense of discipline, and the positive environment he established.” Jeff adds, “Now, when I would go back to visit, he would still be trying new things, and this would give me more homework to do as a teacher.”

Jeff’s memoir about these experiences, On My Teacher’s Shoulders, was published in 2012.  On his decision to write a book about Mr. Tamburello, Jeff says, “A big motivation was to honor the different, but related types of impact he played on me over the course of 30 years. It was not a static relationship: each time [I came back] there was something different that I had to learn and he had to teach me. I feel very fortunate that he had the strength and humility to let me know what he was gaining each of those different times. That helped me understand the reciprocity of shared important experiences.”

Paul (left) and Jeff (right) at Paul's retirement partyphoto courtesy of Jeff Kelley Lowenstein

Paul (left) and Jeff (right) in 2012
photo courtesy of Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

Many of us are fortunate to have had teachers who’ve shaped us for the better, including what kind of teachers we are and aspire to be. I also love how this story highlights the lifelong learning and cameraderie that can grow between teacher and student — and how the distinctions between these roles can blur in exciting, unexpected ways.

Have you kept in touch with a teacher long after leaving his or her class? Have you returned to teach at a school you attended?

A Kind of Dreaming

I wore green and white to school today, for the students and faculty of Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT.

Like so many others, I’ve been struggling to process last Friday’s horrific shooting: I’ve refreshed the Lede blog on the New York Times website countless times, read opinion piece after opinion piece on gun control, and tried to articulate my own point of view as a teacher and education writer.

As storytelling animals, we immediately grasp for “Why?” — especially when it can’t be understood.

For now, I’d like to remember the story before the story, about the people who served their school with pride and selflessness well before the world was watching.

As Tim O’Brien writes in The Things They Carried, “…in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.”

Victoria Soto, 27, taught first grade at the school for five years. She lived with her mother, brother, and sisters in Stratford, CT. She loved teaching and her pet labrador, Roxie. She was studying for a Master’s degree in Special Education.

Lauren Rousseau, 30, was a permanent substitute teacher at Sandy Hook. “Lauren wanted to be a teacher even before she went to kindergarten,” her mother said. Besides teaching, Lauren enjoyed music, dance, and theater. She made cupcakes in celebration of the new “Hobbit” movie, and had been planning to see the film with her boyfriend on Friday night.

Dawn Hochsprung, 47, was the principal of the school for two years. She often shared school-related Twitter updates on everything from band concerts to professional development workshops. Sometimes, she dressed up as the Sandy Hook Book Fairy. Dawn met her husband George while she was an assistant principal and he was a seventh-grade math teacher. She had two daughters, three stepdaughters, and 11 grandchildren.

Mary Scherlach, a 56-year-old school psychologist, was preparing to retire after 18 years at Sandy Hook. She was married for 31 years, and was the mother to two daughters in their 20s. Her hobbies included gardening, reading, and theater.

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.)