I had one minute to complete the “holey card,” a card riddled with rows of holes in which I filled in the answers to multiplication facts. One minute. And then time was up. Only half of my card was completed; I had failed. The embarrassment and discouragement welled in my eyes and for the first time in my elementary school career, I cried in front of the entire class. That’s when it all began.
Fast forward through high school geometry and calculus, extra help sessions with teachers, and math team meets so I could simply accrue extra credit. I never did poorly in my classes but I always felt like I just got by without fully understanding the concepts, scraping out As and Bs in a subject I knew so little about.
Needless to say, my math education has culminated in my hating, loathing, despising numbers. So when I enrolled in a graduate level statistics course last semester, I had high anxiety and low expectations. I could do this, I told myself; I was no longer an intimidated high schooler or struggling college student. Until two weeks into the course when the textbook and my professor began speaking a foreign language.
In my frantic search for help, I found Kevin, a baseball coach and AP Statistics teacher who worked at the opposite end of the high school. On that first day Kevin assuaged my fears, told me he could help me easily and opened his schedule to meet with me after school. I am not crier, but in that moment, I almost shed tears over math for the second time in my life. Kevin gave me hope that somehow I would make it through statistics, somehow I, the queen of number avoidance, would do well.
Kevin made me feel valued. When I first arrived in his classroom I was overwhelmed and uncomfortable. I felt bad asking for extra help from a teacher who already had a full course load and plenty of students to attend to, but Kevin never made me feel like a nuisance. He welcomed me into his classroom and told me I was helping him prepare for his future units of study. These afternoon minilessons, he told me, were helping him develop his second semester lessons. I’m not sure whether or not that was true, but he convinced me that somehow my presence was valuable.
Kevin made himself available. Every day Kevin would stay after school to help his students on their math. I remember one time distinctly when I arrived fifteen minutes after school to find him excitedly reviewing concepts with two of his students. I sat at the back of the room and waited my turn in line. There were no time restrictions and Kevin always cast aside whatever he was working on to pull up a chair alongside me. One week he spent two hours sitting with me on a Friday afternoon, long after the janitor swept circles around our desk.
Kevin made me feel like an equal. Walking into his classroom for the first time felt exposing; I was acknowledging to another teacher just how much math baffled me. Yet Kevin openly admitted his perplexity with English. He told me how mentors and friends had helped him throughout his life in areas he had struggled with, and that because of their guidance, he was able to succeed. I told him that I would edit or write anything he needed—I’d pay him back with my pen. Somehow this trading of trades made me feel less weak and more empowered as both an educator and student.
Finally, Kevin acknowledged my hard work and determination. Too often we grade based on whether an answer is right or wrong. I got my fair share of answers wrong, but Kevin praised my work. He actually saw the countless hours I committed to my assignments and study instead of discrediting me for being slow. He praised the fact that I was balancing a job and class; he was understanding of my determination to succeed both as a teacher and a student.
Ultimately, Kevin’s compassion and kindness brought me to reflect on my own classroom and the students who arrived at my door, terrified of reading, loathing writing, shutting down simply because they too had a scarring moment or incidence that defined their disgust for my subject. I learned more than math from Kevin this semester. I learned that to lead students into our subject, we must make them feel valued within our community. We must work to acknowledge their strengths and show them that we are all equals when it comes to developing as readers and writers. We must praise their hard work and determination far more than their failures, and we must make ourselves available both in and outside of class to have meaningful conversations and connections. In the end, we are never too old to change our outlook and education. After all, one teacher can make the difference.