Building Character, Not Just Academics

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On my very first day of teaching EVER, I invited my students into the classroom and instructed them to write on the board in response to three prompts:

  1. What are your expectations of me as your teacher?
  2. What are your expectations of each other as classmates?
  3. What are your expectations of yourself this year in my class?

After about five minutes I had everyone sit down, and we reviewed their responses as a class. These would become our social contract for the year.

In each of my six class periods, I was largely pleased with their responses. Some students wrote a teacher expectation of “no homework” and the like, but for the most part, I saw phrases like “be patient with us” and “be kind, not mean”. Against such things there is no law.

However, in second period when I asked, “Is there anything else anyone wants to add that they may not have written up on the board?”, a large, dark-haired boy in the front row raised his hand.

“Yes…” I checked my seating chart, “…Art?”

His brows drew together angrily. “One of my expectations of you as our teacher is that you get kids out of here who don’t deserve to be in this class.”

The previously silent classroom seemed to get even quieter. Perhaps I had heard wrong. “Excuse me, what?”

He repeated himself. “Like those two.” He pointed down the row at two smaller boys, Ernie and Kevin. “They’re not smart enough to be in Pre-AP, but their parents put them in here anyway. You should kick them out of your advanced math class or they’ll hold back the whole class.”

Stunned, it was purely by the grace of God that I managed a reasonable response. “Well, Art, that leads us nicely into our next topic, which is ‘Expectations of Each Other as Classmates’. You’ll see all over this board words like ‘kind’ and ‘respectful’.” I looked pointedly at him. “So we’re not going to have any more comments like that in my classroom. Is that understood?”

Art stayed behind after class. He told me again his concerns. Totally flabbergasted at his blatant arrogance and prejudice, I suggested, “You know, Art, I’m happy to have you come alongside me as the teacher and help tutor some of these other students if they need to be brought up to speed. Instead of tearing down our classmates, let’s work together to build them up, okay?”

Art laughed – a hardened, angry laugh. “They’re beyond help.” And he walked out of my room.

Yesterday I gave my first test of the year, and I marveled as I graded the papers from second period. The high-and-mighty Art only got 20% right. And little Ernie got an 80%.

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. -Proverbs 16:18

Authentically Aurora

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A Job from Jehovah-Jireh (Part 5)

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I woke up in the pitch black of early morning on the day of the Kl*** ISD career fair. I pulled on a blazer over my white blouse and applied mascara to my sleepy eyes. Why am I putting myself through this? I already have a job offer. But I climbed into my little blue Beemer and drove north toward my childhood home.

Having attended three teaching career fairs at that point, I felt like I knew what to expect, but I was surprised when I pulled into the high school parking lot and saw hundreds of people marching toward the entrance like little ants in business suits. There were definitely over a thousand people in attendance – my largest career fair yet.

I waited in line for 45 minutes just to get in the front door and check in at registration. Then I waited in line at each of five junior high booths just to hand in my resume and ask if they had open math positions (three did; two did not). Of the three with math openings, one was my alma mater. That interview went very well, with one of the assistant principals coming over to sit in on my interview with another staff member because it looked like we were having so much fun.

They loved that I’m a former Warrior and spent half of my interview recounting how many of their current staff are alums, asking me if I knew one teacher or another. It turned out that I knew the head of their math department – a male teacher whose first year of teaching was my 8th grade year. He helped out with the math club when I was a student, and – in the words of the assistant principal – “he’d be thrilled to have you on his team!”

My alma mater wasn’t conducting second round interviews until one week later, and when I explained the fact that I had to make a decision about my Land*** offer by Monday, they nodded in understanding. “Well, you’ll definitely be getting a call back, but we can’t push up the timeline, so it’s up to you if you want to take the offer in hand or hold off and come to our final round interview.”

I walked away feeling pretty confident in my decision. Although some people might like working in their former junior high school, to me it felt a bit odd, like I was moving backwards in life to a place where I spent my most awkward years. Still further, even if I went to final round interviews, there was no guarantee I’d get the job. I would take the offer from Land*** and forgo further interviews with my alma mater.

My second of three interviews with junior highs that morning went fine but not great. The interviewer was a young math teacher who was not warm and friendly but also not cold and distant; she was just going through the motions, and the interview felt somewhat rote. I wrote off the rote interview and moved on to my last interview of the day: an open math teacher position at Ul**** Intermediate.

Petite Firecracker.jpgI liked the principal from the moment I shook her hand. A petite blonde with a pixie cut and energetic personality, the principal herself was the one to interview me. Like me, she had entered the world of education after working in industry, and we hit it off immediately. She loved all of my responses to her interview questions, and before long, we were going off script. “You know,” she began, “with your engineering background and creative interests, I’m actually thinking you would be a great fit for our new robotics program. This will be our first year to implement robotics at Ul****, and it will just be one class period, but would you be interested in teaching one class of robotics as well as math?”

I was ecstatic. What a fun opportunity! To get to teach a brand new program and make it my own, combining my love of math with hands-on creativity? It sounded perfect, especially when I remembered that Seth had taken 2nd place at a national robotics competition in college. I knew he would love to be a guest speaker and come help the kids with their projects.

When our time was up, the principal told me that her one concern – my heart sank – was “that I’ll lose you to another school.”

Relieved, I smiled; then laughed and added, “Funny you should mention that…” I explained about the offer from Land*** and that I needed to give them an answer by Monday.

“I was afraid of that,” she said with what I’d come to learn was her usual intensity. She leaned forward, elbows on the desk. “You’re a catch, Aurora. And I think you know that. You’d be an asset to any school you choose – and you can have your pick of districts. What you need to decide is what you want. Do you want to be at – ” she named my alma mater “- where all the kids are upper middle class? Or do you want to be at Land*** and a Title I school?”

Leslie explained to me that Ul**** has a mix of students from all walks of life. Some students came from mansions, others live on farmland, and still others come to school from trailer parks across the tracks. “It’s a mix, and that’s part of what I love about this school.” She added that she wasn’t sure she could get me an offer by Monday, but she was going to try.

“There are hundreds of people here,” she told me, “And you’re the only one I’ve wanted to give an offer to on the spot. I want you, but I don’t have an official offer to give yet. But I can tell you that it is coming – if not by Monday, then definitely by Tuesday.”

I thanked Leslie for her candor and let her know the feeling was mutual. “I know having good administration is absolutely key, and I think I would really enjoy working for you.”

Leslie shook my hand, told me we’d be in touch, and then – on my way out to my car – my phone rang. It was Leslie, asking if I was still around to meet the district’s Head of HR. I turned back around and met up with Leslie and the Head of Human Resources who reassured me that working for Leslie would be a dream job and that he could personally back the fact that an offer would be in my hands by Tuesday if not Monday. “You must be quite a catch for Leslie to be so impressed by you and willing to give you an offer on the spot!”

True to their word, I had an offer on Monday afternoon. So that Monday – April 3, my last day of an eight-year career in oil & gas – I sat in a corporate conference room, called Land*** to turn down their offer, and called Leslie to accept her offer as a 7th grade Pre-AP Math teacher for the 2017-2018 school year.

Mere hours later, I walked out of that corporate skyscraper for the last time ever. I walked out into the sunlight, never unemployed for a single moment, and marveled at the perfection of God’s timing. Our omniscient, omnipotent God is so intimate and compassionate toward His creation. He truly is Jehovah-Jireh: God our Provider.

Authentically Aurora

Teaching Math to Hoodlums

Latte ArtI love math.

And coffee.

And when the two come together for an afternoon of pure, unexpected awesomeness.

For about a month now, I have been coaching a junior high Math Club. Every Thursday afternoon, I leave work a little bit early to drive to a local middle school and teach Number Sense (competitive mental math) to about a dozen 7th and 8th graders.

Yes, I was a nerdy Mathlete once upon a time, spending my Saturdays at math competitions. Fortunately for American society, I now teach other young, impressionable children to be equally as nerdy. Luckily for these kids, some brilliant fashionista coined the term “hipster” so they have a chance to be cool while being smart. I cannot say I was so fortunate back in my day.

On the week I started this volunteer work, I allowed a lot of extra time for traffic, not knowing how long it would take me to drive across town. I ended up arriving almost an hour early, so I stopped by a neighboring Starbucks to kill some time while I waited for the after school program to start.

As I climbed out of my car – still in my business suit – and walked up to the door of Starbucks, some teenagers dressed in all black with punk accessories started to catcall me. One in particular, with sunken eyes and an untamed mass of curls, called out, “Hey lady, will you buy me a drink?”

I looked him up and down and asked why I should do that. He said, “Because it’s freezing out here!”

It’s true that it was cold outside, but when I asked, “Why don’t you go inside then?”, he looked dumbfounded for a second; then replied with sass, “I’m so cold, I’m frozen in place!”

I lifted my chin and told him, “Then you’re not smart enough to earn yourself a drink.”

I walked inside, got in line to order, and had a crazy thought. I am an engineer, not a teacher, and it would be nice to run through my lesson plan with a practice audience. The punk kids outside all wanted coffee (and obviously needed some positive adult attention), so I got out of line before I could over think the wild idea.

I popped my head outside and called to the dozen teenagers skulking about, “Hey, anybody who wants a free coffee, come with me! If you are willing to sit and listen to fifteen minutes’ worth of a math lesson, I’ll buy you a drink!”

The curly-haired boy who had asked me for a hot drink only moments earlier gaped at me with wide eyes, astonished. “Are you serious?”

“I sure am. Are you coming?” I held the door open for him as he walked in, along with five of his friends.

They had been angry, aggressive kids outside, wrapped in their claimed misunderstood status, but once in line with me, the transformation in their collective demeanor was astounding. They were all suddenly shy, polite, and sweet.

Every single teen, when he or she got to the front of the line, looked up at me with big eyes and asked shyly, “Does it matter what size I get?” I loved that they asked, and I loved that I could tell them, “Get whatever you want. It’s my treat.”

After the last kid had ordered, and I paid for their drinks along with my tall cafe mocha (with whip, of course), the cashier asked me skeptically, “Is this some kind of community outreach program?”

I laughed, “Nope. This is just me loving on some kids and practicing my math lesson.”

The woman raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips, looking scornfully at the teens behind me. “Well you treat them better than we do.” These kids must be the bane of her existence, always hanging around outside the store, seemingly up to no good.

Once all of the teens were settled with their inevitably Venti-sized drinks in their hands, I started the lesson. I walked them through LIOF and the Rule of 11, first explaining how each mental math trick worked; then talking through examples. I let the kids pick the numbers we used, getting them involved in the exercises. And then I made each of them solve a problem on their own in front of the group.

When my fifteen minutes were almost up, I turned to the curly-haired boy and said, “Okay, you’re the last one. Time to do your sample problem.”

“No, I went at the beginning,” he told me, straight-faced.

“You did?” I asked him.

“No he didn’t!” said the lone girl in the group. “Remember? I went first!”

I raised my eyebrows at the boy and said with a tease in my voice. “This is a Lie-Free Zone. Did you already solve an example for the group?”

He looked down at his shoes. “No,” he told me.

“Alright. Then let’s do one together. I’ll help you. Do you want to do LIOF or the Rule of 11?”

We worked through the problem together, with the other kids surprisingly giving him encouraging comments as he thought through the answer. When he solved the math problem, his eyes lit up. He was so proud of himself that I had to blink quickly to hide the tears welling up in my eyes.

It was an absolute joy to watch the lightbulbs go off in the eyes of these teens; to watch their confidence build over the course of just fifteen minutes. I loved hearing them encourage one another and get excited about learning something new – about math, of all things!

Before long, I had to leave to teach the kids actually involved in Math Club. But I’ve gotta admit, teaching the hoodlums was way more fun. I have been looking for a place to actively volunteer for five years, but organizational bureaucracy or stringent scheduling always has gotten in the way. Maybe I finally found my niche. Maybe it’s time I just start going to different Starbucks and picking out juvenile delinquents to invest in. Math for Mochas. It’s got a nice ring to it.

Authentically Aurora