May is Teacher Appreciation Month in the U.S. Across the country, classrooms celebrate by showering their teachers with special breakfasts or lunches. I know this only because a close friend of mine is a teacher, and in May she received four free breakfast extravaganzas on behalf of her school’s PTA, complete with chocolate chip pancakes (am I the only one suddenly thinking about switching career paths?). But as enticing as the food sounded, I got to thinking about some of my own childhood teachers.
My favorite teacher was Mr. Muzzey, my ninth-grade math teacher (I bet not many people can say that about their own math teachers!). He was tough, and learning to do things his way was not easy. Talking with my friend about him made me think back to my first few months at Mad*Pow. I always knew that his class had left an impact on me, but never took the time to figure out exactly how.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that what Mr. Muzzey taught me – no, the way he taught me – was directly related to how quickly I became comfortable at Mad*Pow. Within my first week, I was put in charge of analyzing Mad*Pow’s progress margins. The goal: to make our resources as productive as possible. I surprised myself with how fast I caught on; but of course, there was something I didn’t realize – it would have taken a lot longer had it not been for a certain ninth-grade math teacher.
It was decided – Mr. Muzzey deserved a letter.
Dear Mr. Muzzey,
I’ve never considered myself as someone who enjoyed math, or was particularly good at it. The calculus class I took with you senior year was the last time I did math on a regular basis. Yes, I took a statistics class in college, taught by a graduate student who clearly had better things to do than teach sophomores. But then I started my job at Mad*Pow. My title was Operations Coordinator, and I quickly found out – much to my horror – that math was going to be a part of my daily life.
In 21 years of teaching high school math, I’m sure you’ve dealt with your fair share of students who have rolled their eyes about the practicality of algebra, geometry, and calculus. I’m even willing to admit that in those first days of ninth-grade, I too, may have rolled my eyes one or two times. My 15 year-old self was pretty sure she had a solid handle on the things she would and wouldn’t need to do well in the world, and math fell into the latter. My 15-year-old self was also sometimes wrong.
On the first day of ninth grade you explained to us that ALL of our work was to be shown, for each problem, done neatly and step by step (one step per line.) For each of our 20 problems you expected us to use at least half a sheet of notebook paper, which meant by the time I was done with my homework I would have consumed at least five (if I used both sides of the paper, as you instructed) sheets of paper. It seemed like a lot of work for something I would never need. Who in their “adult life” spends time solving for x, I thought? Needless to say, I was not bursting at the seams to bust out that night’s homework.
Before you jump all over me, understand this. I know algebra has its place in every-day life. Like in such conundrums as: I have twelve guests coming for dinner; I want to make pies for desert; if each pie has eight pieces, how many pies do I need? I admit it – that pesky little x is useful in situations like these. But 15 year-old me had something a little different in mind, something more along the lines of a math nerd sitting in a cubicle all day, completing complex algebraic equations, ream after ream of paper cascading off her desk. A practical thought? No. But when was the last time you met a practical 15 year-old girl?
Here comes the chance for you to give me a big, fat “I told you so.” It took eight years, but I’ve now realized just how much you taught me.
At Mad Pow, one of my first tasks was to create a bi-weekly margin project report for our various projects. My boss had set up a spreadsheet to track this progress; all I had to do was import the data. Low and behold, curiosity got the better of me. I realized there was a good chance I’d have to talk about the data, and that understanding the calculations behind it might help me do this. So I copied the lengthy formula onto a piece of paper, writing the name for the data that was referenced in each cell. Then I pulled the actual numbers from the first row in the sheet and did the math out myself to run the equation (well, with some help from my handy TI-83 – the same one I used in your very classroom.) Step by step, I worked out what was being calculated and what it meant. By the end of the equation I had filled an entire sheet of copy paper with each step of the problem.
Sure, I could have saved myself some time and just asked my boss to tell me what the formula was doing, but it was important to me that I could figure it out myself (no one’s ever accused me of not being independent.). Over the last two years, experience has taught me how to interpret the data even better, but it wouldn’t have come as quickly without the skills I learned in your class. By forcing us to solve equations line by line, you taught us so much more than algebra. You taught us how to analyze our thinking around solving the problem. This is exactly what I did when I pulled the formula out and did it by hand. By filtering the data line by line, I could understand the mechanics behind the calculation; see what pieces of the “puzzle” were most important, and where the cause and effect relationship lied.
It frightens me to admit it, but I kind of like math now. To be responsible for that – for imparting not just facts, but also a new way of thinking is a reward you should treasure. It’s something I’m thankful for everyday. Now, I know how to approach a problem, as well as how to understand my missteps and successes. These lessons probably apply to things I haven’t even begun to realize. Most of all, thank you for teaching me how to kick ass at my job.
Amy E. Wolfe
Class of 2004