By Anna Calkins, Contributor
Paw Print: How long have you been teaching, and where have you taught before?
Ms. Smith: This is my 8th year teaching. I taught at a school in Providence, RI for 6 years, and then I also taught one year in Harrisburg, PA; both were high schools. I’ve taught algebra, calculus, and half a year of both pre-calculus and geometry.
Paw Print: What drew you to teaching?
Ms. Smith: Oh, that’s a great question. There are so many reasons. One thing is I’m the first in my family to graduate from college. I remember, when I was in high school, math was a subject that I didn’t have to put a lot of energy in- a lot of it came pretty easy. Then I remember getting into college, and I struggled much more. Knowing that I did okay in high school math and struggled in college, and then knowing that I’m the first in my family to go to college, it was just so much pressure all at once. So, one of the reasons I came into teaching is because I feel like I had very few math teachers that supported me. I think emotionally they were nice to me, but mathematically I feel like that wasn’t the case. So I’m here because I want to have a positive impact on every student’s experience with math.
The other thing is that math education tends to come with this added anxiety. There are a lot of people who feel dumb if they are slow, or struggle, or make a mistake in math; these things are normal but for some reason, in math class, it makes you feel stupid. That’s not how it should be, so that’s one of the big reasons.
I remember, when I was transitioning into the college process, I was really confused and everything seemed really unknown. I chose to teach high school because I want to be there to support that transition.
Paw Print: Oh, my next question was going to be what drew you to teaching math, but you answered that! Instead then- what drew you to Payton?
Ms. Smith: I’m friends with Ms. Roach (we were in the same fellowship together) and I heard great things [about the school]. It was through the Knowles Teacher Initiative; I just heard about how the teachers collaborated a lot and that’s something I have always wanted in all my years of teaching, but have never found. Also, at schools that I taught in, there was a lot of need around social-emotional development because the students just had so many experiences with trauma and poverty; so, I was teaching math but also supporting them emotionally. I think that’s something transferable to Payton, but there’s also a lot of support with that already here, so I’ll be pushed to be a really good math content teacher here. It’s also just really cool, from experience so far, to see students talking and acting on things that they want to see in the school. There are so many clubs that are student-run and that’s so amazing to me.
Paw Print: What has your experience been like, compared to your previous schools?
Ms. Smith: Oh, I think I was getting at that a little bit. My experience has been really positive. I feel like I’m being pushed to grow in ways that I haven’t been pushed in the past- good ways. I don’t think there’s such a thing as an expert teacher; I feel like no matter how much experience you have, you always have room to grow. The students push me here. The teachers push me. Coming from [remote learning], I felt like this year I forgot how to teach. I’m like, wait, I haven’t taught in person and in a while…plus being at a new school… So, it was kind of rough in the beginning, but it’s starting to calm down a bit. It’s good so far- I really like being here.
Paw Print: What impact do you hope to have at Payton? What do you hope your students will be able to do by the end of the year?
Ms. Smith: I think right now I’m in a huge learning phase. I have a lot of ideas, but I catch myself holding them back because I want to see how Payton operates first. In my past experiences, I’ve been really creative with my curriculum. I’ll have students do a lot of group work; a lot of interdisciplinary work. I just hope I’ll be able to bring something valuable to the math department to make the learning for all of the students even more rich and enjoyable. I’m still learning, like I said, but I hope that whatever creative things I’ve tried in the past, I can bring here.
I’m still getting to know all of my 100 plus students. But I hope that by the end of the year students are more confident with their math skills, with communicating about their mathematical ideas, and developing healthy mindsets about their smartness in math. Traditionally, being smart in math is often thought of as [being] quick and accurate. That’s actually not what many mathematicians will say makes a good mathematician. They’ll say that good mathematicians are really good at asking questions. They’re comfortable with not knowing everything.
Paw Print: Okay, I’m going to do a little 180o here and change up the type of questions I’m asking. What’s your favorite color?
Ms. Smith: Oh, I like these questions! No, kidding, I like all the questions. I think it’s green. It’s been green for a while. It just makes me think of nature and that’s so calming to me. I think of it as revitalizing and alive and fresh. I also feel like blue is starting to come back into my favorite color world because of the water. So my favorite colors come from things in nature.
Paw Print: Green is mine too! I completely agree. Do you have a favorite food?
Ms. Smith: “I love so much food. I am torn between sushi and this yellow rice that my fiance makes- he’s Puerto Rican. It’s called arroz con gandules and it’s with chicken or something; it’s just so good. But then I also love ramen. And tacos. Oh, there’s so much good food- pasta!”
Paw Print: Have you ever played any instruments?
Ms. Smith: I used to play piano- I took lessons. I always really wanted to be a really good piano player. I have a keyboard at home, so every once in a while when I have time I’ll try to review. I was in choir when I was in high school, so I didn’t play an instrument. I think singing feeds the soul. Sorry, I just thought of something random. My mom says, if you’re stuck in traffic and you feel stressed, just start screaming or singing really loudly, and you’ll feel better.
Paw Print: That’s so cathartic, yes! What about reading, do you do much? Do you have a favorite book?
Ms. Smith: I do. It’s, again, one of those things… I’m really working on balance, because work takes up so much time; we leave teaching, then we have to grade, make the lesson plan, and do all this stuff. But I do like to read- I tend to read nonfiction, because I use reading as a way to learn something new. It’s a little old, maybe, but I read this book which is now a movie called Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. He’s a civil rights lawyer. I think, to this day, that’s still my favorite book. He spoke with people in prison, and humanized them so much. I feel like there’s so much dehumanizing that happens [in jail]. It’s not just America, it’s all over the world. So the way that he humanized all of these people that tend to be pushed out of our society and neglected was really beautiful. He had so many good stories. Sorry, that’s really heavy.
Paw Print: That sounds really interesting. I guess we’ll make the next question a little lighter- do you have a motto or something of the sort?
Ms. Smith: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams and live the life you’ve imagined.” This used to be my motto in college, because I can be really hard on myself (like self doubt). If you really want to do something, just work your butt off and then see what comes from it- you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Paw Print: I love that. What were your favorite subjects in high school and college? And if you could teach any other subject, what would it be?
Ms. Smith: One class I took (because I had to) was an elective called Islamic Art. It was random, but I learned so much from it. And then also my environmental science classes and philosophy were my favorites in college. I enjoyed math, but I didn’t go into teaching because I love math. I went into teaching because I saw an issue in math education. I wanted to position myself where I could improve math education, and that starts with teaching, obviously. And then, if I wasn’t teaching math, I would really love to teach some kind of science class. It’s such a powerful tool that’s used in our world in so many fields and I would love to learn more about that.
Paw Print: Ok, I’m going to push this question- if you couldn’t teach anything based in math, what would you teach?
Ms. Smith: Assuming that I have the content background, [I would teach] language. I think languages open up your world. If you know multiple languages, you are so powerful because you can communicate in more parts of the world than if you only spoke one language. Especially Spanish. If you know Spanish, you can go to so many countries and navigate and learn about how people live in those countries. It’d be fun to teach that.
Paw Print: Absolutely. Okay, last question: What is something people are usually surprised to find out about you?
Ms. Smith: I think the biggest thing is that I’m half Japanese. That’s why I started saying it on the first day. My mom is 100% Japanese and I was raised mostly by her. I lived in Japan for six years, too. I used to speak Japanese. I only remember a bit now. So yeah!
Paw Print: That’s really neat! Thank you so much for your time and for chatting with me, see you in class!