It’s Teacher Appreciation Day! In the middle of putting together notes and treats for my kids’ teachers, I’ve also been invited by friend, Allison of No Time for Flash Cards to write a thank you note to one of my own teachers. What a treat to thank one of the many amazing teachers in my life!
Dear Mr. Blanchard,
Kids poring over math books have been saying it for years. Decades. Maybe even centuries.
“I’ll never use any of this in real life.”
My own fourth grader has recently started saying it. And it makes my nerdy heart hurt because I LOVE math. (Thank you for that.) I love the challenge, the unfolding mysteries, and the rush of success when everything fits together and it suddenly clicks, backwards and forwards, in an irrefutable, provable way.
But as I lecture my son about all the ways he’ll really use math I have to confess that there is a voice nagging at the back of my mind. The realization that in real life, I only use a small portion of the math I learned in school.
There are the obvious, basic math applications, “Did I pay too much?” “How much of these ingredients do we use if we double the recipe?” And even some slightly advanced geometry, “If we DIY that table, Pythagoras can help me figure out how long that piece of the trestle legs should be.”
But I’ll be honest. I don’t think I’ve figured out the sine and cosine of anything since Rose and Jack and Celine Dion had everyone crying about the Titanic again. And I certainly couldn’t tell you what they’re used for anymore without a serious refresher course.
The math classes I took from you in high school taught me far more math than I ever needed beyond the walls of that classroom.
But I still use what I learned in that classroom every day.
Sure, you taught us all about math, but you taught us a lot more than that. You taught us to take on a challenge. In fact, you practically dared us to take your classes. I still remember in one of the very first hours I spent in your classroom, you laid out your high expectations and let this class of overachievers know that no one aces these tests.
(Challenge accepted, I thought to myself.)
But it wasn’t just that you set the bar high, it was the way you went about getting us to clear it.
I read an article in the New York Times about a year ago, Why Do Americans Stink at Math?, that made me realize once again what an amazing teacher you are.
In the article, the author asserts that American school systems have essentially failed to keep up with the best practices for teaching math. As I read about the more ideal systems, built on active discussion and collaboration more than silent note-taking, I recognized that that ideal approach was how I was taught math by you. And I realized again how lucky I was.
My favorite memory from your class began as many did. You wrote a problem on the board and asked us, based on what we already knew, how we could solve this problem.
This problem was new. One step beyond what we had already mastered. We began as a class to piece it out, making connections and testing out guesses. After a bit of collaborative work we had turned a jumbled mess into a clean, step-by-step, trigonometric work of art.
And I remember you, Mr. Blanchard. You stood to the side with a pensive look, studying our work on the board. After a little bit of time you said, “That’s not what the book tells you to do, but I like your way better.”
It was a lesson in math, but it was also a lesson in learning. In questioning. In collaborating. In taking on challenges boldly, even if it meant throwing away the old directions.
Another memory that stands out happened right outside of your classroom. Graduation was around the corner and you had heard that I had decided to major in education. WHY would I want to do THAT, you wanted to know.
Right or wrong, I read your question as another dare, another challenge. I shot back, “Why would you?”
For years, I had been reminded by others that you could have used your math skills to do anything, but you chose to be in the classroom, and for that we were lucky. For almost 20 years since leaving high school I’ve heard others say that you’ve been begged to go into administration, but that you choose to stay in the classroom, and for that your students are still lucky today.
You never responded to my question that day in the hallway, which is fair since I didn’t really answer yours either. I can’t give your answer for you, but I’ve wondered about it a lot over the past 20 years or so. Maybe the answer to the question is the same for both of us. Maybe we’re both drawn to education because we know it matters. That real learning matters. That kids matter.
Maybe it goes back to what you taught me in your math class, which I still use every day. To ask myself how I can use what I already know to create something new and solve the problem in front of me.
I think the challenges in education could use more people who can ask that question, and who aren’t afraid of the answers, even when it means throwing out the old directions in the book.
Thank you, Mr. Blanchard. You taught me to think deeply, ask good questions, take risks, and confidently share my ideas. You taught me to love math, but you also taught me to love what education should be. Thank you for sharing your gifts and making a difference.
Happy Teacher Appreciation Day!
Amanda Pratt Morgan
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