Friday, December 2, 2016

MfA Fall Function: Why I Stay

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of being asked to be the teacher keynote speaker at the 10th Annual MƒA Fall Function. Early in writing my speech it became clear that my speech should be about me, about the positive impact MƒA has had on my teaching career, but most importantly about what I feel makes MƒA so meaningful to someone like me.

The following is the speech I gave:

We are gathered here tonight at the 10th annual Fall Function to celebrate MƒA teachers. We are over 1,000 strong, representing all five NYC boroughs, many genders, many faiths, many ethnic backgrounds, perhaps even… many political beliefs. What unites us, nonetheless, is our love of math and science. We teach Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Earth Science, Geometry, Algebra, Calculus, Computer Science, Statistics, just to name a few... We are the math nerds, the science geeks, the computer techies, and the data worshipers. We are the outliers. We represent the best 10 percent of the city’s STEM public school teachers. Is that what makes MƒA so special? How can we measure what positive impact this has on our professional and personal lives?

When MƒA Executive Director Megan Roberts asked me why I stay in the classroom, why I continue teaching, I did what any good teacher would do: I pawned the assignment off on some of my students. They thought about it for a while and then handed me back some Post-It notes with their answers. “To share your passion for Statistics,” they said. “To carry on a legacy of enlightened mathematicians, statisticians, and scientists. To spread love of math and a better quantitative understanding of the world.” All of that is true, but passion, love, and a vision alone isn’t enough to sustain the day-to-day of a teacher’s life.

MƒA was kind enough to capture the moment Ellie and I reconnected in 2012.
Me and Ellie at MT²: Master Teachers on Teaching 2012
A little over four years ago, I attended my first MƒA professional development workshop as a Master Teacher [upper right photo]. I reconnected with fellow Master Teacher, Ellie Terry (now Vierling), whom I had met at an AP Statistics workshop years earlier. We almost instantly began concocting a plan to write a stats lesson together. After lots of emails and a weekend meeting in a place roughly equidistant from our home neighborhoods, we had a fun election activity for our classes. A month later, we presented it at the inaugural MT²: Master Teachers on Teaching [lower right photo].

In 2014, I used my stipend to attend the week-long International Conference on Teaching Statistics, held every four years, that year in Flagstaff, AZ. There, even though I was one of the few high school teachers at ICOTS, I was welcomed in as part of the statistics teaching community. I gained so much from that experience. It was there that I met Lynette Hudiburgh, statistics professor at Miami University (Ohio). Lynette is now my stats conference roommate. Additionally, it was there that my Twitter handle @alittlestats was born, opening me up the incredible virtual community of teachers.

2016 has brought me many MƒA-related highlights: getting to spend a few Tuesday evenings with fellow teachers exploring number theory with Carnegie Mellon math professor Po-Shen Loh, attending Park City Math Institute this past summer, meeting FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver at the MoMath Gala [photo evidence below], riding the rollercoaster of the 2016 presidential election along with the members of the AP Statistics Professional Learning Team, and now speaking to you here tonight. It is without a doubt that these things were made possible because of my Master Teacher Fellowship.

Don’t be fooled, though, about the accounts of my time thus far as a Master Teacher… teaching is tough work. For any and all of us. MƒA, as an organization, has been part of the support network, the fuel, and the platform for many of us teachers to be armed with the tools we need to be awesome in the classroom, to be leaders in our schools. Because besides the love and passion and all that stuff my students were talking about, there are lessons to plan, tests to grade, and a bureaucracy to navigate. What we math and science teachers teach is now more important than ever. Our subject matter has become a very real source of power. Our students have the potential to either wield that power or become victims of it. I’m working very hard to make sure my students are part of the former group.

How can we possibly measure all this about the MƒA community? How can we numerically summarize all the big (and little ways) in which this organization can potentially influence teachers and help keep us in the classroom? The truth is: I don’t think they can. I am sure the MƒA staff is aware of this; it's likely the very same reason why they are unwavering in their commitment to not evaluate us teachers based on our students’ test scores. The impact of our teaching cannot be simply quantified, but we can qualitatively measure the impact of just how important being a part of this organization is. Our involvement, and for which I am deeply grateful, helps us in ways that do matter: by allowing us to have a voice, to have relative autonomy in how we conduct our professional development, and to become leaders in our fields.

Most of all, however, MƒA is about US. What makes it special is all of us. When I became a Master Teacher, I entered into a wonderful community that has forever changed my career and my life for the better. This organization has linked us together, connected us with educators in ways that extends even beyond the walls of its offices. Our community here gives us the means to get through those tough days, celebrate our successes, explore math and science content, become advocates for our students, challenge ourselves, promote social justice, and keep doing what we do best: teach. Isn’t that the point?

This speech was also posted on MƒA's Teacher Voices blog: MƒA Fall Function: Why I Stay

[Some photos above thanks to Math for America; photo of me with Nate Silver from Bloomberg News.]


  1. Lovely. I do miss the MfA support structure, though I left it before I even left NYC when my path took me to an independent school. The MTBoS is the closest I've got to that experience now, and awesome though it is I do miss the personal touch.