At Lewis & Clark, Beginning Again

As I write this, I’m drinking Lipton out of an orange mug emblazoned with the words “Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling.” Technically it belongs to Rachael, who earned her master’s degree there (in counseling) about seven years ago. Now it’s my turn.

Today marks the first day of the final phase of our three-year Oregon adventure. It’s the first day of classes in the Master’s of Arts in Teaching program, which will continue for thirteen months and finish next summer. I’ll be taking classes at Lewis & Clark and student-teaching at a high school up the road. More on that soon. In the meantime I wanted to share the essay I wrote about why I’m here. I hope you enjoy it.

Looking back on the past ten years of my life, it’s not easy to see how I might have ended up here, on the path to becoming a math and computer science teacher. For one, I received low grades in math until I became an adult. And if you’d asked me what I wanted to do after graduation, I would not have said that I wanted to teach. Indeed, in the time since I graduated from Lewis & Clark in 2009, I’ve spent a season working on an organic farm, two years working in social services, and three years working as a public radio producer and editor. But I’ve also spent four years working in an international school in the Middle East. And I have mentored and tutored middle and high school students. And I’m currently volunteering with a math and computer science teacher at Wilson High School, a commitment which I’ve maintained for the past year and a half. Perhaps I’ve always been destined to work in education, and it’s only now that I’m making it official.

But why? Why education and not journalism or agriculture or social services? In a word, roots. I’m always trying to figure out what the root of a problem is. Take homelessness, for example, one of the more visible problems we face as a society. On a superficial level, the problem is that people are experiencing homelessness and the solution is to give them homes. Peel back one layer and you might decide that the real problem is that those homes are too expensive. Lower housing costs and perhaps you’ll fix the problem. Maybe you’ll peel back another layer and decide that it’s largely a mental health issue, or a substance abuse issue. Solve those problems and perhaps you’ll solve homelessness. Or maybe there are more layers to peel back.

More often than not, when I think about a problem and start peeling back layers, I find that education is either at, or close to, the core of the problem. And it when it comes to solving problems, I want to go deep.

Education can also be thought of from the inside out, not as the core problem to be solved, but as the world’s most central solution, one that can be leveraged in the service of any goal. Archimedes is credited with the phrase: “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the world.” He was talking about physics, but it’s not hard to see the allegory to education. Perhaps privilege is the place I stand, and teaching is that lever.

I plan to earn my teaching degree by the summer of 2020, and I hope to find employment teaching overseas. As for subject matter, I plan on teaching mathematics and computer science.

Computer science is currently a hot topic in education, largely because of the demand for programmers and the pay that comes along with it. But that’s not my main interest in the subject. Indeed, I’ll soon earn my bachelor’s in computer science, but I don’t feel drawn to a career as a computer programmer. The thing that has kept me interested in computer science for years is that it presents difficult problems and a replicable means of solving them.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve sat down to a problem that involved programming and thought, “There’s no way I can do this.” But then I’ll work at it a little bit and think, “Well, maybe I can do this part.” And that one part grows into another, and before long I’ve done what I thought impossible. Not only is this a terribly addictive means of learning how to do things, but I’ve also found it to be applicable to many other parts of life. After all, what is life except an endless stream of “I can’t do this” followed by “maybe I can.” I want to share that feeling with my students.

My desire to teach mathematics comes from the same place. I struggled with math in middle school and high school, and even dropped out of a math class while I was an undergraduate at Lewis & Clark. But when I came back to the subject a few years later as a student at Portland Community College, I had an entirely different experience. It was an online trigonometry course. There was no real teacher, no lectures, just me and a textbook. Approaching the subject from this radically different place allowed me to see the beauty and symmetry and cohesiveness of the subject. I want to share that feeling with my students, too.

Last spring I took a vector calculus course from a different instructor at Portland Community College. I knew at this point that I wanted to be a math teacher, but my experience in this course reminded me why. In a word, she was kind. Not just a nice person, but kind in her approach to mathematics. There was still homework and tests and grades and all of the other things that are so often a source of stress for students, but she made me feel safe as a math student. Safe to think out loud, to make mistakes, even to be wrong. What a revelation.

My goal is to be a good teacher. I want to make students feel safe making mistakes, but I also want to challenge them so that they can see what they’re capable of. I want to show them that computer science is more than just a potentially lucrative career option. I want to show them that mathematics can be beautiful. Most of all, I want to show them that an education is a lever. And then I want to give them a place to stand.