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Of Language, Mathematics, and Epochs of Exhaustion

by Joe Warfel ’04
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Joe Warfel’s three years teaching mathematics in south Texas taught him a new appreciation for the nuances of communication.

I am currently a graduate student studying something similar to applied mathematics. However, not long ago, I was a math teacher at a large rural high school in South Texas. I was there for three years.

My greatest challenge as a teacher was always classroom management. Because of this, my first year consisted primarily of suffering and frustration interrupted by epochs of exhaustion. My second year was better because I was stricter; still, most mornings on the commute to school I thought to myself, I wish I could keep driving all the way to Laredo.

In my third year, my management was good enough that I enjoyed teaching—at least the parts that involved working with students. I often conjecture about what caused that change. One afternoon always comes to mind.

In that third year, my fifth-period class was a sophomore “TAKS class;” that is, all the students in it had failed the TAKS (the state math exam) in ninth grade. I had vivid memories of the behavior of past TAKS classes, especially in the period just before lunch. So, on Friday afternoon of the first week of school, I called the parents of every student in the class to introduce myself. Those who did not answer, I called back on Saturday morning. Those who had no listed phone number, I eventually visited at home. In the mind of every student in that class, this thought arose: This Sir has no compunctions about calling or otherwise contacting my parents. Furthermore, if necessary, he can speak Spanish well enough to describe anything I might do in his classroom.

This thought is powerful in preventing foolish actions on the part of students. Admittedly, its effect is only temporary; to take full advantage of its power, I should have repeated the calls every two months or so.

However, those initial calls also helped to put another thought into the students’ minds; a more lasting and, I have come to believe, more important one: This strange Sir actually cares that I learn math.

Students could take months, even the whole school year, to come to this conclusion. In retrospect, it’s not that surprising. They were in a TAKS class for a reason. Their previous teachers let them watch movies or listen to their MP3 players instead of studying. I expected something different; when they realized that, they appreciated it. They worked hard, and they learned a lot. That TAKS class had the best passing rate in the school—they were even comparable with the general geometry classes.

Those students tell me now (by email) that they miss my class, and their new teachers are boring. For some reason, the students thought I was interesting and weird. Perhaps because I wrote the date on the board in prime factorization; or because I said I was 86 years old; or because I told them that there was a number between 11 and 12 called “eleventeen.”

In my defense, students also do peculiar things. A catalog of examples would fill many pages. I look back on that afternoon of phone calls as perhaps the cleverest thing I did as a teacher; but my slowly gained understanding of the unusual beliefs and motivations of my students was crucial. I offer one example:

“I see that you’re having a lot of trouble staying in your seat. If you leave it again, I will tell your girlfriend about all of the other women you have been talking to in the hallway during my class.”