Chasing 'Aha' Moments In Teaching

August 16, 2009|By Jackelyn Lopez

Last week, I was in Annapolis when Governor O'Malley received a task force report on the shortage of skilled science and math teachers. The recommendation of the report is to improve education and increase the state's technological workforce in order to stimulate economic growth. This will be beneficial to Maryland's future, and the report's goals are personally encouraging, as they relate directly to my own.

This past spring, my goals changed. I was finishing my fourth year of mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland and all of my friends were getting excited about graduation. Some had jobs lined up, others were planning trips to Europe as a last hurrah before buckling down and becoming "real people" in society. I was not one of them.

I have decided to become a high school math teacher, and this late decision means another two years of school. Much to my professors' dismay, I now realize that becoming an engineer is just not for me.

It goes back to my experience as a first-grader.

My teacher introduced subtraction with a word problem involving building blocks. The little girl in the problem started with a certain number of blocks, and then put some in a wagon and toted them away. How many was she left with? I had no idea. For some reason subtraction didn't come easy. But my teacher was patient and soon enough I was subtracting like the best of them.

In eighth grade, I was placed into Algebra I, the first course that would really change the way I thought about numbers. Four bananas and seven oranges can't be added together, I was told. But why? Aren't they all just fruit? What does food even have to do with numbers? Once again, I was lucky to have a teacher that understood and encouraged me to keep trying. I carried these experiences with me into high school, where I excelled at math and came to love the word problems that once bewildered me. I decided then that I would be an engineer, so that I could apply math to real-world situations.

Although I now had my path set, little opportunities started popping up that would eventually take me a different way. I became a peer instructor for an introductory honors seminar. I began tutoring math and Spanish and saw that I had a knack for explaining things. I was accepted as a teaching fellow for the freshman engineering introductory course.

Even as I undertook engineering internships each summer, I became more and more drawn to the idea of teaching. I began to see that maybe it was actually the experience of learning that got me so excited back in high school.

I had my share of teachers that couldn't teach or didn't like their subjects, but I was lucky to have had a few great ones, too. I want to be like them. I love working with students, looking at math from their point of view and helping them understand. As much as math is a difficult subject, it is one of the most rewarding for me.

I love the "aha!" moments, and how numbers are so useful in the real world. There are so many students out there who haven't had the chance to see this side of math yet. Some just don't get what's up with all those bananas and oranges. I want to help. I want to be a teacher.

Jackelyn Lopez will spend her fifth year at the University of Maryland taking additional math courses, and the following year will pursue a masters in education. She hopes to teach in Maryland schools. Her e-mail is

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