The Math Class in McAllen….

On Fridays here at Daily Dawg HQ I’ve been telling you about my adventures from a quarter century ago when I took a break from the law firm and worked as a volunteer unpaid teacher’s aide. I started out within commuting distance of my home in Austin, going for a week to Liberty Hill, a week to Leander, and a week to Killeen. Then it was time to hit the road.

I spent the week of October 13 to 17 in a math class at Memorial High School in McAllen ISD. I recall the principal telling me that the teacher in the math class was a good and experienced teacher, but she was recovering from cancer and dealing with treatments that were having side effects. She wore a wig to cover the loss of hair she was experiencing.

Looking back on this whole experience of volunteering to work as a teacher’s aide for all of one week, I wonder what a burden I was to the teacher. I can image the conversation:

TEACHER: He wants to be a teacher’s aide for a week? And you’re putting him in my classroom?
TEACHER: What am I supposed to do with him?
PRINCIPAL: I don’t know. He says he wants to be helpful. Give him something to do.
TEACHER: Like what? He won’t even know his way around. Are you sure this guy is not a spy?
PRINCIPAL: Maybe he is. I don’t know. The superintendent says it’s ok. It’s just for a week, OK?

The math teacher did give me some menial tasks to do—copying things and whatnot. The math was not too hard for me, and I was able to help some of the students. I don’t remember too much of my week in McAllen, but I do recall her evident embarrassment when one of the boys in the class said something about “the vato.”

I did not know this word. Looking it up today on various websites I see that it has ambiguous meanings ranging from respectful to not so much. But it was clear that the teacher viewed it as disrespectful and she admonished the boy for referring to me as a “vato.” It was also clear to me that she was slightly embarrassed for this to have happened in her classroom with me present. As if she was to blame. I wonder how much teachers punish themselves with the unrealistic view that they should have total control of a room full of adolescents.

The class I saw her teach was more of a remedial class for students who were either behind or at risk of it. On the one hand I was grateful for that as it meant that the math was not over my head as it would have been if I’d been in an Algebra II or calculus class. On the other hand, it was a struggle to keep the kids engaged in work that they found frustrating and/or irrelevant.

I remember a man I knew who left the superintendency to become a classroom teacher. He loved teaching, particularly math. I thought he had a very good way of responding to the question students often ask about math: when will I need Algebra in “real life?” He explained that solving Algebraic equations was like a workout in the gym. Rarely in life will you be asked to bench press a heavy weight. But the strength and skill you develop in the gym workout will pay off in numerous ways in “real life.” Algebra was like that, he explained.

The teacher in McAllen told me she found it much harder to work with students who were less advanced, less interested in the schoolwork. She also taught higher level classes and found that a lot easier. She had a lot of criticism of TAAS—the 1997 version of STAAR. She said that the math on the TAAS was very basic, but she had to get the kids ready for it, and that meant that she had to dumb down her lessons from a high school to a junior high level. She also blamed TAAS for her being “stuck” teaching Geometry because she had a good track record of students doing well on that part of the test. She had wanted to teach Economics and more high level classes.

My 1997 journal included this:

I end the week admiring her perseverance and courage. I have a hard time making it through a week of this. This is just October—she will still be dealing with some of these unmotivated, off-task kids in April and May. Hang in there, Susie!

So my week in McAllen confirmed a few things that I already knew: teaching is hard. It’s stressful. It takes a lot out of a person. That teacher needs to bring her A Game to the classroom every day, and that is asking a lot. This teacher was carrying something heavy—cancer and the side effects of treatment. But every teacher is carrying something heavy. We usually can’t see it and don’t know about it. They need and deserve more support than our society gives them.

So that was McAllen. Next stop on the Teacher Aide Tour: Lubbock.


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