A first-time teacher’s insight

When I walked into the teacher recruitment meeting the fall of my senior year, I had no idea that there were employers out there who would pay me to make a fool of myself on a daily basis. Like many of this year’s seniors, I was much too busy worrying about how I’d get a job at all. Friends who had slaved away at grueling summer internships seemed to have offers in the bag. I, on the other hand, had spent my summers playing capture the flag and jumping in the mud with my campers at an international camp in Maine. What did that qualify me for? Saying that I spent my summer playing with children might impress girls my age, but could it actually land me a job? Little did I suspect that one year later I would make ends meet by singing songs about sines and cosines, teaching graphical transformations with goofy interpretive dances and adding negative numbers by leaping up and down the stairs.

The teacher hiring process was intimidating, to say the least. After signing up for a hiring conference in Boston, I found myself in a gigantic hotel ballroom with hundreds of school directors, deans and department chairs from across the country. The lobby was swarming, not with inexperienced college seniors as I’d expected, but with veteran teachers with teaching philosophies, master’s degrees and years of experience.

Never in my life had I felt so under-qualified. However, I did have one thing going for me, besides my youthful enthusiasm and willingness to work for table scraps: Even in a recession, math teachers are in high demand. Over 25 schools scheduled interviews with me, and though most never called back, three schools chose me as a finalist and flew me out to their campuses to meet their staff and to guest teach a class. By May, I finally had an offer at a high school, which I accepted eagerly.

For many seniors who are considering teaching before graduate school, the biggest question is whether to apply to Teach for America or to private schools, neither of which requires prior certification or an education degree. Public school placement programs do provide summer training, but they send their rookie teachers to some of the country’s hardest classrooms. Some Williams graduates love it, finding that they really are making a positive impact. Others are miserable. Your fate largely depends on what school you get placed at. Ultimately, I chose the private school option.

Two years later, I still feel guilty teaching students whose families can afford to shell out $27,000 a year for a private school education. But at the same time, dreaming up new projects and games is by far one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, and I’m thankful that I’m not constrained by state-mandated curriculums and standardized tests. I’m grateful that I can devote so much of my attention to lesson content rather than classroom discipline. I admire my friends who took the more altruistic route, teaching kids in Harlem or the Mississippi Delta, but I don’t regret my own decision.

A year has gone by, and I’ve survived. It’s taken far more creativity than any of my Williams classes required, planning lessons, designing worksheets and developing exciting activities. For my first project, “Mathematicians Without Borders,” I had my students model the transportation networks of three developing countries and then analyze which nations were most developed based on their graphs. In “Fighting Terrorism with Functions,” I gave the students a top secret intelligence briefing and had them calculate the flight path of Al Qaeda’s missiles. Though I don’t often use concepts from college math courses, the mathematical maturity I gained at Williams has given me a bird’s-eye view on high school mathematics. As I plunge into a world of mathematical insights and discoveries, I am constantly making connections that I never saw as a student. In fact, I found my first year of teaching geometry and pre-calculus to be no less intellectually stimulating than the math, anthropology and poetry courses I took at Williams.

I don’t know how long I’ll stay in teaching, but it’s given me a good start in life beyond the Purple Bubble. I’m working just as hard as I was at Williams, but now it’s for someone else’s future, not just my own. I love teaching, not only because I enjoy flying with my 11th graders on swing sets and then modeling our flight paths with parametric equations, but because teaching is an occupation where doing your job well and being a good person are one and the same. There are nights when I’m drowning in ungraded tests and days when all of my lessons go awry. But as long as I’m inspiring kids to become the best men and women they can be, it’s worth it.

Matthew Simonson ’08 teaches math at The Siena School in Silver Spring, Md.