My first year teaching, I was handed the Algebra II book 9 days before school started, and given the instruction, “Teach this.” There were 15 chapters in the book, and I made the assumption that I was supposed to get as far as I could through it, since no one told me otherwise.

I pushed those kids hard, and I was very definitely not an easy teacher. Because I was so young (27) and babyfaced, I had to be tough or they wouldn’t take me seriously. My first day in the classroom, first period of the day, one student asked me, “How old are you?” I told her. She was obviously suspicious of my qualifications. “Where’d you go to school?” I told her, and her response was “Daaaaaang.”

So. We got to 3rd quarter, and had finished exponential and logarithmic functions, rational functions, and conics, and were ready to start trigonometry. The kids HATED it. Trig has a vertical learning curve, and people almost always hate it at first. But if you can get past the learning curve, it gets to be more interesting… Once you’ve learned the basics, they’re reused over and over and it’s just solving puzzles. They fought me tooth and nail over this… I followed my lesson plan and gave a test, and 18 out of 25 flunked it. So I gave the tests back to them, promising to return half their missed points if they corrected the tests at home. They could use their books or their notes, but they couldn’t work with another person. I told them that I accepted responsibility for their not getting it, and we’d have another test on the same material a week later, and we’d review it all again and see if I could do a better job.

I think admitting that I hadn’t done a stellar job made those kids respect me more, honestly. And their performance on the second test was so much better — all but 2 passed that time, and those were the two that didn’t ever bother to do their homework anyway.

Here’s the funny thing, though… When I turned in my final exam to the head of the math department, she looked at it and said, “Wait. You did Trig? You weren’t supposed to teach them Trig!” I reminded her that I had been handed the book and told to teach it, and trig was in it. So I taught it, they knew it, and I was going to test it.

24 out of 25 kids passed my final, which was a very hard final. I provided all formulas they’d need (unlabeled) so that they didn’t have to memorize. They only had to be able to recognize and use those formulas. This allowed me to make the test tougher, and I did. And they did well.

The payoff, though? The next year, those kids (well, all but 2 of them) were in Pre-Calculus, and faced with Trig again. Many of their classmates were experiencing that learning curve for the first time.

The girl who questioned my skills on the first day stopped me in the hall one day. “Mrs. P, I have to tell you. I am so sorry I gave you such a hard time last year about trig. All of us that were in your class are COASTING through this stuff right now. You were a great teacher, and thank you.”


Words like that are how teachers really get paid. I will remember that kid forever, because she validated my skills as a teacher.

One thought on “Payoff”

  1. I LOVED Trig! I barely passed Algebra II and Geometry (had the WORST teachers, including the one who told me to drop out of school) but Coach Lipscomb made me feel like a math genious. I fell in love with math again because of him. I went on to Math Analysis (again, another crappy teacher), but got so frustrated I dropped out and joined the choir. Yes, you were, and are a great teacher. I wish I had been lucky enough to have had you in those formitive “math” years.

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