If you are teaching math in Minnesota, or if you are involved in #MTBoS, chances are, you’ve come across Sara VanDerWerf. If you aren’t yet, stop now, click on that link and go read her entire blog. You’re welcome.
She’s amazing. I love her. When people ask me what my spirit animal is, my brain immediately responds, Um…Sara VanDerWerf, duh, because few of us answer that question with realistic self-reflection on which animal actually encapsulates our defining characteristics, and instead respond with our greatest hopes and dreams for who we want to be. Then I realize that my answer is decidedly weird and creepy, and that additionally most of the time the people asking the question don’t know her. So I answer “Unicorn!” instead, because the animal kingdom hasn’t created anything as magical as her except in stories.
I had the privilege of being introduced to her during my teacher training program at the University of Minnesota. She’d come to talk to the whole math-teacher-in-training cohort, and during the course of that talk, I experienced a wide range of emotions and thoughts.
Holy crap, this woman is terrifying! came first.
Sara is bigger than life, with a booming voice and message that does not allow one to give her anything less than 100% undivided attention. As a math teacher in training, I was already emotionally fragile – the highs and lows of infinite potential to do great things and also infinite potential do great harm was being pressed upon me from all sides.
Wait a second, maybe she’s a genius…
Everything she was said was amazing. She just straight out said all of the things I’d been thinking or all of the things I had been trying to think, but hadn’t the experience or wisdom to do so.
Is it weird that I want her to be my best friend? That’s probably weird right? I’ll just melt into this wall for having such weird thoughts. Geez, Annie, pull yourself together!
Math teachers are a interesting breed. We love talking math. We love talking about talking about math. It was so obvious to me that Sara was this amazing math teacher and that I could learn so much from her.
But I do want to be her best friend…Her classroom is probably amazing. But… she’s probably too cool to want to talk to me. Abort! Abort!
But I do need a job. And I want one in Minneapolis. And she works in Minneapolis… Good gracious, here I go.
So when she was done, I walked right up to her and said some words. I don’t remember what they were because inside my head I was screaming in terror.
Those of you in the #MTBoS community have likely experienced similar, if less hysterical, emotions. In the past several days I’ve read at least 2 excellent new blogs: Girl Got Range and Count It All Joy that have spoken to this fan-girling over other math teachers, and the associated fear of acceptance. I was terrified that Sara would laugh at me, pat me on the head, or in some other way confirm all of my fears that I was posing as a math teacher – hilariously unqualified to even attempt this career. She of course did none of these things.
Allow me to explain my fear. I majored in history. I am a poser. I don’t have a math degree, and I didn’t want to ever be a teacher growing up. In fact, I have very clear memories of thinking, “Who would ever want to teach? What a horrible job! Kids are jerks!” during my formative years. It was a shock to me and all of the people who knew me when I declared I would become a math teacher. Even after I’d been hired and teaching for months, I remember looking around and wondering, “Am I a math teacher now?” never quite convinced that I’d gotten there.
Sara, however, seemed to take it on faith that not only was I a math teacher, but dammit, I was going to be a darn good one. And she expressed this to me. Every time I saw her. It was the most validating, encouraging thing I could ever have hoped for. When I say she expressed this to me, I don’t mean she took me by the shoulders and said, “Annie, you’re a math teacher now. Here’s a notarized certificate saying so.” It was the way she approached me. There was an assumption that I knew what I was doing. That I was on the right track. That I had ideas to contribute to the conversation. She told people to listen to me. She introduced me to other math teachers, and made sure that they knew I was important.
And I was not alone in this. I am not unique. Sara is the best cheerleader for math teachers I have ever seen. She seems to genuinely love and want to support every math teacher working to improve. I needed that so badly.
There is a cost to all of this, however. Sara isn’t giving all this love and encouragement out for free. The price is that you give back to the community, too, and darn it, she’s going to call you out on it if you don’t. I wasn’t sure if my idea was good enough to present at the MCTM (Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics) conference, so Sara, in a huge room packed with people for one of her presentations announced that I would be presenting the following year. With a microphone! People could hear her!
She sends me emails introducing me to other math teachers and tells them that I’ll share all of my resources with them. It’s like she doesn’t even know that my things are terrible. It’s like she thinks they’re actually worth something.
She tells me I should start talking to other math teachers. In front of them. “Hey, Annie, you should know Megan. Megan, this is Annie, she’s a great math teacher in Minneapolis.” Um… Sara, that’s VEGANMATHBEAGLE. She’s famous. Look how blue her name is. You’re acting like she should know me. AHHH! She’s looking at me! Why did you make her look at me, Sara?!
I don’t mean to imply here that there aren’t other wonderful, welcoming people out there. There are many. Megan didn’t shriek in terror at being presented with such a worthless nothing as myself. She listened to my ideas and encouraged me, too. Nicole Bridge has welcomed me with open arms and shared her own insecurities to empathize with mine. There are dozens of math teachers who have welcomed me and other new teachers – Sara has just been the most vocal about it. And her faith in me has encouraged me to talk to other teachers. My poor boyfriend is growing accustomed to me panic-yelling across the house, “AH! Joe! HELP! insert famous #MTBoS personality is talking to me! What do I DO!?” When I share these stories with Sara, she cheers me on and tells me I’m doing good work.
Teaching is an impossible career. We’re all constantly screwing up, especially if we are in our first years. The U of M did an excellent job of preparing me to teach math, but no matter how excellent the program, they can’t give me the experience that comes from being in a classroom for many years. Without that, it’s easy to think that we’re not good enough, making too many mistakes and somehow not worthy of being in the classroom. Sara does her best to kick those thoughts out of my head. I called her up and asked to go out for coffee last winter when my classroom was particularly challenging. When we got there, I word-vomited out all of the problems I was having, burst into tears and made a fool of myself. But Sara was just calmly encouraging. That meant so much. Here I was, a messy puddle of a teacher, and Sara still believed I could do it.
So thank you, Sara, and all of the other math teachers who have been encouraging to me and other young, insecure teachers. I totally identify with the people at Twitter Math Camp who were scared to talk to the famous #MTBoS personalities, but I have been less scared to do so because I’ve had a cheerleader. I will do my very best to keep my head up, keep trying even when things flop miserably in my classroom and I feel like a fraud, and I will also do my best to build up my colleagues, because I know how terrifying it is to declare, “I am a math teacher, and I belong in this community,” among so many other amazing people.
It’s important that we regularly remind each other of the things we’re doing right. It’s important that we build each other up. It’s important to tell someone when they have a great idea. I will do my best to do that, and become the Sara VanDerWerf for other people. It has meant a lot to me.
(Sara, I do hope this embarrassed the crap out of you. You deserve it.)