Teaching Math in the Inner City

While in graduate school in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( MIT), I made a decision that I?d happily make again: to join Teach For America (TFA), a national service program that recruits and trains top college graduates to teach for 2 years in low-income public schools. Its mission is to fight inequities in public education by introducing a diverse group of high achievers into districts with severe teacher shortages. There is a great need for science and math teachers in particular.

I decided to do it for several reasons: (1) to make an impact on kids? lives, (2) to teach in a challenging environment, and (3) to gain a broader worldview. The reactions of people close to me ranged from “I?m proud of you” to “Why would you ever do this?”–which made me think it was probably a good decision. But the words “inner-city school” triggered many stereotypes. One professor said, “You better wear a flak jacket.” Another asked if my school would be “all black.” My own family feared for my safety. I realized then that my experience would be, at least in part, about shattering stereotypes.

I was assigned to teach math at Jordan High School in Long Beach, California, just across I-91 from Compton. The main drag was lined with vacant lots and boarded-up storefronts. Groups of young men hung out on the street corner near the school at all hours. Jordan High was racially diverse: mostly Latino and African-American, with a smaller population of Asian-Pacific-American and Anglo-American students. Having grown up in the minority, I looked forward to the diversity. But fewer than 10% of the kids at Jordan went on to 4-year colleges. I didn?t look forward to that.

I taught my first year in the basement of the school auditorium. On the first day, several kids whispered, “We got an Asian teacher!” One kid, Jessica Jones, gave me hell about my classroom rules. She would turn out to be one of my best students. Overall, classroom management was not a big problem. But keeping track of 180 kids, grading papers, and calling parents sapped a lot of my energy. I was also going to night school to earn my teaching credential. At times I lapsed into survival mode. I?d finish my lesson plans late at night and fake my way through them the next day. I lived with two TFA members who became my good friends. We?d get home on Friday evenings and all crash by 7:00.

Outside the classroom, there were bigger problems. One afternoon, a near-riot involving 100 students forced a lockdown of the school. A month later one of my students, Nia Martinez, was shot to death in her home. I was notified by a withdrawal slip (in my mailbox) that read, “Student Deceased.” And throughout the year there were kids who just disappeared, as in a war.

But my mentors at Jordan, Mr. Osborne and Mr. Mason, taught me some tricks of the trade. They brought me back from the brink. I learned to choose my battles and to be flexible. Most kids were there to learn and did just fine. Many of them loved math, especially Pat Carter, a gifted student and football player, and Anh Dung, who had escaped from Vietnam. Toward the end of the year, kids would come by every day after school for extra help. William Lawson came because his parents made him. Ashley Greene and Lisa Thomas came to prepare for an accelerated summer course. Jorge Gonzales came because he believed I would kick his butt if he didn?t!

My second year was more rewarding. Experience is everything in teaching. I was tougher and had higher expectations. I could discipline with my voice instead of my time. I had more consistent rapport with my students and occasionally played basketball with them. I could try different approaches: group work, computer exercises, games. There were successful units on graphing, solving equations, and calculating probabilities. There were stars like Juan Gutierrez, Michelle Lopez, and Michael Jones, and comeback kids like Tina Roberts, Tyler Johnson, and Derek Moore. Henry Nelson even expressed hopes of going to MIT. (Did I make it sound that appealing?) Lastly, I helped a graduating senior, Rochelle Cox, with her college applications. Rochelle had lost a brother to gang violence and was working hard for a better life. She ended up going to Michigan State University to study economics. I am very proud of her.

The stories from my teaching experience could easily fill a book. Here, my point is to emphasize the importance of mentors and role models in minority science education, especially in low-income areas. Most of my students had never met an engineer or scientist before. I could show them how the algebra they were learning was used in radar systems, computer models, and communications. I could explain what it would be like to have a job in industry, research, or teaching. Tying lessons to the real world was critical. After getting pulled over by Long Beach police one afternoon with three black students in my car, I did a lesson on radar guns, which led to a discussion of racial profiling and statistics.

So I encourage you–students, scientists, and engineers–to reach out to kids, and minority kids in particular. Even if you don?t teach full-time, you can tutor them. Or give demos of your research in their science classes. Take a glimpse at the future scientists of our country, and do something to help them. You will learn a lot about the community and your place in it. My teaching experience helped me to develop skills in organizing, adapting to obstacles, and communicating with broad audiences. But what I will remember most are the kids. I will remember that in so-called “bad neighborhoods,” most kids turn out just fine with a little guidance. And some of them are pretty darned good at math.

Gregory T. Huang taught high school math inin 1993-1995. He returned to MIT to complete his Ph.D. and is currently a postdoc in the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. His research focuses on dynamic models of human and animal biomechanics and novel prosthetics. For further information, please contact Dr. Huang at .

The names of individuals mentioned in this article have been changed.

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