Math Tears

Jordan Gill
Assistant Professor of Mathematics

Sometimes I feel like my job is to make girls cry. On this particular evening, Annie was sitting on a bench, quietly sobbing to herself as I locked up my classroom. I tried very hard to convince myself that she didn’t want to talk to anyone. After all, who would want to talk to their math teacher with tears streaming down their face? The compassionate side of me took hold, however, and I found myself asking, “Hey, are you alright?” Through her tears, Annie managed to say, “I’m just having a bad day.”

It turned out that Annie had done poorly on a physics exam earlier in the day and followed that up by failing a quiz in my class. The words I offered her weren’t anything special. I told Annie to keep working. I encouraged her to come see me during office hours to help clear up any confusion. I suggested that she attend the review session before the next exam. I told her that she could do it. At this point, Annie made a large sniffling noise and said “Ok.” She wiped her tears, we both stood up, and I told her I would see her next class.

Two months later, as she turned in the final exam, Annie looked me dead in the eye and mouthed the words “Thank you.” A week later, Annie emailed me, thanking me again. I look back and really wonder what it was she was thanking me for. I didn’t do much. In fact, some of my explanations may have been more detrimental than helpful (I like to think I’ve improved since then). Annie, on the other hand, did a lot. She constantly attended office hours. When we held review sessions for exams, she was usually one of the first students there. Over the course of the semester, her grade steadily rose and by the end, I wasn’t worried about her passing the final.

What I’ve come to realize is that teaching isn’t just about how well you present the material. Teaching is about providing students with the opportunity to own the material themselves, and being there for them every step of the way. I didn’t know it at the time, but the stakes were high in that moment when Annie was crying on a bench. By simply checking in and asking “Are you ok?” Annie began to see me as a teacher who would help. This opened the door for Annie to put in the work and get the help she needed. Today, I do my best to be available before any tears are shed.