Teach the Children

I paused, took a deep breath, then read through the problem again. It still looked like a tangle of black yarn with no beginning and no end.

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Okay, okay, I can do this. Line by line. Sentence by sentence.

I read the first sentence: “An island is 2 miles due north of its closest point along a straight shoreline.” Oh God! What the hell does that mean?

“Closest point along…” What? There’s no way I can figure this out.

I felt my heart pounding in my chest. C’mon, breathe.

What if I draw a picture?

“An island...” I could do that.

“2 miles due north of its closest…” Another deep breath. Perhaps if I skip ahead.

“a straight shoreline.” I could draw a straight shoreline.

I reread the first part of the sentence. Oh, the island is north of the shoreline. I adjusted the drawing—shoreline on the bottom, island above it. Oh, 2 miles above it.

Bit by bit, I managed to make sense of the problem, every so often having to inhale deeply to prevent myself from panicking. Once I completed the picture, I figured out how to translate it into variables and equations. Solving it was a piece of cake, I’d already mastered implicit differentiation.

Before the brain surgeries, I would have flown through the problem, thinking it through as I read it, sketching the picture quickly while incorporating the variables into the picture, then writing the equations without any hesitation.

The filters responsible for processing input were damaged by my brain surgeries—pieces of information often carry the same value. My brain had trouble sorting through large volumes of data. I now thought more slowly, much more slowly. Seeing the bigger picture was more of a challenge—I had to think through each piece of the puzzle before I was able to understand how it fit it into the puzzle as a whole. I had to take one step at a time. There were no shortcuts.

My neuropsychologist explained that I’d lost facility but not capacity: my ability to access data and my processing speed had decreased, but my brain power was in tact.

In order to reclaim my role as a teacher, I had to relearn mathematics, from multiplications tables and adding fractions, to college algebra, calculus, and beyond. The main issue I had to contend with was my poor memory. I looked up how to add fractions when I couldn’t help my daughter with her algebra homework. I needed to relearn the quadratic formula in order to solve an example in my college algebra book. Once I got the nudge I needed, I was off and running.

My difficulties taught me that struggling students did not necessarily lack in capacity as I used to believe, that in fact, it was more a matter of facility. I realized that most of my students had issues remembering notation and terminology. Once I reminded them of the relevant information, they had little difficulty solving the problem.

Now, when I teach, I remind them of earlier material, earlier terminology, as I move onto the new, making connections, helping them tie various bits of the material together, showing them that the techniques they have learned throughout the years apply to the new material. I teach them to address the issue of being overwhelmed by the material, by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable, chunks. I show them that though they may not believe in their own ability, they do in fact have the tools, it is a matter of accessing them.

The brain surgeries also damaged my ability to think sequentially, linearly. In the pre-bleed days, I only recognized linear patterns. I was skeptical of other, nonlinear thinking styles. I saw them as fuzzy, lumping them with hazy “woo-woo” terms like intuition and instinct. If a person couldn’t explain how they arrived at a solution, whether correct or incorrect, I regarded them as illogical, as less. It didn’t occur to me that there were other ways to recognize patterns. But now, having had to work my way around the faulty wiring in my brain, I was better able to appreciate different thinking styles.

In the past, when people found out I was a mathematician and responded along the lines of “You must be really smart,” I used to respond with an insincere deprecating remark, “Math is just a different way of thinking.” I still respond with the same remark, but now I’m sincere about it. I no longer regard instinct and intuition as woo-woo. To me, these are “legitimate” terms to describe the hard to explain, nonlinear thinking.

I now work to address the variety of thinking styles I come across in the classroom. When I have trouble understanding students’ difficulties recognizing linear patterns, I work with the class as a whole to figure them out and adjust my explanations accordingly.

My disability also taught me to better bond with people. Having been fiercely independent and socially awkward, learning to ask for help did not come easily to me. But I had no choice—I couldn’t manage on my own. I was reluctant to expose my vulnerabilities, but as I learned to let my guard down, I discovered that by opening myself up to others, they opened up to me. I also learned to make stronger connections. From the shy introvert that I used to be, I grew into a socially adept extrovert.

As a result I was now able to connect with my students, which in turn improved the atmosphere in the classroom and created a better teaching and learning environment.

My teaching skills improved dramatically. And where in the past I enjoyed teaching, I am now passionate about it, loving the challenges and reveling in my interactions with my students.