Like an iguana on hot sand, I kept in motion, trapped in a chair with pretend padding at the Municipal Auditorium. It was an experience to grow on, and I suffered willingly as I shifted in a seat located next to the smartest guy in the place–my son.

The event was Safety Patrol Day, a show put on by lots of great folks including the San Antonio Police Department, Kiwanis International and featured Surgical Strike (a band formed of army personnel stationed at Ft. Sam Houston) as the entertainment. Sonny Melendrez did a great job as host and comedian, impersonating a variety of characters and sharing a story simple enough to be memorable in voices as varied as Tweetie and Sylvester, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, and others.

While I don’t remember the whole of the speech, Sonny did a nice job of making the point about the power of enthusiasm (and he spoke about dreams). It is such a simple message and one I’d forgotten. As we celebrated the Safety Patrols–which featured participants from all over the City of San Antonio–my favorite quotes started to come back to me on the power of enthusiasm. You know, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. As well as this quote from my Dale Carnegie training over 20 years ago (when I first heard it), If you ACT enthusiastic, then you’ll BE enthusiastic. It seems like crazy advice, but I remember the truth of that advice in my life 20 years ago. What changed?

It’s too easy to forget those practical lessons one learns when young. Then, everything is exciting and new. Now, the excitement is less new and can be perceived more negatively. The difference? Enthusiasm for the adventure. 

It’s a question that I had occasion to reflect on today when a random tweet popped up on my Android phone (in your face, iPhone enthusiasts! (smile)). It was from Dr. Scott McLeod:

University prof: Students need remedial courses in order to take calculus. 

Superintendent: Not being ready for calculus is not “remedial.”

The quote reminded me of my lifelong dislike of mathematics. I never could get my “head around the concepts” and spent some time arguing with my mom–a math teacher–at the table, often leaving the table in frustration. Writing and reading came very easily to me, and I honestlyEducational Leadership  believe that our brains are wired differently from those “math snobs.” In fact, I recall highlighting an Educational Leadership magazine research article for my mom and sharing it with her making exactly that assertion.

This past Thursday, I found myself facing my worst fears about mathematics instruction when I sat down at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Summit. Overall, it was an opportunity to listen to motivating stories of female Hispanics triumphing in STEM fields. However, as positive that experience was–and I am certain to share that experience with my daughter–there was another that gave me cause for concern.

Everywhere I turned, there were phDs in mathematics and science. In fact, at my table, I had the opportunity to listen to math professors, one of which bemoaned the state of public education and how poorly our children were being prepared by our public school system. I can certainly say, I had a marked lack of enthusiasm for participating in the event after having to listen to such a perspective. When I inquired as to what the solution was, there was none. I’m sure that from one perspective, it was a clear-eyed view of the poor state of public education today. And, the reason for the problem? You won’t believe it.

It was clear that “Technology” was the bane of math professors existence. I couldn’t help but wonder if the “Technology” in STEM really referred to anything I actually believed in. In fact, it was stated “as a consequence” of the introduction of calculators and computers into schools that mathematics talent had to be out-sourced,  and America is in the state it’s in–down the tubes. I have to sympathize–and agree–with Doug Johnson (Blue Skunk) when he writes:

I love working with numbers but I flunked Algebra II and never attempted Calculus. I enjoyed Geometry and Statistics since they made sense to me but I fume that our state is requiring that all our students take ever more math classes and tests for graduation

While I didn’t flunk Algebra, I ended up not doing as well in it as my other classes. In fact, my College Algebra professor’s goal was to flunk kids…how do I know? She told us. I ended up taking College Algebra with a kindly older guy at a Community College one summer (I finished college in 3 years, having tested out of every course I could, except math and science ones) who made the stuff understandable, if not incredibly likable. Thank goodness for him.

That comment–technology as the cause for poor preparation at the public school level–at the Summit so irritated me, it took all I had to keep my mouth shut. After all, what do *I* know? I’m just a writer who uses a spreadsheet to analyze his taxes, a database to manage $1.9 million dollar budget, and keeps a graphing calculator on his desk so he can plan projects, if a computer isn’t available. If technology wasn’t in my life, I’d be functionally illiterate in mathematics!

So, in considering the STEM issue, I don’t think the problem is that our high schools are poorly preparing students for college math courses…that our students arrive so “behind” (Update: Per a request in the comments, I replaced the word “retarded” with “behind,” even though the word wasn’t used to signify what the commenter objected to, IMHO) in math skills that they fail. I’d rather believe that math professors at universities have a lack of enthusiasm in teaching the children that come to them, instead preferring as one of the presenters at the Summit put it, to focus their attentions on those who come to them “prepared.”

That would be like a public school teacher saying, “I’m only going to teach the brightest and the best, those who meet MY high standards and doing things the way *I* do them. The rest of you? Go find something else to do, you’re not good enough.” Can you imagine that attitude? But let’s not spend much more time on educators at high school and college who believe our system has failed them. Instead, let’s ALL take to heart the message of enthusiasm that Sonny shared with fifth graders at the start of their life. It is a message that, if it endures through the years, can yield powerful benefits, regardless of what field of study or career one chooses to pursue in life.

Fortunately, there ARE math teachers who approach their subject with enthusiasm. You can probably name a few of your own, but in my mind, my high school Algebra teachers (Ms. Delaney and Ms. Bosquez) were such people. Their enthusiasm and fierce dedication to each of us in learning how to do math were binary stars that made math bearable and, if it’s possible, exciting. I can only pray that such teachers exist all along the path students must travel who wish to learn math and are engaged by it. For me, it was a rare experience.

Today at the Safety Patrol celebration, one teacher stood up in front of me, focused on her fifth grade charges. She encouraged them to stand up and clap, move with the music played by the Army group Surgical Strike. She modeled for them how to behave in public at a concert, and they slowly began to emulate her. Her enthusiastic support and modeling of these children in her charge moved me. Even when they accidentally skipped her school’s name, she kept her smile, and marched down the center aisle to tell the host that her school had been left off the list.

Thank goodness for enthusiastic teachers like Ms. B (I asked her name since I intend to give her some praise on Monday when I call her principal), who aren’t afraid to stand up in front of strangers and model for their children how to learn.

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure