Why I Teach

Why I Teach

By Bill Shillito | Guest Columnist

This is the story of how I fell in love with math, then grew to hate it, then finally came to love it again.

I started loving math at a young age when my mother taught me to count in English and Spanish. When I was in kindergarten, I used to watch a math-related show called “Square One TV” that introduced me to concepts that were far beyond me: fractions, square roots, algebra, the Fibonacci sequence, infinity. It fascinated me, and I soaked it all up like a sponge.

Once I started school, things really took off. Math was like an infinite fountain, and I was thirsty. The ones who lifted me up to that fountain so I could drink were my teachers. I was lucky to have teachers every year who encouraged me, challenged me, inspired me, fostered and cemented my love of learning.

Bill Shillito teaches math at Atlanta Jewish Academy.
Bill Shillito teaches math at Atlanta Jewish Academy.

The one who inspired me most was Mrs. Poss, my teacher for ninth-grade honors Algebra II and 11th-grade honors analysis, as well as the organizer of the math team. Every day I looked forward to her class (even though I occasionally resented how much she made me work).

Mrs. Poss loved math. You could see it in her eyes. You could hear it in her voice. You could feel it in the air. She floated around the room as she led us through uncharted territory in our minds — and nobody got left behind because just as Mrs. Poss loved math, so too did she love her students.

Her classroom was where we knew we were welcome, where we knew we could grow, where we knew we could succeed.

I remember coming to her one day in ninth grade, convinced that I had figured out how to divide by zero. Rather than brush me off and say, “No, that’s impossible,” as it would have been easy for her to do, she smiled and said, “Show me.”

When I made my argument (which, for the math nerds, basically involved looking at the slope of a line that gets more and more vertical), she smiled even more brightly and said, “Congratulations. You just discovered limits. You should look into calculus. I bet you’d love it.”

There were two results. First, I went to the library and checked out “Calculus Made Easy,” and as predicted, I loved it. But more important, that moment was when I first thought: “I want to become a math teacher.”

I graduated high school and entered college as an applied math major, excited to take my love of math to new heights. But when I went to class, something felt different. Something was wrong — very wrong.

I was no longer in a warm, inviting classroom with teachers who taught, but in a cold, stoic lecture hall with professors who, well, professed. There was no excitement. There was no beauty. There was no passion. There were only formulas not to forget, calculations to carry out, exams that were exhausting instead of exhilarating.

The worst part is that I believed it was my fault, that I wasn’t good at math after all. In fact, I hated math. I ended up switching majors to international affairs and Japanese, which, while somewhat interesting, never brought me that same joy as I trudged through the remainder of my four years.

Once I graduated from college, I applied for jobs because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But as I went from cube farm to cube farm, I knew something was missing. I came to work, clocked in, got done whatever the boss told me to do, clocked out, went home, and did it all over again the next day.

Nothing I was doing gave me any sense of purpose. I was just a cog in a wheel. As a result, these jobs didn’t last long, whether that was a voluntary decision or an involuntary one.

At some point, while I was particularly frustrated with my job search, I came across a tutoring center that was looking for a math tutor, and I decided to give it a shot. When I began my first session with a couple of students who were addled by algebra, something inside me clicked that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

I was in my element. I was excited. I was happy. I was falling in love with math again, but this time from a new perspective. Now I was the guide, helping my students forge paths, cross bridges, maneuver mazes and climb to new heights.

I remembered hearing my teachers talk about that fabled “light-bulb moment.” Well, that moment was real. And it was addictive. I had to have more.

There was nothing that had ever been as fulfilling as getting to know my students and guiding them from “huh?” to “aha!” With every student who came by my table, I realized more and more that this was what I wanted to do — no, what I was meant to do.

From that point on, I focused myself in earnest toward that dream I had once had: “I want to become a math teacher.”

And here I am. It has been a tough journey, and I almost lost sight of my path. But now that I’ve rediscovered the path, I’m going to follow it wherever it takes me. More important, I’m going to help my students find their own paths, and I’ll do everything I can to help them along the way.

So why do I teach? I teach because I want to be for my students what my teachers were for me. I want to encourage them, to challenge them, to inspire them, to foster and cement in them a love of learning that will last a lifetime.


Bill Shillito teaches math at Atlanta Jewish Academy.

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