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Remembering an Inspirational Teacher

May 21, 2013

Linda Burtch, Managing Director at Burtch Works | 30+ years’ experience in quantitative recruitingAs most people in the quantitative job field would agree, math education in the United States has been mediocre at best over the last few years. Earlier this month, John Holdren, the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) reiterated the steps that the Obama administration is taking to improve test scores in math and science and further detailed plans to set aside money to overhaul math education. My pessimistic side can’t help but think this is too little too late, but at least the President is acknowledging that we have a problem that must be addressed. I have made my opinion well known about this issue and with three teenagers at home, the topic is one that affects me not only as a recruiter but as a mother. On a personal note, I am filled with excitement and pride as I watch my two oldest children, Jay and Becky, graduate high school this year and embark on a new journey at college. As parents, we have to step aside in moments like these and hope that our children have made the right choices and will choose the best paths for their futures. Looking back on the opportunities that they have had in school, I am most struck by the fantastic efforts of Sandy McDermott who taught math to both Jay and Becky in middle school. Her life was sadly cut short in 2008 and a scholarship was set up in her memory that asks students what math education means to them. As I read my son’s essay honoring Ms. McDermott, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that if there were more teachers like her in the world instilling a passion for math from an early age, we wouldn’t have the problems in our education system that plague so many students and schools. Ms. McDermott was such a lovely woman and inspirational teacher to hundreds of children and I feel humbled to share just a glimpse of the impact she had on her students with my son’s essay. When I was a fifth grade student at Dewey Elementary School, I took an algebra course taught by Ms. McDermott at Nichols Middle School. I had always enjoyed math, but this course was different. For the first time, I had a hard-cover math text book. More importantly, I learned to use variables and no longer just did arithmetic with numbers. I learned to apply math to solve problems.

I remember Ms. McDermott’s response to a question I heard in that class and every other math class I have taken since: “When am I ever going to use this stuff?” Ms. McDermott’s response was, “Whenever you want to.”

Her response provoked some kids to say, “So you mean never?” or “Okay, whatever.” However, I got her point. I silently finished her sentence: “Whenever you want to . . .” to solve a problem. There are many problems that might seem impossible to solve at first, but if you see the math in the problem – if you turn it into a math problem – it is easy to get to an answer.

I have seen examples of this lesson learned from Ms. McDermott again and again in many classes, not just my math classes, but also other classes, such as physics and economics. I also apply math to solve problems at home. My hobby is to write video game programs using languages such as Visual Basic and Java, and I use math to write programs that are efficient.

Because I enjoy using math to solve problems, I am planning to study applied math and computer science in college (at the University of Washington) and then to make it my job. Thank you, Ms. McDermott. For me, “whenever you want to” will be every day.