Ada Lovelace Day 2011: Talking ’bout Ms Morrison

So it’s Ada Lovelace day again, and I thought I’d talk briefly about the impact that Ms Morrison, my year 11 & 12 maths teacher had on me.

She was the first (and only) maths teacher to succeed at making me face up to the importance of laying down foundations for higher order mathematical thinking. In my case, it was learning the times tables properly, which I’d never done in all my years of prior schooling. Amazing, I know – I got through about 10 years of school and high school without properly memorising my times tables.

Somehow, from the ages of about seven to seventeen I’d gotten through by relying on my ability to recollect some easy ones, and extrapolating from those I knew (5×5=25!) by doing some quick arithmetic to get the ones I couldn’t ever remember for the life of me. The unappealing practice of classical ‘rote learning’ was something I tried my very hardest to avoid, both in and outside of school, preferring to rely on the rule that the interesting things are more memorable anyway.

It’s an approach that’s held me in reasonable stead, as it comes with an uncanny ability to recall contextual memories. Hey, remember that time we carried a railway sleeper all the way up a 500m escarpment track in 40degree heat because you wanted to build a tree-house in your backyard and I got sticky sap on my transformers t-shirt? Then we could barely fit the huge thing into the tiny Suzuki swift and I had to sit in the front seat with it half crushing me, all the way home! Yeah, good times.

There’s something about the essence of the fact floating unconnected from the reasons why it’s a fact that seems to make it particularly hard for me to remember. Why, after all, do seven bunches of six total forty two? What rhyme or reason is there for it, it just purely is. It’s a product of the base-10 system, but that really doesn’t explain all that much.

So Ms Morrison helped me realise that times tables were worth the trouble of rote learning. But she didn’t just make me do it (no teacher can make any student do anything) she convinced me. How? Through a number of things that add up to her being a god damn amazing high school teacher: she treated her class as adults, she was brilliant and creative in her explanations and demonstrations, and she was a real human being. When she was annoyed with the highly authoritarian, aspirational waffle our principal like to recite at assembly (“Teachers teach! Learners learn!” was a favourite) she’d agree with us when we grumbled about it in class afterwards. When we couldn’t understand how exactly calculus worked, she’d come up with another demonstration of how the semantic language of maths performs the crazy conceptual work of slicing the area under a curve into infinitely small sections and measuring them. And when we didn’t come to class she’d hassle us for missing actual things we had learnt rather than for being simply “missing classes”.

See that’s the thing – when you’re teaching your students important and useful things, you actually get the right to harass them for not coming and learning. That’s the key point that many of the stricter teachers missed: you have to have something worth learning to get the right to be annoyed, angry, upset, &tc. when students skip your classes to go to the shops and get some lunch from The Professors’ Charcoal Chicken. Ms Morrison quite reasonably got that.

And the devotion she showed to her work, while supremely evident each day, didn’t just end at 3:30. She is literally the only teacher that ever gave out her email address to us with the offer of answering questions we didn’t understand so we wouldn’t have to wait a full week to get the answers in class. And ask we did! In her answers she’d scan whole pages of working out to show us where we were going wrong, what we should be doing and explain why, sending them to us via email.

She was savvy too. She didn’t just teach us the interesting or worthwhile parts – she taught us what we needed to know for the exams, and made reasonably prescient predictions as to what, generally, would be in them based on past papers, trends, and what kinds of questions the papers have asked lately. She played the examination game, essentially, and played it on our behalf.

Our diminishing cadre of 3-unit maths students went from being a full class, to about 8 students as the two years went on, and several people dropped out. Ms Morrison never took it personally or viewed it as a failure though – she was quite tactical about it. If changing to 2unit even the month before the exams is going to get you your best results, with scaling taken into account, and if you’re going to use those two months to get marks elsewhere, then go for it.

She encouraged our class’ sense of camaraderie, celebrating birthdays with cakes and other occasional rewards and encouragements, and she stirred our competitive sides to our collective benefit. After occasional topic tests a list of the ‘Top 5’ students would be placed in a prominent position in the room, and I still remember fondly the one time I beat my friend Lachlan at a test – such victory! Such a sense of achievement! Fuck badges and points and all the rest of that shit; the payoff from working your ass off at something and finally beating your friends, beating someone who has in the past always been better than you, is worth more than money.

Ms Morrison of Blaxland High invested in her students. We felt like we let her down when we didn’t find the time (or make the time) to do the exercises and homework she knew we needed to really comprehend a mathematical approach. When we did well in exams, I felt like she did well too. We were, after all, the culmination of two years of her hard mental and emotional work – it took far more than just opening the book and explaining it to ‘teach’ our class, and it was just our luck that we had a teacher as brilliant and dedicates as her to do it.

Addendum: An interesting point of note – 3 of the 7 or 8 students of Ms Morrison’s who went on to finish 3unit maths in 2004 have gone on to PhD level study. Not a bad success rate.