From the Desk of Jay Rainey – February 18, 2022

Earlier in my career, when I was both a math and an English teacher, I would often introduce myself as either one or the other. I found that when I said, “I am an English teacher,” the response was usually warm. The person with whom I was speaking would remember a book they had loved in their youth, or a teacher who had transformed her classroom into Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, or a line of Langston Hughes. (“My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”) When I said, “I am a math teacher,” the response was rarely if ever so effusive. All too often, it would boil down to these three chilly words: “I hated math!”

I recalled these occasions on Wednesday evening during my visit with Mary Institute, Saint Louis Country Day School, and MICDS alumnae and alumni in Naples, Florida. (Please don’t be angry with me. It’s not my fault that the weather there was perfect and the weather here was gelid.) Judy Adair ’56 asked about our present-day math curriculum and whether math is required every year. “I was one of just two students in my class at Mary Institute who took math my senior year,” she said. Although we require only three years of math in the Upper School, I assured her that the overwhelming majority of MICDS students choose to continue their math education through their senior year. Recounting to her my “I hated math!” conversations, I noted that no one ever, upon learning that I was an English teacher, exclaimed, “I don’t like to read!,” or, “I have a very limited vocabulary!” We do not have permission in American life to disparage our verbal aptitude, but we do have permission, regrettably, to disparage our quantitative aptitude. I am pleased to report, however, that at MICDS, our official stance is, “Permission denied!”

Our youngest students typically arrive with only a rote sense of numeracy, so our junior kindergarten teachers work hard from the outset to help them comprehend that five pretzels, five chairs, and five crayons all have “fiveness” in common, notwithstanding the differences between the objects themselves. “This is the beginning of their journey,” observes Sally Maxwell, our Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning, “as students learn to use math to understand the world and its patterns.” Head of Lower School Amy Scheer cites the incorporation of a “reflective component” in our Beasley math curriculum as essential to developing conceptual understanding beyond algorithmic “math facts” competency alone. “For example,” she notes, “first-grade students make videos to show their families how to use an important addition strategy that we call ‘make a ten.’ When children have opportunities to teach the concepts they are learning, their procedural fluency improves.”

Diane Broberg, our JK-12 Math Department Chair, is especially excited about the connections between mathematics and coding that we emphasize as students continue their MICDS education. The new calculators that we acquired under her leadership for students in eighth and ninth grade allow them to code in TI Basic and Python alike. “Our eighth-grade students use Python to create a mini-golf game with linear equations,” she says, “and in ninth grade, students write programs that use the coefficients of a quadratic equation to determine its roots.” Middle School students who want to dive deeper into coding can also participate in an after-school club to learn JavaScript. For my part, I would add that I have been very impressed since my arrival at MICDS with the level of student interaction with Excel, which may be the most influential software application ever built. The skillful use of spreadsheet tools and functions–sometimes referred to as “no-code programming”–both requires and strengthens one’s quantitative aptitude.

Every year that I worked as a math teacher, my students learned that the set of real numbers includes both rational and irrational numbers, the former of which, such as 11.5, can be expressed as the ratio of two integers, and the latter of which, such as π or the square root of two, cannot. One of the benefits of loving mathematics–of cultivating one’s quantitative aptitude–is understanding the fact that both rational and irrational phenomena are real. If you are still upset by the news that I was in Florida earlier this week, you might be cheered to know that I, a presumably rational former math teacher, was irrationally afraid of flying through the remnants of yesterday’s massive ice and snow storm to return to St. Louis. I am irrationally afraid of flying most of the time, actually. There are few safer places in the world than an airplane–my rational mind understands this–but when I set foot on one of them, numbers like 11.5 take a backseat in my brain, and numbers like the square root of two assume control. Math teaches me that each has a role to play. The knowledge that the real world simultaneously contains and is greater than my irrational fears is always a consolation to me.

My dream future is one in which an MICDS graduate will ask someone, “What do you do?,” and that person will respond, “I am a math teacher,” and our MICDS graduate will say, “I love math!” A notion does not have to be rational to be real. Math teaches me that.

Always reason, always compassion, always courage. I wish you and your families a very joyful holiday weekend.

Jay Rainey
Head of School

This week’s addition to the “Refrains for Rams” playlist: Be Sweet by Japanese Breakfast (Apple Music / Spotify)