Educator Cassandra Harris opens up about life-long learning, “light bulb” moments, and her unexpected calling to teach math
“I knew I was in the right career when I was helping a student working on an assignment, and they had that moment of clarity and finally understood what I was teaching them. I call this the “light bulb” moment. It makes teaching worth every single discouraging and frustrating moment that I face.”
Hi Cassandra! Tell us about yourself as a teacher. Where do you teach and how long have you been in the field?
This is my 7th year teaching. I currently teach 8th grade, although I have taught 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, & 12th grade. I teach at a small school in Alabama, Fyffe High School.
Why did you choose to become a teacher?
Funny story, in high school, I said I would never be a teacher, but the Lord placed me in a situation where I needed a job, and that job was a teaching position. With that being said, I absolutely love teaching, and I never realized it until I took the position. I love helping students understand how to do the math that I teach them and understand the “why” part of how it works and builds.
Wait, so you didn’t set out to be a teacher originally?
I actually began my college career pursuing a degree as a chemical engineer, but I realized this career path was not for me. I changed to a math and chemistry major and finally finished my degree in mathematics from Auburn University. After college, I took a job as a financial planner, but this position did not work out for me which I am extremely thankful for. This is when I had heard about a math position at a private school, and I decided to take the position. Little did I know that this is exactlythe career that I was called to do.
Tell us about your teaching career so far – have you always been with Fyffe High School?
No, I stayed at that private school for the next year. Then I received a 7th grade math position at another private school in the Gadsden area after being at this school for a year and a half. As I was teaching 7th grade math and advanced 7th grade math, I began my journey to attain my Master’s degree at Jacksonville State University.
At the end of the second year, I heard about an open position at the high school from which I graduated. I had dreamed about teaching at my high school, but I did not believe it would be an option. I talked to the high school principal who was actually my high school principal, and he remembered me. He was very interested in my teaching 8th grade on a block schedule to help my students better understand math and develop their mathematical building blocks for high school. I was officially given the position about a week before teachers started back to school. I was so nervous but very excited. I have continued to grow as a teacher in the last few years at Fyffe. Now, I am currently teaching my 4th year, and I still feel like I am continually learning and growing as an educator.
How has continuing education been a part of your story?
While at Jacksonville State University, I really began to develop as a teacher and began to hone my teaching techniques. Being back in school helped me learn ways to incorporate various strategies in my classroom. I was really inspired by one of my college professors who taught us how to use manipulatives in a class and have students focus on conceptual understanding rather than simply learning the math algorithm. This inspired me to research activities that help students discover math concepts and develop a conceptual understanding of that topic.
In my last two years at Fyffe, I worked towards and received my National Board Certification of Teaching which has allowed me to grow even more as a teacher and better reflect on my teaching methods and strategies.
Wow, Cassandra! That is no small feat – congratulations! How do you find balance to still love teaching and recharge your batteries?
I enjoy working out to destress and take out my frustrations that tend to occur with teaching. I also love spending time with my one year old daughter who brings joy to my day even on my worst days. I also love to create activities and/or lessons that I can use in my classroom that help target my students’ weaknesses so I can help them better understand the content that I teach them.
When I am feeling discouraged or frustrated my best friend, who is also a math teacher, helps bring me up. We vent to each other about our days, and it really helps us to realize why we teach. We want to show students how much we care and want them to learn. She always listens and offers her perspective and gives suggestions on how to handle certain situations that I face.
I knew I was in the right career when I was helping a student working on an assignment, and they had that moment of clarity and finally understood what I was teaching them. I call this the “light bulb” moment. It makes teaching worth every single discouraging and frustrating moment that I face.
Another moment occurred three years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I wanted to try out a new discovery activity for the Pythagorean Theorem using Starbursts as a manipulative. I had this one girl; she struggled to understand most topics that we covered in math. I put her in a group so there were mixed math abilities so each person could give their own perspective on the activity for determining if each triangle was a right triangle. She blew me away when she had to explain to one of my advanced students how to determine if the triangles were right triangles using the Starbursts.
I was so amazed at her conceptual understanding of this activity and how she could easily explain it to another student who was a higher-achieving math student. This inspires me to keep using these types of discovery activities even if it can be frustrating to take the time to prepare them and keep students on track during the activities. Helping that one student makes it worth it!
My students challenge me each year to find a way to teach them that fits their learning style. Every year I modify and change things that I do throughout the year because every group of students has different needs, abilities, and interests. I love helping them deepen their understanding of math and trying to find a fun, creative way for them to learn math.
I continually look to other fellow teachers for inspirational ideas to help me better teach my students, including teachers new to the career. I admire the fresh ideas and innovative ways of teaching that they bring to our field. They can take an idea and find a creative way to make it fun and engaging for our students.
As you know all too well, this work is complex, exhausting and very demanding. What advice do you have for a teacher who may not be as inspired these days?
I would say focus on that one student that needs you and looks up to you. We are trying to prepare our students to be able to think on their own in the real world and prepare them to reason through any situation that they may face. We want to prepare them to push themselves to be the best version of themselves. We want to help them see their potential even when they think they are terrible at whatever subject you teach or have a dislike for that subject.
Yes, I had a student two years ago who had told me that she was not too crazy about math, and this inspired me to develop lessons and activities to peak her interest in math. I wanted her to see all the various ways that she could use math and how she could enjoy using it. By the end of the year, she had written me a note about how she looked up to me as a teacher and how I helped her understand math. I use this note as constant inspiration when I have a rough day to keep pushing forward for that one student who needs me to push and inspire them to learn.
Cassandra – you inspire all of us to keep connected with our fellow teachers and colleagues, keep stretching ourselves for that *one* student, and keep on learning. How can we stay connected with you or see your great work?