Thursday, February 17, 2011

Musing on Academic Success and Failures …

Me as a hopeless 17-year old with my friend Marie Sprugasci, who was my maid-of-honor at my wedding. Marie was just so darn spunky! She's now an elementary school teacher. I'm the blonde.

I don’t romanticize my academic career prior to working toward my B.S. and M.A. I seriously hated high school, except for a few teachers and classes. I was not popular, and never really found my niche. Some teachers accused me of being lazy. In hindsight, I probably had a learning disability that affected me ability to grasp the abstract thinking required in algebra. But because I was supposed to be “bright,” any problems I had in algebra were of my doing, out of laziness or spite.

Thing is, I really didn’t have a problem with math until 6th grade. My teacher, a fine instructor named John Andes, took a group of his brighter kids, including me, and wanted to “introduce” us to some higher-thinking math. It had to do with thinking of math systems in different “bases.” The “base” we work in is base 10, in other words, numerals are grouped by tens. That’s really as much as I got out of it. By the time the school year was done, I was hopelessly confused.

Then came junior high, switching teachers and subjects throughout the day for the first time. I found myself in “A” rail everything except for math, which was “C” rail. My math teacher was a man Mr. Yeager. We called him “Bird” because he had severe, sharp features like a bird and wore his hair in a crew cut.

He was the first teacher I had that I hated. I was so confused in his math class, confused to the point that I didn’t even know how to ask questions. I received my first D from him—up until then my lowest grade had been a C in penmanship in 4th grade!

My lot got no better in 8th grade. I was still C rail math because I was too smart for D rail. I was again stuck with Yeager. And again I learned nothing. Adding to my problem was my English teacher, Mrs. Grote. She too looked like a bird, except she was small and skinny, and an even worse teacher than Yeager.

I received my first F from her, in English, a subject I’d always excelled. My mother came in and had conferences with Mrs. Grote and Mr. Yeager. To this day I think the only problem I had in English with Mrs. Grote was I didn’t understand any of the directions she’d given—ever. The math problems were chalked up to laziness. I was getting high marks in social studies, science, and Spanish.

Things did not look much better for me going into high school. Because of my crappy grades in math and English, I was going to be put on the “career” track; in other words, enrolled in office classes in the hopes I could work as a secretary. At the time I had aspirations to be a veternarian, but the high school counselor, Mrs. Olsen, suggested I not think about pursuing that as a career. It was only at the cajoling of my mother that I was put into the “college prep” path, and put into one of the higher-functioing English classes, because by that time it had been determined I was simply bored with whatever it was Mrs. Grote had tried to teach me.

I was lucky that I ended up in the classroom of Dan Hoffman. Sure he frustrated me (Can anyone remember diagramming sentences? I thought “How useless,” but I confess that I use those skills whenever I am editing a poorly-written academic study.), but I learned from that man. I went on to take drama and journalism classes from him, and in a large part, he gave me the confidence and knowledge to craft powerful words.

Of course there is also the bad, and he came in the form of Mr. Quatre. He was the algebra teacher, and because algebra was required for college, I was put into a 2-year Algebra I class—designed to cover the subject a bit slower for students who struggled.

I never made it past the first year of that two-year course. I re-took the class my sophomore year with the same results—Ds and Fs. The only time I got an acceptable grade was the semester we did word problems. To this day I can set up word problems, but the operations just confuse me.

The traumas I endured in algebra stuck with me well into my 40s. I was math-stupid, and pretty much any and all four-year degrees required some sort of math. Even while earning my AA which allowed me to write the RN boards, I avoided taking pre-algebra. In order to graduate, I had to take a basic math test and pass with a 75. I waited until a week before my coursework was done, and passed with a 76.

In my early 20s I again tried algebra at the college level, at a night class. I cannot remember the teacher’s name, but I know I worked my butt off doing homework, which I earned As. However, at testing time, I’d go blank, and was grateful for a C. Going into the final I had a B based on my homework—I didn’t show up for the final, knowing I’d tank. The teacher offered for me to make up the final or accept a C in the class.

I was no dummy—I took the C!

A good 15 years later, I decided I really wanted a 4-year degree. By this time, the math required for a PR major was statistics. The prereq for statistics was intermediate algebra. I was still math-phobic, and spoke to a counselor at Hartnell College (the community college closest to me) who told me they had teacher on staff named Ken Rand who had a way with math-stupid people. I was lucky to be able to get into his class.

I worked harder for those 4 units than I have in any other class before or since—including nursing classes, science classes, and anything at San José State or the University of San Francisco. Mr. Rand gave his students the opportunity to have a signed “contract”—a promise from the student that he/she would ask questions in class, would do all homework, attend all classes, and participate in class. If you did all to his satisfaction, the lowest grade you’d get was a B. But it was no cakewalk. I spend at least two afternoons a week in his office, learning about quadratic equations. I also spend 4 to 6 hours a week in the special math lab Mr. Rand has sent up. He’d also give us a practice exam the night before an exam—and that practice exam consisted of the kind of questions we’d be asked on the real exam.

I earned an A from Mr. Rand. To this day, I give him full credit for my academic success. I was able to take statistics the following semester, and although I liked the class, my math anxiety came back in full force. I’d get As on my homework, earned an A+ on my class project, but when it came to exams, I’d look at the questions and ask “When did I learn this?”

I am done with math, period.

To end this entry, I’ve made a list of my favorite, and least favorite, teachers or professors I have had the pleasure or mispleasure to know.

Elementary School Favorites: Miss Dvorak (2nd grade); Mr. Andes (6th grade)

Least Favorites: Mrs. Bryan (4th grade, she just scared me, she was so strict!); Mrs. Nunley (5th grade, a waste of a year. She was very discouraging toward my creative writing attempts. I had a thing for science fiction…); Mrs. Pitcher (physical education; she did not believe I had knee problems…)

Junior High Favorites: Raymond Miller (social studies, 7th and 8th grade). LOVED his class and his way of engaging students. He’d have a weekly current events “college bowl” quiz and I’d usually end up on the winning team.

Least Favorites: Mr. Yeager (7th and 8th grade math); Mrs. Grote (8th grade English)

High School Favorites: Dan Hoffman (9th grade English, drama 10th through 12th grades, journalism 11th and 12th grade); Larry Sonniksen (Agriculture 9th and 10th grade). Yes I was an aggie, in FFA and all that; Stephen Highfill, 9th and 11th grade Spanish. My Spanish used to be good enough that was a teacher’s assistant for Mr. Highfill in 11th and 12th grades.

Least favorite, and the one who had the most negative effect on my life: Ed Quatre, 9th and 10th grade Algebra I; Mr. Campbell, 10th grade science—KILLED my interest in science until I had to take biology classes for nursing school.

College/University Favorites: Ken Rand, Hartnell College. The MOST influential teacher I have ever had; Dr. Lucindi Mooney, English 1B and Literature. Ultra-picky when grading my writing, which in the long-term has been very helpful to me. Debby Figurski, RN program at Hartnell College; threatened to fail me when I did not thrive in my ICU rotation, she made me get off my butt and want it more. Judy Duffy, RN program. Taught OB nursing, which ended up being my favorite area of practice; Connie Powell, RN program, taught pediatric nursing, which I hated, but she so obviously loved it she could not help make you care more about it.

Chris DiSalvo, San José State University, public relations instructor; Dr. Bill Briggs, SJSU, mass communications instructor. Sad thing about Dr. Briggs is I did not appreciate how brilliant he is until he was no longer my professor. Dr. Dennis Wilcox, SJSU, public relations professor. Dr. Wilcox is another of those brilliant, but I got it too late types… Dr. Kathleen Martinelli, SJSU public relations professor. Just makes it look so easy … Dr. Dan Rascher, University of San Francisco, master’s program sport management—made economics fun. Dr. Maria Veri, USF. Reminded me of the importance of accepting and embracing cultural differences.

Least Favorite:

Ms. Brown, SJSU, marketing professor. I HATED her class, 120 bodies and most were in the class because it was required of their major. I still don’t really get the point of her class—and didn’t until grad school.

A pair of female professors at USF, I have conveniently forgotten their names. One was a marketing teacher who did not understand the NHL or how inept it can be; the second was the sport law professor who was confused by my research paper about civil RICOs and the Alan Eagleson mess with the NHL Player’s Association in the 1970s. My lowest grades in grad school from the two—a pair of B+, messing up my grade point averages. Hags.


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