TOADTalk: Thank You, Uncle Howard

Ms. Snyder shares a story about the influence on her life made by a teacher who also happened to be her uncle.
Each week, an All-School Assembly launches with the Teacher On Active Duty (TOAD) sharing something of interest—a reflection, a story or song, a demonstration of some sort, or a simple poem. In this way, the community gets to know one of our own a little better. Recently, our TOAD was Theana Snyder. Ms. Snyder teaches math and advises ninth-graders in the Casa dorm, heads the Independent Committee, and co-heads community service. Her TOADTalk is below.

While there are ways in which things are challenging (very challenging) in the world right now, this time of year is when we traditionally think about gratitude. There is a lot in my life I am thankful for—most specifically this beautiful campus, enough food to eat (and a dining hall that provides it for me!), running water and electricity, and a beautiful house to live in. But, more important to me are the people: my husband and my children, my parents and my brothers, this community, the students in my classes, my advisees, my colleagues. In the midst of mulling over this gratitude list, my thoughts zeroed in on two people, because these people have done a lot to impact my life—specifically my life as it relates to math. But, before I tell you who they are and what they’ve done, I’d like to talk a little about my history with math.

In elementary school, I don’t remember math making much of an impact on me. I was able to do it, but I wasn’t particularly good at it. I just kept working away and felt like I was able to get by. I was never particularly adept at remembering my multiplication facts and was never very quick at mental math. In fact, apparently, my fifth-grade teacher told my parents in a parent-teacher conference, “Let’s just accept the fact that Theana is not going to be very good at math.” Thankfully, I didn’t find out that my teacher had said this until after I graduated from college. I remember a particular algebra test that I took in eighth-grade in which I earned a 72 percent—from what I remember, this was my first low grade, and I think my plan was to just ignore it, and hope that it went away. Imagine my horror when my math teacher caught up with my mom at pickup that day and told her about my test score! 

In ninth grade, I remember having a complete meltdown about geometry proofs—I was sitting on my bed trying to do my homework and just started sobbing because I didn’t understand proofs and how they worked. My sophomore year, I had my uncle as a math teacher. He’s a big man, bald, with a beard and a bit gruff. I think that most of my classmates were scared of him, but I wasn’t, because he was my uncle and I’d known him my whole life. He started off class on the first day with this speech that he gave about extra help. He said that he was always happy to give extra help and that if we were doing our math homework and got stuck, that he’d happily talk us through the problem over the phone. He said that he slept with his Teacher’s Edition next to his bed and that if we called him at 2 am, he’d get up and help us. I took this to heart. Thankfully for him, I was not a night owl, so I never called him late at night, but I regularly called him so that he could help me through a problem or two. Additionally, before tests, quizzes, and exams, I would go over to his house and sit with him while I did practice problems. He usually wasn’t helping me very much but was a quick and immediate check for me that I was on the right track. And, if I wasn’t, he would help me so that I understood. This was a turning point for me in mathematics, because having someone who was there to support me through the tough spots and encourage me did an enormous amount for my confidence in myself and my ability to do math. 

I had him as a teacher again for my junior year, and by this time, I was just so much more comfortable with math. I took AP calculus my senior year with a different teacher, but by that time, I didn’t need help anymore. As I was leaving for college, my uncle said another thing to me that has made a big impact on my life—he asked me to take a math class every semester until I stopped liking them. I agreed and went on my way. 

I did take a math class every semester--calc 2, calc 3, linear algebra, number theory, math analysis, abstract algebra 1, and 2. By this time, I’d come across a few math classes that weren’t my favorite, but when it came time to decide my major, I was already halfway to a math major. My uncle accidentally tricked me into becoming a math major. I was happy with this decision—I liked the challenge and the logic behind it. It is still extremely satisfying to me when I do a long complicated problem and I get the answer. 

When I think about the career that I chose, and who has had the most impact on me, it is my uncle. I strive to be like him in terms of giving extra help. I love working with students and helping them through problems that they are struggling with. 

Additionally, in talking about gratitude for helping me become a math teacher, another hugely important person in my life is Ms. Vickery. She was the very first person that I met at Thacher—she picked me up at the Oxnard airport late at night the evening before I interviewed. When I arrived on this campus, at the young age of 24, with two years of teaching under my belt, Ms. Vick took me under her wing. She’s always been there to help me talk through tricky problems, certain approaches to a topic and help when I accidentally delete a list in my calculator. Any of you who have been in my classroom before covid know that often one of us will pop into the other’s classroom to ask a question. Many of the worksheets and handouts that I have used over the years have come from Ms. Vick. She gives me advice and I know that she was always there to help me become better. While our relationship began with her being my math mentor, it has evolved so that she’s become one of my closest friends. I know that she will always be there to help me, no matter what. 

These two people stand out in my mind because they both were extremely generous with their time (even when they didn’t have a lot of time to give). And in this week where we are thinking about gratitude, I’d like to encourage you to not just think about the general category of people that you are grateful for, but think about those people that go out of their way to give you their time and their care and the impact that makes.

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