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Teaching & Learning: The Journey from Duty to Beauty
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Christopher Godfrey

Imagine what it would be like to leave behind all you have known and embark on a journey to an undisclosed destination. For some, this prospect may spark ideas of wonder and awe. My guess is that many of us would be fearful. Take note of the words that God spoke to Abraham (then Abram) when He asked him to leave the land of Ur and hit the road towards a mysterious land:

“Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show.” Genesis 12:1, NLV

I can only imagine what his peers and neighbors might have said: “Abram, we heard you’re moving away soon. Where ya headed?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know!? People don’t normally just get up and relocate their family without knowing where they’re going.”

I cannot say I know exactly how Abraham felt. But my experience moving my family from Boston, MA to Houston, TX has some parallels:

“Why all the way to Texas!? You must have family members out there.”

“No, I don’t know anyone over there.”

I don't remember my replies to the many questions that were thrown my way. But I do know one thing for sure: The Lord was directing my steps, and Houston was part of His will for me and my family.

I have always loved learning. My aunt owned an incomplete encyclopedia collection, which I would thumb through often, feeling my mind and soul being fed by as I read. As a teenager, I remember once hearing that my friends hadn’t finished their summer readings. I shared an oral summary for them on the bus ride to school. Later that week they reported they’d all scored A's on the summer reading test. “You should become a teacher!” they offered with their thanks. I resisted the idea, having no intention to teach as a profession. As the saying goes, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” He bestowed the gift of teaching to me, even though I had purposed to work against it. Wisdom has taught me that it is best to not fight against the Lord.

During my undergraduate commencement, the Dean of Education gave a speech that touched my heart. He challenged his audience to go back to the communities from which we had come, and give back. I listened, feeling strangely warmed and compelled to respond. I’d just completed a degree in Studio Art and was eager to start that journey. My life would turn in a direction I had not anticipated.

Although I never got a chance to tell him, Dean Cawthorne’s words inspired me to pursue my first job in the field of Education, as a building substitute. My work was to cover for any teacher in the school who was absent. I very much appreciated the role, and got to know which subjects I most enjoyed teaching. For me, Math was a subject of aversion. Providentially, it was the Math teacher who took her maternity leave towards the end of the year.

I’ll pause for a bit of background: I was raised in Overtown, just outside Miami, Florida. The history of Overtown is a blend of beauty and tragedy, and the circumstances surrounding my childhood are intertwined with those realities. School was where I went to feed my body, not my mind. Math felt like a jumbled mess of algorithms, and I had little capacity for the struggle while there were more pressing factors to navigate. Looking back, I cannot recall many teachers who checked in with me or showed me how to connect with the lessons. When I became an educator myself, I set out to seek these types of situations, as many as I could find. Thirteen years later, the journey continues here at The Saint Constantine School.

A common sentiment my pupils have shared with me is that numbers can be scary. Just as you are getting the hang of numbers and how the quantities relate to one another, in comes Algebra! Now it seems that letters and numbers are conspiring together for your demise.

How might we transform experiences with Math from duty to beauty?

A decade of experience has led me to conclude that the key element lies in cultivating rapport with students. While my scope focuses on Math, I imagine this principle applies to any subject matter. Allow me to elaborate.

Q: How do you build a relationship with someone?

A: Talk to each other. Listen to each other. Do things with each other.

My attitude towards the subject of Math shifted dramatically when Mr. Smith, my 10th grade Math teacher, challenged me to create some of my drawings on a graphing calculator. Over the course of class, he had noticed my tendency to sketch once my assignments were finished. While we were learning about graphing functions, he encouraged me to match the curves in my sketches to the equations we’d been studying in class. This was a game changer!

Mr. Smith and I talked about life outside of mathematical tasks. He occasionally played basketball with me and my friends before or after school. As a result of our connection, Mr. Smith presented a challenge to me that I cared about accepting, because I cared about him.

I have learned that that Math is:

  • An organizational tool
  • The process of sense-making + Art

Most importantly, Math is art. Art is beautiful. Therefore, Math is beautiful.

The subject I once saw as a barrier had become a stepping stone. I could easily render things from my mind onto a sheet of paper for artistic purposes. And now, that power could be applied to Math.

Duty makes us do things well, but love makes us do them beautifully.
- Zig Ziglar

Q: How do we face the unknown?

A: “The Lord is the One Who goes before you. He will be with you. He will be faithful to you and will not leave you alone. Do not be afraid or troubled.” Deuteronomy 31:8, NLV

We can face our giants in the land. We can face complicated math problems, and we can face the unknown the same way Abram did: yoked with the Lord.

Ultimately, forming relationships requires intentionality. One can talk, listen, and do things together; but there’s a difference when those activities are done with intention. And there’s a “special ingredient” that makes relationships pleasant and unique: agape love, not manufactured by humans, but divinely gifted to all who are willing to receive it and share it.

Can you imagine? The Creator of the Universe invites humanity to partner with him (Matthew 11:29) in doing life. This beautiful invitation is open to you and me; and yes, that partnership includes doing Mathematics! By His Grace, may we endeavor to do it, beautifully.