An anonymous story as told to Kate H. Elliott
My classroom mascot is a Yeti, you know, the ape-like creature that roams Himalayan Mountains between cameos on cartoon Christmas specials. Why? Because when my sixth-graders look up from a math problem, scowling in frustration, and say, “I can’t do math,” I can respond through a reassuring smile, “You can’t do math, yeti”—reminding them that words are sneakily powerful, often turning to belief, then to action.
Maybe I would let such talk slide if I weren’t the daughter of perseverance.
Growing up, my father marched my baseball-loving hide to Little League tryouts every year until they allowed a girl to play (I captured the homerun record that year). Watching my high school drafting teacher expertly compose diagrams with one arm fueled my tenacity through Purdue University’s male-dominated engineering program.
Grit gained early in life gave me the confidence to pause my promising career at Eastman Kodak to raise my three children. When my oldest son was diagnosed with neuroblastoma (a type of childhood cancer), I was there for him, for all of us, and that was where I needed to be.
But I always planned to return to industrial engineering. My husband of 31 years is an engineer—we met at Purdue—and my analytical brain thrives optimizing processes and assessing complex systems. But time passed, priorities changed, and within those 10 years in “Mommy Land,” I fell in love and found my calling.
I worked as an instructional assistant at Mohawk Trails Elementary, guiding reading groups and math competitions. I relished the opportunity to empower students and celebrate their progress at whatever pace, stressing my “Yeti” outlook—that we all possess the ability to master any subject. Those who didn’t believe in themselves became my passionate purpose.
During those years, I received emails about the Woodrow Wilson Indiana Teaching Fellowship—a graduate teacher preparation program for those with STEM backgrounds. In 2015, I took notice, and a friend forwarded the email with a note, “This is right up your alley. Do it.” It was the encouragement I needed, so I applied.
To my delight, I was accepted, and in summer 2016, I joined two of my kids at Ball State. The one-year, fully-funded fellowship was the most difficult and rewarding experience of my life, as I commuted an hour from Carmel to Muncie each day—first for a semester of intensive graduate courses followed by a full academic year of clinicals at a local middle school.
The first day of class, our professor asked us to make an iMovie, and I was like “iWhat?” But I did it, and I often share that story with my middle school “I can’t-ers.” If I can relearn to write academic papers and navigate digital storytelling, they can certainly champion long division.
Returning to school later in life has kept me humble as I ask students to grasp new concepts and technologies. It also furthered my appreciation for “productive struggle.” As a caring person, you want to swoop in and rescue kids who are struggling, even though most of our greatest accomplishments emerge from challenge. I strive to find each student’s capacity and push them, but not to the point of frustration. That sense of triumph powers students through their next hurdle—in or out of the classroom.
And it is often those out-of-classroom circumstances that cause the most distress. Math is the easy part. The true work begins when you’re trying to understand each child’s situation enough to know when you need to be firm and when you need to offer some grace (because they might not have eaten since lunch the day before, for instance). What or who sets each student off—and conversely, inspires them—and how can you redirect or offer guidance while keeping the rest of the class on task? Teaching is part counselor, part police officer, part pretty-much-every-role.
During clinicals or rotations, I got to know a little dude who would have rageful outbursts. Together, we developed a silent signal that he flashes when he’s upset, then I let him step outside or change his environment. I shared with him that I often forget my glasses are on my head when I’m feeling stressed, so when he would notice me looking for my glasses, he’d tap his head to remind me to reach up. Our arrangement empowered him and demonstrated that even teachers need help or a deep breath now and again.
I might not have tried so hard with him or others had I not watched my niece overcome a childhood that could have easily turned to bitterness, blame, and poor choices. When she came to live with us at 15, I thought I would teach her, but the now Ball State senior has transformed our lives. Her journey is a reminder that each person has his or her own journey and can make significant changes with enough encouragement and love. Because of her, I believe in students others may not, and I strive to learn from each student, every day.
It is with this outlook I will welcome my sixth-grade math classes this fall at a new middle school. I’m decorating a fun, engaging classroom to inspire minds in a safe space based on mutual respect. Yes, we will learn to multiply and divide, but we will do so while practicing essential life skills like active listening, collaboration, and creativity. Everyone will go home each day feeling accomplished and celebrated, even if they haven’t mastered the material, “yeti.”
Kate H. Elliott is a writer, editor and strategist with more than 15 years of marketing and communications experience in journalism, higher education and the private sector. Since 2017, she has dedicated herself to educating the next generation of journalists and storytellers as an instructor of journalism at Ball State University, where she previously served as editor of the alumni magazine and a communications manager. Prior to her work at Ball State, Elliott reported global humanitarian news for Reuters in London and wrote features for various magazines and newspapers throughout the nation.
This story originally appeared in Facing Teaching, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.