Student Essay Contest

Laura Copp, the Mathbuster

2016 AWM Essay Contest: High School Level Honorable Mention

By: Kasey Bersh Marco Island Academy (Marco Island, Florida)

When I was in third grade, I loved the movie Ghostbusters. I constantly hummed the theme song and I couldn’t get the catchphrase, “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts, out of my head. So whenever I was stuck on a hard math problem for homework, one my parents, sisters, or I couldn’t solve, I naturally turned to my favorite film for advice.
“Who you gonna call?”
Well, not the Ghostbusters, that was for sure. Instead, I had a better number to dial — my Aunt Laura’s.
Laura grew up in a family of five kids in the South Side of Chicago. In high school, she took the most advanced math classes and thought she wanted to be an engineer. She initially pursued an engineering program at Bradley University. But during her freshman year of college, Laura had an epiphany and switched her major to Mathematics.
“After I did an engineering program, I figured out that I didn’t ever want to have a job like that,” said Laura. “I wanted to be able to do more different things and impact kids.”
After her undergraduate education, Laura got her master’s degree in Math Education from DePaul University. However, in a time when more and more careers were opening up to women, she couldn’t help but think by becoming a math teacher she was only perpetuating a stereotype.
“I graduated from school in the eighties, and it was like ‘You shouldn’t be a teacher, you shouldn’t be a nurse because you have all these other opportunities,’” said Laura. “I almost thought I shouldn’t be a math teacher because I could do better. And then I realized that’s kind of dumb — teaching math is what I want to do. So I’m going to do it anyway.”
As Laura continued her quest to become a math teacher, she tackled both stereotypes and obstacles. “I’ve taken Calculus I three times,” said Laura. “I took it one time in high school, and then again in college because I was a math major, and then I took it again when I got my master’s [degree]. I never really understood why people studied calculus until I got to the third time through and I was getting my master’s [degree].”
But Laura’s thorough understanding of advanced math topics isn’t what makes her the respected and knowledgeable teacher she is today.
“I still think like a kid, and some teachers don’t,” said Laura. “I can understand where things go wrong, so that’s why I can be good at helping kids. I’m not a really fast thinker when it comes to solving math problems and I used to think that meant something was wrong with me, but now I realize that’s just normal. When I’m trying to solve a problem, my thinking process helps me understand where students might struggle.”
And Laura has plenty of experience with struggling kids. Currently a seventh grade math teacher, she acknowledges the challenges of teaching math in a low-income school where the majority of students speak English as a second language.
“This school year, I might be teaching 10 to 15 general math topics, but within that, I’m teaching close to a hundred new skills the kids have to master,” said Laura. “There are so many places where things can go wrong if kids don’t pay attention to the lesson, and it’s hard to always go back and fill in those gaps. Plus, a lot of times, parents don’t understand that their kids have to do their math homework in order to solidify what they learned that day.”
Laura said she deals with these problems by instilling confidence in her students through pep talks. She said the pain of seeing her students grapple with content is worth it when they succeed.
“It’s so inspiring when kids are like ‘I finally get it now,’” said Laura. “That happens throughout the year, when someone, for some reason, decides ‘Okay, I’m gonna start working hard’ or when they say ‘I actually like math now.’”
Laura said this is the kind of thing she has learned over her 15 years as a teacher, and the kind of advice she makes sure to tell new math teachers.
“It’s hard to be a new teacher because you have to create lessons and assessments, help kids, and grade homework,” said Laura. “All of that may seem daunting, so buddy up with someone. Don’t be afraid to use other people’s ideas. It’s okay to use other people’s experience to help you.”
Laura takes her own advice to heart. As a new teacher right out of college, she herself learned from veteran women in math, and as an experienced teacher herself now, she finds inspiration from everyday interactions with her students.
“You learn a lot about yourself when you become a teacher,” said Laura. “For instance, I recently got my ESL [English as a Second Language] endorsement. When you learn about what people go through in other cultures, it helps you understand how we learn and how we expect kids to learn.”
Laura acknowledges that math is tricky and that teaching math is even harder. But by utilizing her ability to put herself in her students’ shoes, as well as her own experience with math, Laura has accomplished a most difficult task with grace, enthusiasm, and a willingness to help others — a legacy that has affected both her students and her nieces alike.
Ghostbusters hasn’t been my favorite movie in a decade. But I no longer need to ask whom I should call for math advice. Because of Aunt Laura, I’m now able to say “I ain’t afraid of no math.”
About the Student:
My name is Kasey Bersh. I am a senior at Marco Island Academy in Marco Island, Florida. I have loved math all my life, and have taken advanced math classes throughout my entire education. In college next year, I hope to major in Biology, Math, or Astronomy.