By Savannah Shoffner (Cienega High School, Vail, AZ)
Interviewee: Gretchen Stickner (Cienega High School, Vail, AZ)
As I walked into my first class on the first day of my sophomore year of high school, I was anything but excited for the year ahead. I had always done well in math, but never really liked it, and going into Honors Pre-Calculus, I knew I was in for a hard year. Little did I know that this was the class that would flip my view of math on its head and transform me from a math-hater to a future engineer, thanks to the instruction and leadership of Ms. Gretchen Stickney.
Ms. Stickney grew up as a self-proclaimed “Air Force brat,” moving all across the country as her father was transferred. Both her mother and father had earned their master’s degrees, an unusual feat at the time. She entered college at Faulkner University as a psychology major, but it was calculus that stole her heart. As she shared the story with me, I was surprised to see the strong resemblance it held to my own. She was in her second semester of college when the class began discussing related rates. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,’” Ms. Stickney recalled, “‘and I have to do this every single day.’” At last, the purpose of algebra, geometry, trigonometry became clear. Everything in math is interrelated and everything has a purpose. I had Ms. Stickney for Honors Pre-Calculus, AP Calculus AB, and currently for AP Statistics. Day after day, she has shared this “Ah-ha!” moment with me, and as I started to realize that everything that I had been doing in lower level math classes really did have a point, I too fell in love with math.
While she was in college, Ms. Stickney’s passion for calculus soon became apparent to her instructor, who advised her to become a math education major. She agreed and received her Bachelor of Science in Secondary Mathematics Education and later, her Master of Arts in Teaching from Colorado College. Today, she shares her passion with her students and her discovery that everything in math has a purpose is interwoven throughout her curriculum. When I asked her to describe her job, she put it simply. She looks at the standards given to her by the College Board (she teaches only Advanced Placement courses now), considers the best method to use to teach the students, gives them practice with the concept, and then assesses their learning. If they are struggling, she tackles it like a math problem. She has most of the pieces and knows what they should add up to, so she just goes back and figures out what is missing. However, the most important thing that Ms. Stickney does is make connections with every student in class, no matter their race, gender, grade, or level of ability. Just like in math itself, everyone feels connected. Ms. Stickney can always tell when I am tired or having a hard day, and she even came out into the cold winter weather to watch one of my soccer games. Ms. Stickney’s approach to life is just like her approach to calculus: she looks at everything in context and finds out how it can all relate together. Then, she passes on that understanding.
To anyone who wants to go into a mathematics field, Ms. Stickney emphasizes the need to talk about math with peers. “If the teacher is not fostering conversation about math,” she advised, “create a math group, talk about the math…. That’s how you know whether or not you know it. If you’re not being allowed to talk about it, create a way to do that.” This strategy is often used in her own classes, where students rely on each other to solve problems instead of looking to the teacher for all the answers. I can affirm that the collaborative skills required to find success in her class helped me learn to tackle problems with others and how to exchange ideas with them. Ms. Stickney also urges, “Take as much math as you can, but make sure you aren’t taking just math classes. Give your brain a break.” Math is certainly important, and even foundational in other fields, but it is not the only thing to learn about and explore. Taking a variety of classes allows the individual to have a connected, contextual view of the world around them, and therefore possess greater vision for the application of mathematics. Ms. Stickney continues to apply this balanced approach in her personal life. Her hobbies include some very non-math-related activities such as reading, cooking, hiking, and traveling, with her favorite places to visit including France, Italy, Switzerland, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Ms. Gretchen Stickney is one of the most influential people I have ever met because of her love for math and for her students. She sees the value underlying concepts and people and spreads her excitement about learning to everyone in her classroom. To me, she exemplifies a great mathematician: one who freely shares their knowledge, rather than using it to feel important. Ms. Stickney once said that she could have gone into any number of higher-paying, math-related careers, but always knew that she wanted to teach and empower students with the concepts she loved.
What first made Ms. Stickney fall for calculus was related rates, and as I reflect on my experience in her class, I can not help but think how fitting that is. Related rates problems focus on the relationships between multiple variables; how they grow and change together, and Ms. Stickney’s class is just like that. As students grow in their ability to do math, they also grow in closeness to each other, and to their teacher (both, as in related rates, with respect to time).