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Getting to the heart of teaching

by Andrea Bennett
Stephanie Erickson became sold on teaching after sitting in on a high school class during her junior year of college and thinking, “That’s something I can do.” (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)
Photo: Stephanie Erickson became sold on teaching after sitting in on a high school class during her junior year of college and thinking, “That’s something I can do.” (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

It takes a certain kind of person to be a great teacher. An excellent teacher needs skill, training, support and resources, among many other ingredients.

But the most important quality, according to Stephanie Erickson MAT’08, is “heart.”

That’s a quality of which Erickson has no shortage.

The talkative 27-year-old was a math major at California State University, Channel Islands, when she realized she wanted to teach in a Los Angeles school. She applied to the USC Rossier School of Education’s Master of Arts in Teaching program for its focus on urban education in 2007, just when the school became home to Math for America Los Angeles (MfA LA), a five-year fellowship program that supports students with undergraduate degrees in math as they earn their master’s degrees and teach in high-need schools.

“I got a phone call from Director Pam Mason that felt a little like Christmas,” Erickson recalled of learning that MfA LA would pay for her degree in addition to providing her with an annual stipend of $20,000 on top of her teaching salary. “I kept saying, ‘Can you say that again?’ ”

The MfA LA program aims to increase the number of high-quality mathematics teachers in local high schools by cultivating and financially supporting new teachers with a talent for math who might otherwise choose more lucrative professions. Fellows are having an impact on an estimated 6,500 students who are more likely to advance to a higher math class in the next school year than students of nonfellows.

Erickson said she’s always loved the process of mathematics and “seeing numbers coming out from one step to the other,” but she wasn’t sure whether to get into business or finance. She became sold on teaching after sitting in on a high school class during her junior year of college and thinking, “That’s something I can do.”

Looking back, her first year as a student teacher at Locke High School was a major learning experience.

“As a teacher, if you go in pretending to be something you’re not, kids know, and they’ll push and prod because they’re 15,” she said. “I recognized that I needed to be me in the classroom and let them know that. Here’s my passion; come join me. You don’t have to love it, but you definitely have to at least try. I learned you have to be 100 percent honest with yourself and your students, and I’ve taught that way ever since.”

The support from MfA LA — a partnership between USC Rossier, Claremont Graduate University and Harvey Mudd College — was critical to her growth during this period.

“When you have a bad day, you get down on yourself, but MfA says, ‘we can see where you are and we’re going to help you get to a better place,’ and there’s no judgment,” Erickson said. “They look at you and see potential, and when you feel that, you want to reach that potential. When I don’t hit the mark, I have resources to find out why and make changes. If you don’t have that community around you, teaching can be very hard.”

Erickson, a math teacher at Glendale High School since 2009, also learned to embrace the job as more of an art than a science.

“Teaching in an urban school or a Title I school takes a lot of heart and perseverance, and no matter who you are, you’re going to fail sometimes. And math-oriented people are not used to failure. We love perfection,” she said. “It takes looking beyond your pride or the need for perfection and doing what you need to push kids to think differently and stretch themselves and figuring out the unique temperaments of each classroom. That’s kind of the art of teaching.”

Erickson’s colleagues call her one of the most “enthusiastic” and “energetic” in Glendale High’s math department, and she admitted that her passion for her subject is usually quite evident.

“My kids will tell you that I dance across the room because I do, and they’ll tell you that I jump on tables and chairs because I do,” she said. “My best days I’m able to communicate my passion enough to get them to buy in. That’s a good day, and I strive for that every day.”

After thriving in the MfA LA fellowship for the last five years, Erickson signed up for the program’s master teacher fellowship, which pays for one period during the day in which she can collaborate with other teachers to develop student-centered change at the school.

This fall, Erickson and veteran math teachers and mentors Sarah Morrison and Aurora Alamillo will be members of the only department in the school district to pilot a new integrated math curriculum that is aligned to Common Core State Standards.

“I’ve taught for 15 years, and when you’re in the classroom that long, you get into a routine, so I’m looking forward to challenging myself,” said Alamillo, math department chair, whose classroom is just across the hall from Erickson’s. “As master teachers, we have a preparation period to work on this new curriculum, so there is no excuse for us not to hit it out of the ballpark, and we’re going to be held accountable with MfA, which is motivating.”

Each of the three MfA master teacher fellows will also take on student teachers, guiding them through lesson planning, student interactions and the general art of teaching.

The recently married Erickson gets choked up when talking about how the program has had an impact on her life.

“This program fundamentally changed my life, and I had so much support and learned so much,” she said. “MfA LA looks at the heart of the teacher and pushes you to be better. Because we’re not all the same, but you have to start with the heart. They take someone with the heart and the desire to be in a classroom and push them to be their best.”

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