Nothing makes Suzanne Alexa sad faster than a student stressed because of math.
And in her almost 33 years of teaching math at Lockport Township High School, where Alexa herself attended (”Once a Porter, always a Porter,” she said), Alexa accepted that stress as a “personal challenge,” she said,
“You can’t be stressed in my class,” Alexa said. “I want you to like math like I did.”
Alexa is LTHS’s college algebra/trigonometry and Integrated Math 2 teacher. Just reading those words would likely stress some students. But Alexa, who will retire at the end of the school year, had strategies for making math fun.
“Building a rapport with the kids is the most important thing,” Alexa said. “Then they feel comfortable to ask for help. We do a lot of team activities.”
Some students are too shy to raise their hand and ask questions in class (“No one wants to look stupid,” Alexa said). So those students can seek help privately, she said. Lots of review activities in class also help, she added.
Why does math stress some students?
“That’s a good question,” Alexa said. “I think it’s just a mental block. Maybe their parents said, ‘Oh, I was never good at math. You probably won’t be, either.’ And some kids are just not willing to work hard and put in the effort.”
What about the students who do work hard and still struggle?
“Those break my heart,” Alexa said.
Even then, more review and “test retakes” often help those students, she said. Alexa understands their frustration. Alexa struggled with technology during remote learning. But she’s proud of the “new tricks” that “this old dinosaur” learned, she said.
Alexa feels good math skills are important for everyone.
“I think math is everywhere,” Alexa said. “It’s not just numbers and calculating. It’s following a sequential order of steps. I’m teaching you life skills, not just numbers, skills to help you follow sequential order of tasks so you can accomplish your goal.”
Alexa said math helps students proofread, double-check their answers, ask for help, verbalize the process of operations and, most importantly, solve problems.
“Sometimes there’s more than one way to solve that problem; what’s more effective?” Alexa said she tells her students. “Look at these methods; which one is best? Here, I’m giving you my toolbox, the methods I know how to use.”
Alexa said she loves when students point out her mistakes. In those moments, Alexa can show her students that she’s still learning even though she’s been teaching nearly 34 years.
“Your teacher doesn’t know all the answers,” Alexa said she tells her students. “And if I’m willing to learn and explore new options, then you should, too.”
Alex said math teaches her students to “question everything,” to speak up if something is wrong and to tactfully approach a conflict.
“Not everyone in authority is right all the time,” Alexa said.
Alexa had started as an accounting major at the College of St. Francis in Joliet (now University of St. Francis) but wasn’t completely satisfied with her studies despite her love for numbers and the “back and white” aspects of math.
Then Alexa, who used to teach swimming to kids who were “terrified of water,” visited a friend’s second grade class and realized she also liked working with kids – although not second graders.
“I loved those pumpkins,” Alexa said of the second graders. “But I was tired.”
Alexa said is planning to travel in retirement. And if her students through the years remember one precept from her classes, she hopes it’s this.
“Work through challenges,” she said. “Don’t give up.”