Interview with Scott Keltner, Math Teacher and Kansas Teacher of the Year Nominee
Math teacher Scott Keltner recently set aside time from his hectic schedule to talk to us about his typical workday, the aspects of teaching that he enjoys the most, and his guidance for those new to the field. Scott, a ten-year high school teaching veteran, who was recently one of eight finalists nominated for Kansas Teacher of the Year, attended Cowley County Community College and Emporia State University, where he earned an Associate’s degree in Applied Science, and a Bachelor’s degree in Education, respectively. Scott currently teaches Algebra 2, Intermediate Algebra, College Algebra, Math Strategies and an ACT Preparation Course. In past years, he instructed Calculus and Statistics.
Please describe your typical workday.
I have three daughters: ages five, seven, and twenty months. A majority of the time, the older two will ride to school with me and catch a shuttle bus to their school from the building where I teach. My mornings are often centered around guaranteeing they make their way to the bus on time, sometimes occupying them by allowing them to help make copies or straighten up desks from the previous day.
After returning from the bus stop, I try to ensure as much is prepared for my first class as possible, then position myself in the hallway as students make their way to classes to start the day. I have a copier just outside my classroom door (also available for student use as a network printer, this part of the hallway sees a lot of foot traffic in a typical day) and can start a copy job between classes as I trek back and forth to monitor hallways between class hours and welcome students as they make their way to my room. This also helps give me a little momentum in taking attendance each class period, as I’m able to see several of my students before they even arrive in class.
Lunch potential depends on the day, whether I have something to deliver to the office or my duties as club sponsor dictate that I take care of a small job instead of grabbing a bite to eat. If I get time and happen to be in the area of the cafeteria, I drop in and grab a cup of coffee and get a couple minutes chatting with the lunch ladies, which is always fun. My plan period is the hour directly after lunch, so it is a ‘plan B’ for taking time to get something to eat on most days, but can often go past unnoticed without getting a bite.
I don’t mention the specifics of any particular class period, because I try to have enough variety in class that it becomes difficult to generalize. That gives me incentive to do something different and creative with classes, almost leaving students wondering what will happen next.
If this particular day is a Tuesday or Thursday, my wife is working late and I’ll not only have our two oldest daughters present once they get off the bus after school, but also pick up our youngest from day care and try to make a trip to the public library if time permits before we need to head home and prepare dinner. I try and get a handle on scoring some papers after school while the older two girls are with me, but often end up just packing a night’s worth of materials to take home and attempt to complete that night after their bedtime.
This semester, I had some time off, but for the past three years, I have served two nights a week as an adjunct math instructor at the local community college, often times teaching College Algebra, Statistics, or Intermediate Algebra and being able to modify lessons I have used in those same subjects with my high school classes to instruct at the college level. This opportunity arose when family time grew scarce while I was an assistant basketball coach, being gone or home late five, sometimes six nights a week. The adjunct instructor position allows me to teach two additional nights a week, and get an opportunity to gain insight into how higher education looks and functions, which has given me some great insight as I work with juniors and seniors who have questions about enrollment, course placement, admissions, and general college questions on a regular basis.
I try and choose clothes for the next school day, not just for my daughters but also myself as I iron my shirt and/or pants as necessary. A quick lesson I learned during a teacher observation opportunity I had in an Introduction to Education course I took in college related to professionalism: Set yourself apart from the students by the appearance you make. On my first day of being a student observer, I was asked if I was a new student and if I would be going out for basketball that year. That was enough for me to know that wearing dress pants and a dress shirt was not significant enough to distinguish me from students; so I started then, and continue now, to wear neckties a substantial amount of the school year, sometimes drawing scrutiny for dressing that way on designated casual dress days for staff in our building. On the other side of that, if students are asked by a coach or club sponsor to wear a necktie, they know exactly who to seek out if they need help in properly tying a necktie.
What is your philosophy of education?
“Have fun, while getting stuff done” is the mantra that governs my classes, focusing on creating a community of learning where all students are involved, engaged and have a role to play. This sense of community in learning extends beyond the classroom, beyond a teacher’s subject area of expertise, and most certainly beyond a single school building. The more collaborative the effort, the greater the impact on student learning across the board. Establishing a community of learning connects teachers within the same building, school district, and beyond. If all schools and students are held to the same standards, whether through No Child Left Behind or Common Core Standards, sharing the learning process should be vital to all teachers. Gone are the days of keeping a lesson plan to oneself or closely guarding an activity for use only in a single classroom. One of my strengths as a teacher is my regular use of technology in the classroom, which also encourages other teachers in my building to seek my advice in implementing technology in their own classes, be it constructing a lesson presentation using a new software program, connecting an interactive whiteboard or demonstrating the use of Google maps to take a virtual field trip off campus. Teachers always envision that ‘teachable moment’ with students, but I extend that belief towards helping my colleagues use new learning tools to help motivate students in their classrooms. As a math teacher, it is truly rewarding to hear students come to class and comment about the way their geography teacher delivered a lesson that day “using the thing Mr. Keltner showed her how to do” – rewarding to me because it expands upon the zeal for learning that I strive to instill in my classes.
Some mathematics teaching strategies rely on lists of steps or forcing students to memorize a particular mathematical definition. But when students are able to do something – create an experience that engrains a concept in their mind – they more fully understand the topic and how it relates to a real-world application. For example, we recently explored the topic of exponential growth by constructing a Sierpinski triangle out of pennies, demonstrating what happens when you begin with an initial value, and then tripling it over and over again. The abstract idea of exponential growth became much more concrete and visible to students who were working it out in real time, rather than reading it in a textbook or trying to theorize about what a bank account balance would do twenty years from now, without actually having the money as a reward at the end of the example. The positive feedback on this lesson from students, parents, and colleagues revealed that students did not simply go home that night and say their day at school was “fine.” They shared the lesson with their parents and their friends. A handful of students even posted photos of our activity online, tapping into the power of fast-moving social sharing sites.
I made a conscious decision some time ago to never say “I don’t know” and dismiss a student’s curiosity in class. As part of this goal, I reserve a space on my board for questions that students pose in class that I need to find a solution for. “How do you say pi (π ≈ 3.14) in sign language?” “Our new baseball bats had to meet some new regulation. What makes these new bats safer for pitchers?” “How does that timeline on iTunes know what fraction part of the song has played when the timer shows how much time has played and how long the song is?” These are great mathematically-minded questions that deserve a valid response, and, while I sometimes cannot come up with one on the spot, I focus on finding a solution to bring back to the students at a later time. When a student inquired why remainders are important, I asked the class to turn their textbooks to the back cover and inspect the bar code, also noting the ISBN that lies adjacent to it. Both of these systems rely heavily on remainders, which can often be dismissed as something students use for a test and then “never use it again.” I was able to show students how ISBNs are important to us, as well as the reasoning behind those coding strategies, such as identifying the language of the book, the book’s publisher, and why the last digit of the entire scheme is so reliant on remainders. A similar case was made for UPCs with a different algorithm dictating the structure of those codes. To hear students reflect on a time they went to a store and had an experience that used UPCs, either as a consumer or employee, and how they knew what was happening within the programming of the cash register, let me know that they made the connection of the lesson and realize the importance of what so many consider to be a trivial math concept.
My former students tell countless stories from class and frequently come by my classroom to visit when they are back in the area. It also comforts me to find that some of my former students are in college now with plans to become a math teacher themselves. I take an interest in what former students do once they leave the four walls of my classroom, writing letters of reference, or celebrating achievements, such as winning a scholarship, being accepted into nursing school or receiving their student teaching placement. Seeing what students are doing and planning to do allows me to reminisce on what they once did in my class, but also makes me look forward to what they will achieve as their next great milestone.
Students rarely call me out with the phrase “When are we going to use this in real life?” My lesson structure does not leave any doubt in their minds that I will find and demonstrate a real-world example of the concept we are using in class. By creating a community of learning within my classroom,
I look forward to sending my students away into the community, learning all the while.
What aspects of your job do you find most challenging, and how do you overcome them? What do you most enjoy about being a math teacher?
Being a math teacher, I think the most challenging part is finding applicable relations to the material that is relevant to my students. There are so many different personalities and backgrounds among our students, it is difficult to find a single context that fits (or intrigues and engages) them all. But, that also is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job and keeps me coming back for more, striving to make a lesson different and meaningful from one year to another. In all honesty, I had little to no interest in NASCAR when I began my student teaching experience, but noticed it was a passionate interest to many of the students I had in class at the time. In fact, it was an unending battle to try and get through a lesson on Monday unless I could converse about who won the race on Sunday. So, I began watching races, scanning for applications to what we would be covering in class recently or in the near future. Before long, I was chiming in on post-race analysis and even weaving it into the class discussions we were having in math class—even managing to get students ‘off-task’ from their NASCAR chatter and steered (yes, a NASCAR classroom pun!) towards the topic we were going to cover that day anyhow. This emphasized to me just how important it can be to establish rapport with students and make relevant, engaging class activities they enjoy.
Then, my second year of teaching, I had Chase Austin in class as a freshman who will soon be racing in the Indianapolis 500 (he and I also share the same birthday, and he still regularly comes by to visit my classroom when he is in the area, even autographing my SMART Board on one particular visit). It was easy for me to find relevance to his racing prowess in class, and also find numerous other real-world examples that the majority of students became readily engaged in.
The most challenging aspect — but also the most rewarding one—is finding a way for students to make connections between the material and their interests or even an experience they had. Making those connections can give students insight, knowledge, and respect for their interests that may not have been obvious to them, but now serves as a sort of ‘inside joke’ that involves a lesson we used in class.
Math can be a challenging subject for some learners. How do you make your lessons engaging and fun for students and also relevant to their lives?
Absolutely, math has had a tendency to challenge students for myself and teachers everywhere, but that is a huge motivator to try different approaches to ensure students not only learn, but retain the material. One approach which has engaged students is through shared experiences, such as the installation of a wind turbine on our campus, constructing a Sierpinski triangle in the school parking lot while benefitting a charitable cause, and other unique activities that have not only engaged students but also their parents, siblings, and out-of-town friends. When students graduate, they regularly return to my classroom to share experiences they have had in relation to lessons or experiences we had in class, many times bragging about how they understand a concept better than others in their college class, or how they recall an experience we shared that helped them succeed in class or gave them something to share with their college classmates. Even something as simple as “I knew where to find that command on my calculator” is a point of pride for former students to share with me.
What words of wisdom can you share with recent graduates who are preparing to start a teaching career?
Remember that teacher who went the extra mile to help you out? Be that teacher. As simple a request as that may seem, you have no clue yet how flattering it is to be the teacher on the other side of classroom experiences where you have helped a legacy live on. My teaching career began as a result of being a teacher’s aide in high school, where the teacher was absent for long stretches of time because of an illness her sister had. The substitute teacher grew weary of seeing me run around class and explain examples to little groups of students at a time and finally hinted that I should just present the example to the entire class at the board. So, as a junior in high school, I essentially became a math teacher.
What I really want to get across with that short story is to make sure to take advantage of every opportunity you are given. Find that experienced teacher in your building and soak up any advice he or she is willing to share, even if it is as simple as “Don’t use the same water fountain as the students do” like I was given as a first-year teacher. For the teacher who shared that with me, it was a more valuable guideline to his health than any flu vaccine could offer him.
Form an online, professional presence for yourself (keep in mind the expectations that accompany the ‘professional’ presence and don’t think that a “The views expressed are my own and not my employers” tagline in your Twitter profile is going to cover anything you say or post). Collaborate with other, veteran teachers and modify or borrow lessons you find to fit your classes and share your own successful lessons if you have the chance to share them. There is no need to reinvent the wheel or insist upon using your own wheel, so to speak. There are a vast number of great math teachers out there who are sharing and working with one another already, and I only see this community growing as the Common Core gains even more momentum nationwide.
Being a teacher is not an easy job, especially for a first year teacher. As you will most certainly soon discover, though, the career has rewards that are measured in peculiar ways: a personalized coffee mug, a tongue-in- cheek mention in a Student Council candidacy video, or a shout-out on Twitter.
If that isn’t encouragement enough, I’d like to paraphrase my old basketball coach in saying “they wouldn’t hassle you if they didn’t like you; it’s when they leave you alone and don’t say anything that you need to worry.”
We thank Scott for taking the time to share his heartfelt and candid advice with current and prospective teachers. You can connect with Scott via his blog, Good for Nothing: Free Math for Sale, or on Twitter @ScottKeltner.
Read about how to become a teacher in Kansas.