Comstock Park — Susan McDonald considers herself pretty lucky in that her career as a math teacher just kind of “fell into my lap.”
Already planning to become a physical education teacher, McDonald took a precalculus course at Central Michigan University, where she was studying, and discovered she really liked math. That and the thought that she was more likely to get a job as a math teacher — “There were a lot of PE teachers back then,” she said with a laugh — prompted McDonald to pursue becoming a math teacher. For the past 29 years, she has been sharing her love of math with the students of Comstock Park High School.
“I do sincerely love math, even though the students don’t,” McDonald said. “They won’t necessarily like math, but I still like it and I still like working with students on it.”
What is the thing that gets you up in the morning and excited about teaching? “It is working with students. It is seeing students have some belief in what they’re doing. It is seeing them go from not believing in what they’re doing to having some success.”
What are some of the biggest challenges and how do you strive to meet them? “The biggest challenge probably would be, for some students, attendance, making sure they’re here. If they’re not here, how do we still try to help them to learn if they are not coming in on a regular basis? Work ethic is an issue with some kids. Also, home life plays a big factor. There are a lot of students who will do great in school, cognitively, their brains work really well. What keeps them from doing well is what is going on at home.
“As for the subject of math, for a lot of students it’s thinking they can’t do it. They’ve probably heard it from a relative or a family member or they’ve had a lack of success in the past. Sometimes they just need a little bit so that they can start to see they are capable. I think with math what becomes the issue is you have to do a little bit every day, and sometimes you don’t want to do that.”
‘I do sincerely love math, even though the students don’t. They won’t necessarily like math, but I still like it and I still like working with students on it.’— math teacher Susan McDonald
What do you like about teaching math? “What I like is having the belief in their ability to be successful, to the students becoming successful. Pre-algebra is a class that some schools don’t even offer in high school. We do. And I really enjoy teaching that class because the students who come in, they don’t like math. They think they’re not good at it, and to see them on the first day and how unhappy they are. … By the end of the year, we’re laughing, we’re having fun, we’re being successful. Then to see those students who I have worked with the previous year, who are very confident in answering questions and they want to move on. They want to do more and that’s so great, because they weren’t bad at math, they just thought they were.”
What are some of the biggest differences in teaching pre- and post-pandemic? “I think post-pandemic we are still dealing with a tremendous number of mental health issues. Some bad habits were established. We were so worried about sickness and illness and making sure students’ mental health was okay that we dialed back our expectations, and I think it has been hard to try and get that back. I think we also learned that remote teaching was not great for most kids. I believe it takes a special kind of drive to learn that way.”
What’s the most amazing thing about high-school students? “I think seeing who they are in eighth grade and who they can become as seniors. It can be miraculous. There are students who I’ll see in ninth grade and I’m like ‘Oh, my goodness, gracious,’ and you work hard to help them. Then as sophomores, you see they’re getting better, and then you see what they end up achieving when they leave school. It’s just incredible.
“I had a student I worked with, a really nice student, but school wasn’t his biggest priority. Now he is becoming an airplane mechanic, and he came back and talked to our students about the importance of paying attention and reading documents. And you think as a teacher, ‘This is the kid that I had in class.’ Sometimes you get defeated as a teacher, because you’re working, you’re striving, you’re trying to do all these things but sometimes the students don’t do the things that you want them to do to be successful, but they are listening. It’s not showing up yet, but being patient with them to see who they can be, it’s very rewarding.”
What would you say to someone considering teaching as a profession? “If you are doing it because you are excited to have your summers off and you think it’s an easy job, you better consider something else, because this job is hard. It is very difficult. If you’re going into this with the mindset that I’m willing to work hard for students, then you’re going into the right field.
“I also would say, understand that kids are kids. That they’re still learning, they’re still becoming who they’re going to be. I wish I had known when I was a younger teacher what I know now, because I think I would have related better with some of the students that I had in class.”
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